Polymorphic Pirate ProtectionBy: Mike June 18, 2013
We make our living selling copies of books. An ever-increasing percentage of those sales are e-books, which are small little text files. These little text files are, unfortunately, ridiculously easy to copy and send a few million friends across the internet. I'm not as prosaic as some, and I really don't like pirates. However, just because I'm firmly anti-pirate doesn't mean I can't get a chuckle out of the antics of the copy-protection crowd.
Pirates and content producers have been engaging in technological one-upmanship for years. It sounds impressive, but the results have been less "James Bond" and more "Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner". Every episode seems to end with the freshly-battered content industries saying, "How could rocket-powered roller skates have failed?". Don't get me wrong, I would love to see a magical copy protection scheme that was perfectly reliable, and didn't make the product offered for sale less useful, less convenient, and less valuable than the pirated version. Of course, while I'm wishing for the impossible, let me add world peace and honest politicians to the list.
First, lest I seem too harsh, content protection is really hard. In traditional encryption, Bob and Alice want to keep their communication secret from third-parties. That's pretty well researched and well understood. In content protection, Bob wants to send the Alice the message, but keep her from telling her friends. If Alice is a gossip, the secret is out. Technology has, so far, been unable to stop Alice from sharing.
As an aside, the whole idea of marketing and selling an easily-copied text file has thrown a colossal monkey-wrench in the gears of technology, copyright and even our ideas about ownership. The coming years will bring huge changes, and I really, really wish my crystal ball were working. . .
In recent years, some publishers are opting for "kinder, gentler" approaches, either abandoning the technical approach in favor of begging Alice not to share, or inserting watermarks into the text so that when she does, they will be able to trace the shared copy back to Alice. The problem is, watermarking generally relies on whitespace or non-printable characters. For example, replacing some tabs with spaces. Alas, it's pretty easy to reformat the book, and the watermark gets left behind.
Well, if the solar-powered lighting-generator fails there's always earthquake pills, right? So a new company came up with a clever new plan to keep the watermark intact: just change the text of the book. When a customer buys a book, a computer will scan through the book and replace a random assortment of words with synonyms, and create a record of the changes. Now when the nefarious Alice uploads a book, a quick analysis of the text will point the finger of blame back at her! It sounds like a plot from Scooby-Doo™.
Authors spend a great deal of time looking for the right word. A thesaurus is a useful tool, but as anyone who has read high-school essays can attest, not all synonyms are created equal. Authors, like most artists, are often control freaks. Editors are well-educated experts who suggest changes to manuscripts, and I have heard several authors letting off steam like a tea-kettle that someone dared to suggest a change to their manuscript, I can't imagine their reaction when a computer algorithm makes similar changes. If someone started protecting classical music by replacing random notes with a kazoo, or paintings by re-coloring things like hair and eyes, there would be an outcry from the consumer. Here's some titles as I imagine they might be rendered:
- Magic Masticates by Ilona Andrews
- Perished Witch Perambulating by Kim Harrison
- Defunct Until Dark by Charlaine Harris
- Kilometers Vorkosigan Series by Lois McMaster Bujold
The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.
Patty is back out to the office trailer doing battle with the eighth Mercy Thompson novel, Night Broken. It was supposed to be done by mid-June, and it's going to be a race to finish by the end of the Month. She's putting in long days, but hasn't yet hit the point where we all tiptoe around the house. Give it a week or so. If it were up to me, we'd be eating pizzas and frozen burritos but our youngest daughter and our house guest Theora have both shown some culinary talent and have taken it upon themselves to make dinners several nights each week. How come children generally leave home just about the time they become useful and pleasant? At any rate, Patty seems happy, but I've only read the first forty or fifty pages. The rest is coming soon, she says.
How Patty Writes
So, about an hour after I posted this entry I came in the house and found Patty and Ann, her assistant having hysterics in Ann's office. They had found a blog that perfectly captures the writing experience of a die-hard pantser. If you want to understand the mind of an author, you need to read Libba Bray's Writing Despair