EditionGuard is a “white label” e-book retail platform that, like many of its type, is based on Adobe technology, including Adobe Content Server DRM. This week the company added an option called EditionGuard Social DRM, which enables its customers — publishers, retailers, and independent authors — to use e-book watermarking instead of DRM.
EditionGuard Social DRM embeds a visible watermark in EPUB files that includes the email address and phone number from the purchasing user’s account. This watermark can be shown at the beginning, end, and/or random locations within the e-book.
EditionGuard’s watermarking technology is proprietary; they don’t use a third party scheme such as that of BooXtream or Digimarc. Unlike Digimarc (but like BooXtream), EditionGuard doesn’t offer a monitoring service that searches for watermarked e-books on websites, blogs, file-sharing networks, etc., though it’s possible to engage a third-party service to have that done.
The point of this type of watermark, of course, is to deter users from “oversharing” e-book files because their personal information is in there. That’s why the term “social DRM” is often used as a synonym for e-book watermarking (the term was coined by Bill McCoy when he ran the e-publishing group at Adobe).*
The use of both end-users’ email addresses and phone numbers makes this one of the most aggressive e-book watermarking schemes I’ve seen. The only more aggressive scheme was one used in Microsoft’s long-discontinued Microsoft Reader technology, which gave publishers the option to embed the end-user’s credit card number in the e-book. Other watermarking schemes, such as Pottermore‘s, use opaque ID numbers that are only meaningful to the retailer.
The amount of personal information in EditionGuard’s watermark should boost its value in deterring oversharing. Yet it could also increase the risk of watermark strippers becoming available. A visible e-book watermark like EditionGuard’s can be removed from an EPUB file with a simple script written in a language like awk or perl.
Although many e-book distributors today use watermarking, EditionGuard is the first retail platform to offer an explicit choice of traditional DRM, watermarking, or both. The advantages of the watermarking option for publishers and authors include easier setup and no per-download fees (which are passed along from Adobe’s pricing scheme for Content Server).
It will be interesting to see how watermarking affects EditionGuard’s popularity and how many of its customers choose watermarking instead of DRM. Although e-book watermarking has gotten quite popular in certain countries (such as Italy and the Netherlands), it hasn’t made much impact in the U.S. market so far. EditionGuard has promised to share data with us on the uptake of its Social DRM option as time goes on. It will also be interesting to see if other e-book retailing platforms start offering watermarking as an option. (Ingram’s aer.io offers a watermarking option but not standard DRM.)
It would be even more interesting to measure the different types of EditionGuard files that appear in unauthorized places. How many are copies of files that were originally encrypted with DRM? And of the watermarked files, how many still have the watermark in them, and how many had it stripped out? That could tell us something concrete — and heretofore unknown — about the relative effectiveness of DRM and watermarking in preventing unauthorized e-book use. If you have monitoring technology and would be interested in tracking this, let me know.
*Although “Social DRM” has become an accepted term, I dislike the use of the term “DRM” to describe watermarking — especially when used in misleading phrases like “Watermark DRM.” When it first came into being in the mid-1990s, the term “digital rights management” was applied to a broad range of technologies for managing rights to copyrighted material, not just technologies that encrypt content and control usage. Over the years, press coverage caused the term first to be narrowed so as to apply strictly to the latter types of technologies, and then broadened to any type of technology that controls or restricts anything, including proprietary screw heads.
I’m happy to accept the definition offered by the anti-DRM organization Defective By Design, which defines it as “… the practice of imposing technological restrictions that control what users can do with digital media.” Watermarking doesn’t fit this definition; by itself, it doesn’t control or restrict anything.