Custos for eBooks is a new, reader-friendly way to protect eBooks against piracy developed by Erudition Digital in partnership with Custos Media Technologies. Based on a patent pending technology used to protect screener copies of movies, it turns pirates on each other by embedding hidden Bitcoin bounties within eBook files. These bounties can be claimed instantly from anywhere in the world by a network of “bounty hunters” thus enabling rapid detection of infringements without inconveniencing honest customers.
How does it work?
Custos for eBooks works by embedding unique, imperceptible watermarks in each eBook sold or distributed (e.g. galley copies). These watermarks are unnoticeable to the recipient and therefore no special software or additional steps are required in order for the eBook to be read.
Encoded within the watermark is a Bitcoin private key which can be decoded using a freely available extraction tool. This enables a bounty hunter to instantly and anonymously claim a bounty from anywhere in the world when they find a pirated copy of a protected eBook. The publisher is immediately alerted when a bounty is claimed and the infringing recipient identified, thus allowing the publisher to take appropriate action.
This approach attacks the economy of piracy by targeting uploaders rather than downloaders, turning downloaders into an early detection network.
What makes it different to other anti-piracy solutions currently used?
Various forms of digital rights management (DRM) are used to combat eBook piracy, the most common of which is often referred to as “hard DRM”. Hard DRM attempts to restrict access to an eBook to legitimate users. In order to do this, it usually requires the reader to use a specific software application and to perform a number of steps to access their eBook. As a result, eBooks with hard DRM are usually tied to the store from which they were purchased and cannot be easily moved between apps. As an illustration, imagine the absurdity of only permitted readers to read print books in specific rooms of their houses depending on where they were purchased – this is in principle what hard DRM does!
Despite the drawbacks for the reader, hard DRM is widely seen by publishers and authors as the most robust means of tackling piracy. However, it’s prevalence entrenches the dominance of a few large retailers thus stifling competition. Furthermore, it can often be removed using tools designed for this purpose rendering it entirely ineffective.
Other alternatives to hard DRM, such as watermarking and “social DRM” have less of an impact on the reader but offer limited protection as they are only effective once pirated eBooks are found. This is particularly challenging because pirated content typically circulates in closed social networks or the dark net before reaching a site where a web crawler can find it.
The reader experience of Custos for eBooks differs from hard DRM and is similar to the alternatives described above in that it doesn’t restrict access or impact legitimate use in any way. Honest users are free to view their eBooks on apps and devices of their choice without hindrance. It also provides publishers with a more effective monitoring and detection mechanism than watermarking by incentivising the discovery of pirated content, turning pirates on each other and thereby sowing seeds of distrust within the pirate community.
What are the benefits?
Custos for eBooks provides a much better experience to readers because no proprietary apps or additional steps are required to purchase or view eBooks protected by it. Readers are free to view their eBooks on their choice of devices and apps and enjoy greater peace of mind because their purchases are not tied to any specific retailer or app ecosystem. For example, their eBooks cannot be arbitrarily retracted and they won’t lose access to them if the retailer (or app provider) through which they purchased became defunct for some reason.
Publishers can deliver this improved reader experience whilst providing a more effective and sustainable way to combat piracy at the source. This in turn opens up new opportunities for marketing, selling and distributing eBooks. For example, imposing hard DRM has often hamstrung publisher’s direct-to-consumer initiatives with a poor end-user value proposition from the outset (why would a customer purchase directly from a publisher if it means that they have to install and register apps for each individual publisher?).
The benefit for the broader eBook market is that giving publishers a viable alternative to hard DRM levels the playing field for other eBook retailers. This will enable them to compete more effectively and give readers greater choice as to where they buy their eBooks.
Success so far?
The first live applications of Custos for eBooks were launched in February 2017 after a year of development and testing (an example can be viewed here). This is the first site to use Bitcoin to protect eBooks in this manner and it provides a tangible demonstration of the possibilities delivering a more user friendly purchase process for direct sales.
From a security perspective, pilots run to test the efficacy of the bounty hunting network have experienced detections in under 45 seconds on social media platforms, social networks, closed university networks, the dark web and even in emails so far!
Following the initial launch, Custos for eBooks is now available to publishers for applications including distribution of galley copies, bulk distribution and direct-to-consumer sales. Erudition is also engaging with eBook distributors and other publishing technology providers interested in integrating this solution as a value-add to their existing offerings.
Hope to achieve?
Erudition’s ultimate ambition is for Custos for eBooks to become a standard alternative to hard DRM thus being an enabler for a thriving and competitive eBook market. This would see publishers marketing and selling their eBooks in creative ways over many different channels to readers who are free to enjoy their purchases, unencumbered on devices and apps of their choice.