Stupid Ideas Are Still Stupid Even When Amazon Does Them

This is funny: Amazon has apparently just patented a “system and method for marking content,” in which the text of a e-book could be changed slightly with any particular download in order to distinguish that copy from other copies — so if the document is then let loose on the Internets, it could theoretically be tracked down to the source. It’s like watermarking, except that in doing so you’re changing the meaning of the text.

The patent suggests that “the modification to an excerpt performed by the synonym substitution mechanism may not significantly alter the meaning of the excerpt to a human reader,” which sounds just like the something that someone who doesn’t actually write in human languages for a living might suggest. Perhaps we should suggest we should go into this software engineer’s code and swap some of the code around. Oh, sure, it might not significantly alter the meaning of the code. But then let’s run it and see where it gets us.

There is some irony here in that Amazon patent replicates, in intent and general procedure, something called “Shades of Gray,” an idea by former vice president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. This former vice president, as it happens, didn’t actually write much, which to my mind would have explained his apparent befuddlement when people in SFWA who actually wrote for a significant portion of their living pointed out that actively corrupting their texts was not really a smart idea. Nothing much ever came of “Shades of Gray” — which is a story in itself — but it was a bad concept then, and it’s not any better of a concept in the somewhat more refined form Amazon has patented.

I certainly won’t be using it, in any event. Hard as it may be for Amazon to believe, I actually use the words I intend to use when I write. If I had wanted to use a different word for something, I already would have.

(hat tip: Slashdot)

155 thoughts on “Stupid Ideas Are Still Stupid Even When Amazon Does Them

  1. “Synonym substitution”? F*cking really? Maybe Amazon would find it palatable to change character names too? Gosh, John; this is disgusting. I really like your work as-is. I certainly do not read you for your politics, but as a synonym chooser, I will put you up against anyone.

  2. I’m one of those folks who is highly skeptical of e-books to begin with. This will definitely NOT help sell me on the concept in general.

  3. Well, its not like I needed another reason to disdain the Kindle, alongside all the DRM and everything. Again, like the music industry before it, Amazon seems to think treating customers like criminals will have no ill effect on their goodwill. Oh well, just remember those obsolete dead tree books dont arbitrarily alter words. And you can loan them to friends when you finish them…another thing you cannot do on Kindle.

  4. The only way I can see that being feasible would be if, say, the e-text was accompanied by an encrypted data blob containing information allowing a page of text to be reverted to normal before being displayed onscreen.

  5. “The upper atmosphere above the harbor was the hue of television, tuned to an inoperative channel.”

    “The manhunt extended across more than 5.87849981 × 1014 miles and 29,219,375.9 days.”

    ….yyyyyyyyyyeaaaaaaaahhhhh. Not so much.

  6. Okay, I’m not 100% sure of where this was first established, but I read about it in a freaking Tom Clancy novel (and not a new one – Patriot Games) as something that the CIA was using to help ensure that they could track who leaked something that was Top Secret Eyes Only for a small, select group of people.

  7. How could you patent something that was mentioned in a Tom Clancy novel? I would mention that this is pretty much public domain, or that Clancy has a prior claim.

  8. Until this, I’ve not had a problem with the Kindle’s DRM. This is going overboard, however.

    There’s no good reason for a book seller to do something like this. Amazon always struck me as a corporation who had more integrity and respect for writing than this.

    I could even almost see it as a kind of “opt in” system for authors who want to make use of it and track leaks, but making it mandatory for all authors is insulting. Writers choose specific words for a reason, like you say, and even the most specific replacement algorithm known to man cannot replace authorial intent and genuine connotation.


  9. Oh now, folks; let’s not fool ourselves, concerning the efficacy of this tactic. “Pretend” (like I do at night, alone in my bed with the covers pulled over my head) that you were a moderately successful, yet prolific writer. Amazon approaches you and offers to sell e-copies of one of your works. They tell you that they can ensure no pirate copies will be made that will go undetected. The catch? Amazon will screw with your content. How many writers will agree to go along with this? Am I being a little cynical?

  10. Gotta love Amazon. I don’t generally read e-books, but I find this rather insulting to writers and readers. Like I don’t know the difference between “azure” and “cerulean”, and god forbid they alter the dialogue.

    They need to read up on semantics and pragmatics a bit before they start making claims about “not significantly changing the meaning”.

  11. John Sandwich Guy @13: Indeed, I remember reading that when someone attempted to patent the waterbed in the 1960′s, the patent was denied because of “prior art”; it was described years earlier in a Robert A. Heinlein.

  12. Jas @ 12 –

    Yes. Jack Ryan’s “Canary Trap” — which was the idea the first brought him to the attention of the executive ranks at the CIA.

    Not an IP attorney, but this seems unpatentable. Plus, as Scalzi noted, it’s stupid.

  13. I dunno, John, those Amazon guys are pretty smart. Maybe you should give them a chance to change your words before your lay into them. Or tear into them. Or, you know, whatever, into them. No, no, SURGE! I meant to say ‘surge’.

  14. Briefly, on the patent issue: if Amazon’s method is different in any detail from Clancy’s, it’s patentable. The patent jurisprudence is very confusing, but in general just know: unless you’ve brought nothing new to the table, you can probably get a patent.

    Of course, before you go out and attempt to patent “Pong-Ping,” you should talk to a real patent attorney who can explain the ins and outs of it to you.

  15. Doesn’t altering your work violate your copyright? Every edit is a new derivative and can’t see this as being fair use.

  16. Adela:
    Yes, doing this without permission of the copyright holder would bring a swift and rapidly successful lawsuit. I don’t think Amazon is that dumb, but the whole deleting 1984 incident is a fair counterargument on the matter.

  17. It’d be less asinine and less irritating to leave the word the same but intentionally misspell it.

    A typical book must have enough “the”s in it that if you replace any 4 with “teh” you’ve got plenty of permutations and you’ve certainly been less irritating than if you actually changed words.

  18. Will authors have the option to opt out? And are publishers on board with this? I don’t have any idea how publishing contracts work. I’m just curious how free authors will be to work around this.

    Also, it seems like an odd choice to announce an intent to screw, even just a little, with content as a response to a new competitor. Seems like a gift wrapped opportunity for nook executives to draw some product distinction lines.

  19. I would never buy any book that Amazon butchered. I have a hard enough time buying translations of books (I always wonder what is lost) and translations are done by pros.

  20. Actual patent lawyer here to help out:

    The idea of modifying copies of a document to catch the person leaking it to the press is nothing new; that wouldn’t be patentable. What’s new here (possibly obvious, but at least I haven’t heard of it being done before) is the idea of using an synonym database to have a computer do all the work automatically, but without using the “add false information” method that mapmakers and phone directories use.

    Now, the law is that you can’t patent something that’s “obvious”, meaning that it would be obvious to “one of ordinary skill in the art” to combine known methods and devices to get the claimed invention. In practice, if the patent office is rejecting an invention as obvious, any patent attorney should be able to argue past the examiner given enough time and stubbornness. In this particular case, the examiner just didn’t find the claims (that were allowed–a few but not all were rejected) to be obvious in view of the closest prior art.

    Also note that a patent doesn’t give Amazon permission to practice the invention–as Adela noticed, actually implementing the system would require the permission of the copyright owner, since changing the work and reselling it would be copyright infringement.

    Finally, I doubt Amazon will actually implement something like this–companies (particularly in the software industry) patent things all the time without ever using them, either to block competitors or to pre-empt attempts to block them. No need to panic just because Amazon has a patent on a silly idea.

  21. MRK@20: A viable alternative would be a “methods patent”, where a truly revolutionary invention is given a great deal of protection (for 25 years), to allow the patent holder to profit from it. A great example is Xerox’s methods patent on what came to known as the “spline gear”. I don’t expect anyone to get this arcane reference with anything but the most superfluous understanding, but suffice it to say that selling intentionally damaged goods to unsuspecting consumers does not qualify for a patent in any sense I have read here. Maybe I misunderstood someone, due to a replaced synonym?

  22. Brian@29: Actual mapmaker here, taking offense. Mapmakers don’t create false information; the spooks that disseminate maps to people without proper clearances do.

  23. Certainly changing a word (or heavens help us, more than one!) is not a good idea. How about just changing the font for a word? There are thousands if not millions of fonts, and multiple words in most of what would be sold on Amazon’s ebooks… Seems like a better alternative to track than a word.

  24. Bah. That’s too easy, as well as taking away a perfectly good opportunity for some of us to bloviate on the issue – much to Scalzi’s delight.

  25. Given the number of possible permutations, you wouldn’t need to change a whole lot of the content to make it a unique copy. You could just change one word in a 100,000 word book. Hell, or you could introduce one typo. You could even put in the british spelling for one word instead of the American one. If you just change one word, there are probably 10,000 unique versions you could make, at the cost of garbling the meaning of one sentence.

    If you change two words, you could make ten million versions. Not every writer is Flaubert. There are plenty of writers whose style could stand up to two slightly garbled sentences without enjoyment of the text being significantly reduced.

  26. Suddenly a moral rights regime for authors seems like a fantastic idea. I certainly don’t want it to go as far as, say, France, where Victor Hugo’s heirs still have the right to attack an author for writing a Les Miz sequel that paints Javert as a sympathetic character. That’s crazypants (and has serious First Amendment issues). But an automatic protection for authors against unauthorized editing by corporate overlords sounds like a Good Thing.

  27. I’m pretty sure copyright law is on the authors’ side here, and every author I know or know of is fiercely protective of his or her work, down to commas and pluralizations. Chances of this ever going into practice: nil. Yes, it does make Amazon look like a bunch of authoritarian douchebags, but that’s nothing new.

    Full disclosure: I have a Kindle and like it very much.

  28. Other Jeff @ 31 – some mapmakers create false info. I remember seeing one of the Map Man BBC documentaries (Mrs P’s A to Z, I think the specific programme was), where a modern street-guide publisher showed how he gave a fake name to a tiny undriveable and un-named notch of road off a London street as a means of personalising his mapbooks to track down or discourage illegal copying.

  29. OK, Nick. A little editorial license applied to an actual, locatable feature might be a decent argument. My bet is that the name stuck and it is no longer “fake”. I am obligated by trade rules, to at least attempt to defend the work of a colleague, with tongue firmly pressed into cheek….

  30. As Brian (#29), the patent lawyer, points out, this might just be Amazon seeking to control potential competing technologies with no plans of use. Unfortunately, you can’t trust them or any other company. As we have seen time and again, in the end, the company will f@*k you and I. It won’t matter if this decision hurts them or society in the long run, as the person in the bureacracy making the decision has their compensation/promotion tied to the short-term.

    Plus, it’s not like companies promote the best and brightest thinkers. They promote the best and brightest who conform to their arbitrary culture and rule set, which does not guarantee good thinkers are making decisions. Just ask Wall Street.

    If Amazon ever implements this I will not be buying any books from Amazon.

  31. The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. -Mark Twain

    Can’t believe I’m the one who posted it first.

  32. .. you are all missing the really obvious reason this is stupid. It is stupid because it will not work.
    Assume you are doing this by inserting 4 random typos into the etext in question, making all copies you sell unique – Which, to be honest, customers would likely tolerate, because books have typos anyway. Eveile A. Narkist is a book pirate and wishes to make and then distribute an untracable copy of the book in question. So she buys a copy, has a friend buy a second copy which natually has 4 diffrent typoes in it, and does an automated check against, and takes all 8 typos out. Now she has a untracable master text to distribute to her hearts content, *and it has fewer typos than the text amazon is trying to charge money for* This is not a win.

  33. If Amazon did implement it, I doubt most of their customers would know that they were doing it. They wouldn’t trumpet it, they’d just do it. And if they change a handful of words in the text, are you going to notice if you got the one with azure instead of the one with cerulean? Are you even going to know that the original used cerulean? It’s sort of a wikipedia problem.

  34. In the case of less precious prose than novels, I think this is normal practice; hardly the preserve of spy novels. Whenever I see a numbered copy of a work document, I assume that there will be small variations in every copy in case of leakage.

    And of course, the average novel has at least two typos, and probably quite a few more. But it’s still quite distressing to think of people including such errors deliberately.

  35. KatG – sounds to me like the breeding grounds of some sort of bookipedia where people will compare their versions of etext to see where the changes are.

  36. This has been an issue ghosting around in my head for a while: e-readers are here, not to mention laptops and phones. So, how long will it take before we realize people will fill their digital libraries with pirated books? Why won’t this happen? Why won’t people just rationalize their stealing of books (that’s what you’re doing when you take a pirated copy), when they can turn around and point to a library and say, “I won’t make money from the copy I just downloaded. It’s just like reading a book that a friend shared with me. One that I’ll never return.” I will always buy paper books (as far as I know), but lots of readers wont’. And then try making a living as a writer. Good luck. Amazon could make changes that would never show up. Such as using “typos.” The kind you always find in a book. I want writers to make a living, and making it harder for e-books to be pirated seems like it makes good sense. What would Scalzi do to prevent pirating?

    Do you realize that Charles Dickens made no money (or Very little) from A Christmas Carol (in America) because it was so completely pirated? And that’s when it required a printer and paper and an actual sale.

  37. Because, you know, there’s no such thing as comparing texts to find the variants and correct for them (if you have a sufficient number of samples). And computers would just be horrible for such a task. It would just be all to hard for the very smart hackers and pirates who collect multiple copies of works to wash the text and distribute a cleaned copy. Why, it might take almost a full half-hour of processing time (twenty minutes of which would be going to the 7-eleven to get a big-gulp Mountain Dew).

    Although, I think, at least from your description, this is slightly better than SoG. The later intentionally screwed up the story giving the reader the impression the author didn’t know WTF they were doing. This was done in an attempt to delegitimize the pirate channel, which instead would just gave the reader the impression the author was on drugs and couldn’t tell a story. This Amazon thing, at least, just makes the author appear stupid instead of incompetent.

    I guess nobody coming up with these schemes has ever heard of meta data and cryptography schemes. Because it would be just too hard to implement those technologies that were brave and new in 1993.

    Plus, as someone who saw the scene back in the 80s with software, the one invention that finally had a profound impact to reduce pirating of software was to release code without protection and charge a reasonable price. Marketing people hate those kinds of solutions.

  38. Besides the awfulness of changing an author’s words, I am amazed they could get a patent for a procedure described in a Tom Clancy novel more than ten years ago.

  39. #47 said, “…had a profound impact to reduce pirating of software was to release code without protection and charge a reasonable price. Marketing people hate those kinds of solutions.”

    How about making e-books free? The catch might be that you will have to look at ads every once and a while. You could even give your e-books to as many people as you want, but the ads have to stay. There is no paper or distribution cost for an e-book, and ads could be updated. I’d look at ads for a free book, especially if the ads were market specific. It’s the one plan that makes pirating pointless. Unless you just can’t have those ads.

  40. The Gray Area, well the issue would be tracking the ads back to the individual book to provide correct royalty statements. Or to change how authors and everyone else in the chain are compensated for their work. Also, as has been pointed out in many places, the cost of paper and distribution is a small part of the overall cost of the book.

    You can look at it as a part of the $9.99 Kindle Boycott (or whatever they’re calling it these days). While I don’t agree with the actual boycott, this is an example of the market trying to set a “reasonable price.” I don’t think it’ll get traction over the long term. I do think you could see this as the consumers voices saying, “at <$10 a book, we don't see the need/purpose to find it elsewhere" (ie. below the threshold where piracy becomes a "reasonable or accepted" action in the eyes of the consumer).

  41. I wonder if it would be possible for an author to sue for plagiarism or something like that…

    “Amazon is selling this in my name, but I didn’t write it!”

    Anyway, I WAS looking at the kindle, but will not be buying one until this is resolved. No way do I want a “different” copy… It would be like changing the lyrics in a song…

    Beatles – “Ob la di, Ob la da, vitality goes on… bra!”

    Um… no.

  42. Amazon, again, with the crimes against literature.
    I’ll be very surprised if we don’t get a nice fat post on this out of Charlie by the end of the week.

  43. #49: Of course there is a distribution cost for an ebook. Neither bandwidth nor storage is free. This isn’t even considering the costs to create the ebook in the first place.

    If video and web browsing are any indication, most people don’t like their entertainment experience interrupted by ads. Targeted ads help. Making them small and unobtrusive helps. But if there is a way to get the experience without ads, people will go for that. (Note that many of the advancements in personal video technology has the effect of skipping ads.)

    As for Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol, I don’t think that’s a very good example. The argument in your first paragraph of #46 boils down to “readers won’t pay for it if they can get it for free.” The reason Charles Dickens didn’t make money wasn’t because readers didn’t pay for it. They paid the American publisher. He didn’t make money from American sales because the American publisher didn’t pay him for the right to publish in the US. (i.e., lack of international copyright.)

    So as your very own example shows, people are willing to pay for things they can otherwise get for free. (No, not everyone, but enough to make a living.) Otherwise, the photocopying machine ought to have ended the publishing industry years ago. Likewise, the tape recorder ought to have ended the music industry and the VCR the video industry.

    Yes, these are disruptive technologies. However, companies, if they want to stay in business, adapt. DRM hasn’t had a very good track record in terms of helping companies adapt successfully to disruptive technologies. (The DRM just gets broken. The result is that it’s both ineffective and inconvenient.)

  44. “What’s in a name? That which we call a morning glory
    By any other name would smell as sweet.”

    Nope, somehow it lacks the correct scansion.

    “Rose is a tulip is a daisy is a crocus.”

    I don’t know–is it just me, or is there something wrong here?

  45. The Gray Area @ 46:

    Cory Doctorow (among other smart folks) has some interesting things to say about this. As he likes to point out — with a h/t to Tim O’Reilly — the bigger threat to creative artists isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity. He releases all of his work under Creative Commons licensing, provides free downloads of electronic versions … and I gather makes a fair living from the dead tree versions.

    I might not have heard of him if I hadn’t stumbled across one of his freebies. But because I did, I have all of his books on my gadget and dead tree versions on my bookshelves. (Plus I have in mind donating copies of “Little Brother” to one or more local school libraries, once I get around to checking in with them.)

  46. I plan to have a clause barring any form of DRM written into my next contract.

    Probably arrogant on my part, since my last book was produced by an idiot in his garage, but the ultimate customer of anything is the readers. DRM doesn’t stop piracy, it just pisses readers off.

    And readers don’t buy from authors who piss them off.

  47. Thomas Jørgensen@42 beat me to making that suggestion. Though you’d need a minimum of three copies to do it, for tie-breakers. But I had not properly appreciated the notion that all of a sudden the pirated copies would actually be superior to the copies on sale.

    It all comes down to hiding information in another text. The field of steganography has given us LOTS of things that would work to do this, not just these un-subtle examples. My favorite idea is to modify the number of spaces between sentences or even words, alternating between one and two spaces. You could embed an entire second story in Morse code. And for many fonts it would be completely invisible.

    The problem with all of these schemes is that it’s easy to strip the hidden messages out. (In fact, it’s easy to do by accident, as I discovered when previewing this message. Oh well, that was a rude thing to say anyway.) And there’s zero incentive for the customer to keep the information in.

  48. I can think of a way that this could kinda work.

    Ever read that paragraph with all the letters messed up, where the first and last letters are in the right places ,and all the other letters are there, jut messed up? ou can still read it if you are a proficient reader becasue we read words as chucnks, not as individual letters. So leave the words exactly the same, but intentinoally mess up the spelling on a few. Do it right and many people won;t eve nnotice it.

  49. I have two words for anyone who thinks that automated synonym finders will not make a difference to the reading experience.

    Those two words, from certain overzealous reports of last year’s Olympics, are “Tyson Homosexual”.

  50. This idea was obviously originated by lawyers, not writers. So it’s only fair to change a few words in a contract to near synonyms. Maybe that way they could comprehend that you don’t screw up someone else’s words.

    On the other hand, it is always possible that Amazon patented this idea not to use it but to keep other sellers, less blessed with a sense of ethics, from using it. Sure. And it’s also possible that Micro$oft could make a cheap bug-free version of Windows some day.

  51. Joel, some of us do notice. We notice that our fast reading is slowed and begin wondering why. But you are correct, people read in groups of words, not the individual letters. Except when they pay attention, and then they see the typos and other tricks. And as Thomas Jørgensen stated first, it’s easy to wash those out of the text (even easier with spellchecking tech to help out).

  52. #54 John Chu said:

    “The argument in your first paragraph of #46 boils down to “readers won’t pay for it if they can get it for free.” The reason Charles Dickens didn’t make money wasn’t because readers didn’t pay for it.”

    I was using a bad train of logic. Thanks for pointing it out. You are right, that people still paid. But pirating happens even when people have to pay. I’m saying that pirating e-books will explode when people get used to reading e-books. Which shouldn’t take too long. But my expectations are based on my assumption that people will act badly. I could be wrong.

  53. Perhaps instead of synonyms, they intend to mess with the whitespace (ie. adding an extra space here and there). Although, Clancy’s prior art should render it unpatentable, as others have indicated, and Stephen’s comment on scrubbing makes it useless against organized pirates, this would probably be aimed at inhibiting the casual sharer.

  54. I think that Doctorow’s got a great idea, and I’m glad it’s working so well for him (I’m all about anything that gives him a financial incentive to write more). But I also think that Wil Wheaton and others are totally within their rights to say “this is how I put my kids through college. Please don’t be a jerk.”

    So if there was a system that eliminated (or even reduced) infringement while fully respecting my rights as a consumer, I would support any author’s right to use it.

    That said, I don’t think this system meets those goals; damaging the product violates criteria #2.

    I saw somewhere an idea about attaching a personalized message to every e-copy of a book–something like “This copy specially prepared for $name at $email_address/$billing_address with the best wishes of $author and $publishing_house.”

    That seemed to me like a decently reasonable form of DRM. It wouldn’t stop the dedicated pirate (nothing will, really), but it doesn’t infringe on legitimate purchaser’s rights to their property, and might discourage a few people from being jerks.

  55. #57 Bearpaw said: “Cory Doctorow (among other smart folks) has some interesting things to say about this.”

    Bearpaw, I think there are several factors that need to be addressed with regard to Doctorow’s use of Give-it-away-for-free marketing. Firstly, he has a following that was created in part from BoingBoing. It’s a good site and is a platform for Cory to advertise his product. Nothing wrong with that. He’s probably at the top of the heap with regard to how much time spends to personally promote his work. If you want to learn how to become a celebrity author, Doctorow serves as a good example of all the work that such requires. But most writers can’t do that. Or just don’t want to. Secondly, Doctorow seems to think that the paper book market will remain stable enough to support sales. I’m not so optimistic. Thirdly, it seems like good logic to assume that once people get something for free, such as a Doctorow e-book, that they will begin to have a altered sense of an e-book’s inherent worth.

    As for the idea that obscurity is worse than giving your stuff away for free, sure. As long as you have a way to pay the bills that’s a great philosophy for an artist to have. To me it sounds a bit too much like Andy Warhol’s “Every body will get their fifteen minutes of fame.”

  56. It will be very hard to challenge this patent based on Clancy’s prior art; the patent cites older versions of that prior art (in mapmaking and phone directories), so the examiner’s already considered it and still found the invention patentable. That doesn’t mean that a lawyer couldn’t beat the patent in court based on the Clancy reference, but it would be extremely difficult.

  57. Scalzi @68, if we’re thinking of it as the digital version of a signed copy, I think you’re right. How cool would it be if your ebooks came with a little note from the author, like you’d get if they signed it for you at a con? Obviously a little less personal than a real sig, but still kinda neat.

    In fact, if ebook sellers really wanted to go all-out, they could add a little text box for people to add a message attributed to them as well, so that they could personalize their ebook if they’re buying it as a gift or something.

  58. The Gray Area: I certainly hope that the publishing industry is learning the hard way: as much as people want technological solutions to the issue of piracy, DRM schemes simply do not work. They are simply not effective at stopping piracy.

    DRM is putting a steal lock on a paper door. It makes your customers fiddle with a lock to get your content while the pirates just shove their way through. The sooner the publishing industry recognizes this, the better off it is.

    The music industry got itself into real trouble because it fought electronic delivery tooth-and-nail using potential piracy as an excuse. The irony is that this ended up driving a lot of potential customers to piracy which created a culture of piracy. Their fears of piracy ended up creating more pirates!

    The answers to this issue are simple: 1) You make it easy for people to get your books legally, and you price them reasonably. 2) You do your damnedest to make make piracy seem wrong. Done right, most people will buy even when they could steal because most people are at root honest. Some will always steal, but it is simply not cost effective to worry about them.

    As to this actual idiotic scheme, Thomas Jørgensen@42 notes, it is easily breakable. Most DRM schemes are. Billions have been spent, but as long as the analog hole exists, it will always be wasted.

  59. The main protection of writers’ right came from the fact that most people prefer to read on paper than on a computer screen, for various reasons (can’t take my laptop in the toilet, don’t have enough battery for the train, is a lot more awkward in bed, and so on).

    Seems to me that the major source of threat here is Amazon itself, since they decided to come up with the Kindle.

    The fact is, I did download a lot of pirated music over the years, and I still could do it (they are still out there and I have the knowledge to get them), but don’t any longer, because I can buy songs and albums on iTunes WITHOUT DRM for a very reasonable amount of money, and I, like most people, don’t like stealing stuff.

    But despite spending most of my time in front of the screen, I still do a lot of reading on paper, and I can’t see the situation changing radically in a very short time. This is a time the publishing industry can employ in finding a viable pricing and distributing alternative – or going the way of the record business.

  60. Word fail. I meant “I certainly hope that the publishing industry is learning what the music industry learned the hard way:”

  61. I think Amazon is taking a step in the right direction. No, I don’t think this idea is a particularly good one. It would be too easily defeated. For the sake of argument, suppose that authors do agree to have their words altered in an effort to protect their work. It would be a simple matter to compare two different versions and see where the differences are. Fixing the short list referencing the actual book would make the pirated version more authentic than the purchased version.

    But it does indicate that Amazon is looking at ways to drop DRM from their ebooks. That is the positive that I will take from this.

  62. John, how are you planning to stop Amazon using it on your books? Other than specifically saying in future contracts that it is forbidden, or not allowing their editions at all, I can’t see how we can stop them.

    I wouldn’t mind if they asked me to select one word that would be different in each copy — so it would be rose or morning-glory or pansy or, well, pity the poor person who gets a spider-plant. That could actually be kind of cool. But the thought of them randomly screwing up the text with words the computer thinks mean the same horrifies me. “Telephone me Ishmael” sums it up very well.

  63. Jo Walton:

    “John, how are you planning to stop Amazon using it on your books? Other than specifically saying in future contracts that it is forbidden, or not allowing their editions at all, I can’t see how we can stop them.”

    Well, to be clear, I don’t suspect that Amazon could employ this without the author’s consent, since doing so, from a copyright point of view, is creating a derivative work. Which is a no-no. I wouldn’t have a problem contractually specifying that no third party is allowed to modify the finished text of my work without expressed permission, but I don’t know that it’s necessary.

    I also suspect that Amazon would not employ such a technology on the works they distribute as a default, because to do so would open it up to lawsuits. However, if for some entirely mad reason it demanded that it retain the right to alter the content of the e-books it sold for any reason, I wouldn’t allow it to sell my e-books.

  64. The idea of embedding a second story in Morse code via spacing is incredibly cool! I’m totally stealing that. (To do, not to write about.) I may have to learn C++ after all (so I can write the second story in regular text, then use the program to translate it and impose it on the main text). Actually I could write that pretty easily in old C, but IIUC you can hardly find a plain C compiler fer love ner money anymore (C++ compilers used to compile old C too, but I don’t know if this is still true).

    Since every letter in Morse requires multiple dots and dashes, the second story would have to be vastly shorter than the main one; for example, you could not impose Zoë’s Tale onto the interstices of The Last Colony, cool though that would be. But the idea of using the interstices to tell the cryptohistory (pun intended) of the events in the main text is a cool one too.

    But now I have another idea, to be implemented for the 30th anniversary omnibus edition of Scalzi’s OMW series: alternate the events of TLC and ZT by chapters, in a single timeline. It would be an interesting way to read it (and flipping back and forth between the two books, which I’ve done a little, doesn’t really cut it). Just for an experiment, and only if Scalzi likes the idea.

    Of course, if it’s the 30th anniversary edition, I won’t be around for it (unless I live lots longer than my dad did).

  65. I’m stoked. I mean, just imagine:

    GANDALF: End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.

    GANDALF: Finish? No, the trip doesn’t stop here. Death is just another trail, one that we all must grab. The grey rain-blinds of this world rolls back, and all rotates to silver glass, and then you view it.

  66. A lot of sound and fury that won’t actually stop the pirates from pirating? Unprecedented.

    The fact of the matter is that our current copyright system only works as long as copying requires significant resources. This is no longer true. Attempts to maintain it by making copying artificially hard are attempts to hold back progress. In my admittedly limited understanding of history, this is a Bad Idea.

    However, my admittedly limited understanding of history also tells me there is going to be a lot of effort made to maintain the business models that worked under the old status quo. People will fight to defend their livelihood, even if it is obsolete. If those people are socially, politically, or economically powerful, the fight can go on for a long time.

  67. Steve 72: DRM is putting a steal lock on a paper door.

    Intentional? Typo let stand intentionally? Brilliant!

  68. doing so, from a copyright point of view, is creating a derivative work. Which is a no-no.

    Only if you have it specifically prohibited by contract. Otherwise, an author’s consent is not required to make a derivative work.

    (Okay, that’s still going through the courts in the US, w.r.t. digital modifications. But otherwise, if I buy a copy of one of your books, and tape in the word “Anteater” for “Jane,” and then sell that single copy, you can’t stop me by copyright law. And, when they sell ebooks, already have the rights to create and distribute copies.)

    (You can stop me by claiming it’s fraud, if I’ve decided to not make it clear that it’s not entirely your work, and you can also try by trademark law. I’m not sure which would have a better chance.)

    I’m told that in the UK, or maybe the EU, they have something about “moral rights,” which would prevent someone from making any changes to a work against the author’s wishes.

  69. The various proposals for more-deeply hidden tracking data (font, spacing, etc.) mostly don’t work, because they can be reliably removed automatically from a single copy. For the spacing, for example, just standardize all the spacing. Spelling is harder, since the work of proofreading a book is significant.

    John@54: you talk about the cost to create the ebook in the first place, but in fact modern novels nearly universally START OUT as ebooks; the cost incurred is for converting them into dead tree form.

  70. Scriveners didn’t have the political power to outlaw carbon paper. Buggywhip manufacturers didn’t have the political power to suppress the automobile.

    Unfortunately, which much of Congress sucking from the money-distended teat of the massive, stinking sow that is the copyright-fascist lobby, they may be able to get away with a fair amount of suppression.

    O my poor country! Once-noble lady, fallen into the hands of pimps and fools!

  71. Naturally, there’s no difference between, say, “Coruscating beams of polychromatic refulgence” and “Flickering shafts of multicolored brilliance,” to use a Doc Smithian example. Assuming your computer can reliably tell the difference between different uses of the same world, or comedy such as “Flickering supports of multicolored brilliance” could result.

    Let’s take a look at the results of this approach on some well-known quotes:

    “One ring to place parallel lines on them all!”

    “Do not manufacture me enraged, Mr. McGee. You will not take pleasure in me when I am enraged.”

    “To be, or not to be; this is the inquiry.”

    “No one anticipates the Spanish Examination!”

    “Go ahead, hoodlum; create my day.”

    Yes, indeed, the readers will be utterly unaware of these minor changes. I salute Amazon in this brilliant anti-piracy strategy.

  72. #72 Steve Burnap, I agree that DRM does not work. It’s about the most seductive lure you can give a hacker. Especially if said hacker feels that capitalist pigs have ruined the world and that everything should be free. (Wait till they have to move out of their parent’s house!)

    I’ve compared industries and market trends. I wonder what Scalzi would predict with regard to e-books. You don’t often read sf where the people of the future (ten years from now?) aren’t using slates or mediatronic paper of some sort. We accept the idea that everyone will being using a device, and some of those devices will look just like books with paper. My major concern is that file sharing of the most viral form will destroy the profitability of books. Instead, I think the books will be ancillary to the ads they contain. Perhaps like TV. Or blogs. What would Boingboing be without ads?

    Books will be free for those who want them to be free. One way or another.

    If my pal wanted to send me a copy of his new Scalzi DRM-free e-book should I take it? My pal is simply a defacto library. Maybe we should all consider our computers libraries and just file share to anyone that wants to us that way. Like Napster.

  73. Annalee Flower @ 67:

    I think that Doctorow’s got a great idea, and I’m glad it’s working so well for him (I’m all about anything that gives him a financial incentive to write more). But I also think that Wil Wheaton and others are totally within their rights to say “this is how I put my kids through college. Please don’t be a jerk.”

    Your usage of “but” here is a bit of a non-sequitur. Doctorow isn’t losing money by making his books available for free, he’s making more money.

    The Grey Area @ 69:

    Lacking data, I don’t have any meaningful opinion about your first point, though I suspect that you’re making too much of his supposed celebrity status and too little of the power of viral marketing. My understanding, FWIW, is that while he used BoingBoing as a jumping off point, the direction in which he jumped has mattered far more.

    Your second point directly contradicts what Doctorow has written on the topic. His attitude is that it’s shortsighted and ultimately futile to try to force a market to behave the same way it has behaved in the past, given the way everything underlying that market is changing. Right now he’s found a way to make the changes work for him but he fully expects to need to adapt as the changes continue. Hell, that’s a fair short-hand summary of most of his story plots.

    As for your third point, um, what? When I was young, the only books that I had access to were free, either lent or given to me. In my eyes, libraries became friendly shrines filled with treasures. As soon as I could afford to do so, I started buying books and have so far bought thousands of them. If I hadn’t gotten my first few years of supply for free, that wouldn’t have happened.

    Doctorow pays his bills in part with money that he would not have gotten if he hadn’t given things away. That sounds counter-intuitive but it’s not. John here used a similar approach with similar success, though obviously he didn’t go as far as Doctorow did. (Which is a perfectly reasonable approach, not that my opinion on John’s choices are at all relevant.)

  74. I don’t know how Scalzi intends to stop this happening to his works if, by some freakish miscarriage of justice, Amazon ever gets that far.

    But I intend to sue their asses into the next millennium, and US copyright law is, as others have said, on my side.

    Don’t think it’s going to be a problem, though.

    Gatsby believed in the verdant illumination, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.

    Lolita, candescence of my existence, burning of my groin.

  75. Sean Eric Fagan:

    “Okay, that’s still going through the courts in the US, w.r.t. digital modifications”

    So you’re saying that the current copyright law does not, in fact, support creating without consent derivative works such as Amazon might do here?

    Disagreeing with an assertion only to note that it’s actually currently correct is a not very helpful muddying of the conversational waters, Sean. Was there an actual point to that?

    Aside from that, I would be quite surprised if Amazon’s contracts to create electronic copies of works includes permission to alter the text, but I fully admit I don’t have one of those contracts here in front of me to confirm that one way or another.

  76. Grey Area – My major concern is that file sharing of the most viral form will destroy the profitability of books. Instead, I think the books will be ancillary to the ads they contain.

    That’s been tried. It produces crap books.

  77. xopher@81: I blame Freud. Or perhaps Amazonian copy protection schemes.

    (Certainly not my inability to proofread.)

  78. So you’re saying that the current copyright law does not, in fact, support creating without consent derivative works such as Amazon might do here?

    No, I’m saying that someone has chosen to go to court over it, claiming that buying one DVD, editing it and recording to a new DVD, and then destroying that first DVD, is a copyright violation. I think they’re on stronger grounds there.

    Traditional copyright law, and case law on that point (I have been assured, and I don’t have the references later, so it’s just an opinion), does not require copyright holders’ permission to modify without copying, in the United States. And that’s what Amazon is proposing to do.

    My caveat is because it is entirely possible that new case law will be created that says you can’t modify a copyrighted work without express permission. (You do understand that “working its way through the courts” doesn’t make something so, don’t you? I mean, there are people who claim that it’s unconstitutional to disallow same-sex marriage in California, and are going through the courts for that — but I trust that you don’t think this means two women can legally get married in California right now.)

    I suggest you go look at the relevant Amazon contracts; I suspect you’ll find that they do have the explicit right to modify, and that it’ll be stated in terms of, but not limited to, formatting.

  79. @ 60:
    True, you read words in chunks, but this is only done with familiar words.
    Unfamiliar words would not be read this way. You read them letter by letter at first until you become familiar with it. And as a reader who learned most of his English vocabulary by reading books in English rather than my native Dutch, I think it’s pretty important not to mess up those words. Your method is based on everybody already knowing all the words.

    All in all Amazon’s method seems likely to be hugely ineffective (to easy to break), counterproductive (because of bad press about the concept), so I don’t think it will work out.

  80. Sean Eric Fagan:

    Meh. I’m not buying any of your argument, I’m afraid. Unless you’re actually able to come up with cites for your assertions here, I’m going to stick to my understanding that unauthorized derivative works are a violation of copyright.

  81. BearPaw said:

    “Your usage of “but” here is a bit of a non-sequitur. Doctorow isn’t losing money by making his books available for free, he’s making more money.

    The Grey Area @ 69:

    Lacking data, I don’t have any meaningful opinion about your first point, though I suspect that you’re making too much of his supposed celebrity status

    That’s why market analysis is a complex business. You don’t think the number of hits boingboing receives a month translates into some pretty powerful sales numbers for Doctorow’s paper books? I think his ability to sell himself has a lot to do with it. And I think that’s great. As for not holding back progress, I’m sure Cory does see a day when the vast majority of people will use devices instead of reading from dumb paper. But when you plan for the future which contains e-books and readers, you might want to establish a marketing plan that does not insist that e-books are free. Because then you have to turn around and say, “Now that the majority of book sales are for e-books, I won’t be giving mine away for free anymore. And since we all hate DRM (because it doesn’t work), anyone that has an e-book can copy and share it. Or call it peer to peer pirating. That’s why I said we could all just call our computers libraries.

    And when books had ads there was no digital issue. Ads are still the main revenue source for many online and print media. If I’m wrong, let me know.

  82. John@95:

    You’re right. Unauthorized derivative works violate copyright unless they satisfy fair use.

  83. John Scalzi @89: So you’re saying that the current copyright law does not, in fact, support creating without consent derivative works such as Amazon might do here?

    I believe he’s saying that there are conflicting interpretations of the current law, and it is not yet settled. In such a case, one could in good faith argue either way until the courts have decided what the law actually means.

    I believe, however, that he is mistaken. The example he gives (of renaming one character) is not, to my understanding, an allowed modification: I could legitimately paint a physical copy of Zoe’s Tale orange and then sell that copy to someone else, I could make obvious annotations in the book (highlighting, derisive remarks in the margin, doodles of genitalia, etc) that do not change the text and cannot possibly be mistaken for the author’s intent and then sell that copy, but I cannot make changes that look like they could be attributed to the author and then make it available to others.

    Think about it this way: let’s say a printer is (legitimately) printing copies of a book that contained a passage critical of a politician. If what Mr. Fagan suggests were true, the publisher could print the book, and then go through and mark out that passage in every single copy after it is printed but before it is sold, and be in the clear copyright-wise. It might *also* be fraud and breach of contract, but that’s beside the point. (Didn’t WalMart get in trouble for something like this, actually? Bowdlerizing movies?)

    Now, I believe that you’re in the clear if you merely tell people how to make changes for their private use: for example, I cannot distribute copies of The Phantom Edit (and probably cannot host a publish showing) but I could give you detailed instructions for producing a copy of your own. But once those copies have been changed, they cannot be resold, and you cannot make a business out of re-editing peoples’ movies for them.

  84. pnkrokhockeymom:

    As I suspected. And of course it’s deeply unlikely that something like this would qualify as “fair use,” not in the least because it’s being advertised as the original work by the original author.

  85. I believe he’s saying that there are conflicting interpretations of the current law, and it is not yet settled.

    Nobody has gotten a writ of certiorari from the US Supreme Court as of yet, but the weight of decisions is entirely (as far as I am aware) on the side of copyright holders and against those who would seek to distribute unauthorized, altered versions of the material.

  86. Also (and sorry to keep stringing posts like this), there’s no such thing as a “settled” interpretation of a law, even after a Supreme Court decision. Brown v. Board of Education overturned Plessy v. Ferguson, and so on.

    So to say “the interpretation of the law isn’t settled” when all of the federal appeals decisions have gone in one direction so far is pretty disingenuous. The current precedent is absolutely in line with Scalzi’s characterization of it. Any Supreme Court adjudication that would alter that is so much pie in the sky at this point.

  87. Julia @102:
    To be fair, the “not yet settled” was my characterization of a post that I disagreed with. That was my wording, not his, and I may have been mis-stating his position.

  88. Sean Eric Fagan-

    17 U.S.C. § 101: “A “derivative work” is a work based upon one or more preexisting works, such as a translation, musical arrangement, dramatization, fictionalization, motion picture version, sound recording, art reproduction, abridgment, condensation, or any other form in which a work may be recast, transformed, or adapted. A work consisting of editorial revisions, annotations, elaborations, or other modifications which, as a whole, represent an original work of authorship, is a “derivative work”.”

    17 U.S.C. § 106(2): “Subject to sections 107 through 122, the owner of copyright under this title has the exclusive rights to do and to authorize any of the following . . . to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work;”

    So…what are you talking about? I assume you’re confusing the application of the first sale doctrine with derivative works. The first sale doctrine says that I can resell a work that I bought legally, without making a copy or adding my own creative modifications. I can buy a picture, glue it to a tile, and sell the tile; I can’t buy a picture, use it as part of a collage, and sell the collage. See Annie Lee v. A.R.T. Co., 125 F.3d 580 (7th Cir. 1997).

    What you can’t do is make substantial modifications of a work and then sell copies of it without the copyrightholder’s permission. So all an author has to do to stop Amazon from doing this is to refuse permission to sell the work.

  89. It appears to me that this isn’t intended as something to be applied to books as a whole. Reading patent jaronese isn’t my strong suit, but it sounds as though its intended to defeat something that’s trying to programatically pirate something by using automagically aquired excerpts strung together.


    Which I arrived at via which did enlighten me to something I’d forgotten: the 9th Circuit has a different interpretation than most of the rest of the country, and sides with John more. (Interestingly, I’m bound by the 9th Circuit, and John isn’t.)

    The doctrine of first sale and the prohibition against derivative works are at conflict; the case I cited there was actually regarded not to be a derivative case at all. But it states that bowdlerization is (or was)allowed:

    Until recently it was accepted wisdom that the United States did not enforce any claim of moral rights; even bowdlerization of a work was permitted unless the modifications produced a new work so different that it infringed the exclusive right under

    And that seems to cover what Amazon was doing. But as Julia correctly points out, nothing ever stays the same.

  91. This sounds like a bad idea – however, playing the devil’s advocate for a second, something like this could be made as non-intrusive as changing selected spaces to non-breaking spaces in a coded pattern, or using white on white characters to replace some spaces – you wouldn’t know it was there and it wouldn’t affect the actual text at all. But I’m willing to bet that isn’t what Amazon have in mind…

  92. But it states that bowdlerization is (or was)allowed

    That’s 9 years before the decision in Huntsman and CleanFlicks of Colorado, LLC v. Soderbergh, et al.—Huntsman sought to use that as precedent in his arguments and got pretty soundly slapped down.

  93. “I performed two acts on the seventy-fifth anniversary of my birth. I stopped over at my wife’s resting place. Then I enlisted in the armed forces.”

  94. If they really wanted to do this couldn’t they just put a random period in the text? It wouldn’t necessarily change the meaning of anything and frankly a lot worse typos get by than a single period somewhere in the book.

    That way the ran.dom period would serve as an indicator of what copy it was. You’ve got 100,000 words isn’t that like 500,000 characters or something like that? That would 500,000 places to “screw up” a period.

    It would be very easy to discover however. At the same time, couldn’t you just compare two editions of the synonym text via computer program to spot the difference and eradicate them?

  95. Watermarks in other media rely on the ability to add something that is not easily detectable to human senses but is hard to remove without producing damage that is detectable to human senses. I don’t see how you can remotely hope to do that with a text format given that humans are perfectly happy reading just the raw text.

  96. Wow. Know what this reminds me of? Those ‘edited’ music albums Walmart carries – the ones that are supposedly more palatable to their demographic. Wasn’t it Green Day who refused to sell at Walmart because they had to modify their album for language and content? I know people who refuse to buy music from Walmart because they want the version the artist originally had in mind.

    Between that and the latest court ruling that metadata must be maintained and subject to subpoena, this situation is going to get really interesting…

  97. John, I think that it amounts to DRM. And I’m sure that the advocates for e-books without DRM (such as our man Cory Doctorow), will also insist at some point (maybe now) that these books use open source code. If there is anything in the code that smells even faintly of tracking software, then it can be deleted. Because it’s open source, of course. So are people going to put up with some sort of “observation ware” on their readers? No. Because the readers will be OS also. We either want the e-books bugged or we don’t. An e-book should be readable on any device and should be transferable forever. The open source will allow for dynamic logevity.

  98. In high school and college, I remember reading Strunk & White (3rd edition, I think), and portion which examined several revisons of Thomas Paine’s “These are the times that try men’s souls” — “Times such as these are trying on souls,” and “Soulwise, these are trying times.”

    S&W’s point, I believe, was that changing the wording of a sentence may not change the strict meaning of a sentence, but it does change the power of a sentence, i.e., its effect on the reader.

    Even though it does not really change the meaning, “Address me as Ishmael” does not have the same punch as “Call me Ishmael,” and hence does not convey quite the same nuance of meaning.

  99. I don’t see how you can remotely hope to do that with a text format given that humans are perfectly happy reading just the raw text.

    (view source if you must)

  100. Of course, that would have worked better if WordPress didn’t strip off meaningless HTML. Sigh. I suppose I added more to your point than not.

  101. I suspect this is an attempt to simplify written English to allow semantic searches and analysis by computer, not for human consumption. One big problem that computers have understanding natural language is mapping homographs and synonyms. This patent seems to be locking down one possible process that would allow computers to interpret natural language texts.

  102. I am reminded of a story in the Talmud, about a time when the Jewish community only had three valid Torah scrolls left, and they all had slight variations in their text–presumably, copying errors made by scribes in the remote past. The rabbis opened up all three scrolls and had a scribe copy from them to make a fourth. Every time their master copies disagreed about what a verse said, the scribe would use whichever version was preferred by two out of three. When the new scroll was finished, it was declared to be the canonical text, and the three originals were declared to be invalid.

  103. It actually reminded me of Ray Winniger’s short horrors story “Pnomus”, in which Things From Beyond pass through our world in part through the presence of certain words in the language…which change in their passage.

    New goal: slip “Soulwise, these are trying times” into a legal brief.

  104. Bearpaw wrote: “Your usage of “but” here is a bit of a non-sequitur. Doctorow isn’t losing money by making his books available for free, he’s making more money.”

    That’s nice, but the point is, what works well for Cory Doctorow won’t work well for everyone, and I suspect that the more authors there are trying to do it Doctorow’s way, the harder it will be for the non-Doctorow authors.

    You may notice that in addition to his fiction writing, Doctorow has received a number of fellowships and other sources of support. That won’t be available to every author. Also, he only married and had children recently, so he didn’t have those responsibilities early in his writing career. And he started a software company which was sold to another company in 2003. Plus, unlike US authors, he’s Canadian and thus doesn’t have to worry about healthcare.

    All of this suggests that Cory Doctorow is really not a good role model for authors seeking a practical business plan, as he is far from typical.

  105. #98: Not Walmart. But there was a small company here in Utah called Cleanflix that claimed they had the right to edit the dirty bits out of movies and then sell the edited versions. Many Hollywood producers disagreed, and so did the court. There may have been other companies elsewhere that did the same thing.

    Now, Cleanflix sells a smart DVD player that edits out naughty words and pictures on the fly while the movie is playing. That seems to be legal, at lest for now.

  106. The suggestions of Thomas & John @42,@59 ran through my head pretty quickly as soon as I heard of the plan.

    However any watermarking of the text (e.g. altering kerning of some letters) is either going to be picked up by multiple copy comparison, or cleaned out by simply optically extracting all the book content and re-presenting it in a new form.

  107. I’m a bit late to the party, but here’s my 2 cents anyway…

    Amazon keeps doing things that make me more and more glad that I bought a Sony Reader instead of a Kindle. I’ve had it for almost two years now and love it.

    Baen Books is another place to look on the “free ebooks” debate. They make a LOT of their library available (and have for years) and have found that it increases sales.

  108. I had a kindle and sent it back within the 30 day period. Hated it. Couldn’t get over not owning the book. This is just icing on the cake.

  109. Even though the ‘content marking’ concept is making Mr. Scalzi’s hair puff out like an outraged Ghlaghghee, look at it this way … Amazon wants a DRM system palatable to e-book readers.

    This particular process may not work for all the legal and technical reasons noted above. But, it’s an indicator that Amazon, unlike the publishing industry, has accepted that existing DRM systems are a nightmare for users and worse, a barrier to Jeff Bezos making a whole lot o’ money.

    Apple brought down DRM in the music world. Perhaps Amazon will do the same thing to the publishing industry.

    One company, to rule them all. Oh wait, wrong story.

  110. So I suppose that I could write to the patent office and have Brian’s arguments and a copy of Clancy’s novel put in the ‘file wrapper,’ which is the patent office record of the prosecution of the patent, and also copy’s statutory agent so they have constructive notice I don’t think their patent is valid in the face of prior art.

    When writing their statutory agent I should also tell them that I forbid them from using this technique on my books in “look inside the book” in case they’re not limiting it to Kindle.

    Generally, authors DO retain copyright in their works and so each of us who is concerned about how Amazon might hash up what we mean could contact them and make sure they understand we FORBID them from violating our copyright by exercising this patent with respect to our works. I presume writing to their statutory agent is the correct way to do that since we are in essence threatening to sue them to get a cease and desist order to issue – and to seek court costs, legal fees, and four times what they charged for the infringing work which sure beats Hell out of the royalties most authors get!

    Personally I would interpret the issuance of a patent as constructive notice they actually intend to do this until such time as there is a further public statement by Amazon that they won’t.

    So far most of the discussion is in terms of making fiction works sound bad. I write medical books – the consequences of unintended changes in meaning can be lethal. I wonder if Amazon is going to be willing to step up to the plate, indemnify me, defend me and hold me harmless against claims resulting from people misreading a paraphrased version of what I said and doing something really unfortunate? Good question for me to ask their statutory agent I guess!

  111. I have a suggestion for DRM. If someone buys a book from you, you probably have their physical addy, their email addy and their charge card number. Just encode this information in various places in the file. Make sure everyone (i.e. hackers) knows where this information is. Add a checksum so it would be very difficult to remove the information and have the file load.

    Then not only can you identify who put the file out on the internet, but this person gets to pay a hefty fine (various unauthorized charges to their card) and this is before the copyright infringement costs kick in.

    I know this wouldn’t be difficult to implement. let the games begin!


  112. Joann is a genius!

    This would privatize punishment for the miscreants by making it an efficient private sector operation.

    That way it would be swift, certain, and EXTREMELY expensive! Even if they do manage to get all the charges reversed, think of how much time they’ll squander getting it done, cutting up old credit cards, giving new card numbers to all the pissed off people they have routine monthly billings by, or they just bought something from, etc.

    It would also be free for the rights holder – they only gotta pay those hefty legal fees that they hope to get back later if they want to punish the infringer a SECOND time.

    This technique would encourage people to be careful not to let their file ‘escape’ and maybe get spammed all over the web by some miscreant. Nowadays people are not very careful to not let anyone have files or programs of theirs. This technique would change that.

  113. @131: You simply clean out the file of that info the same way you do of any other changes, by either comparing to other files, or by (as I said @125) by optically extracting all the content and rebuilding the title using pure text.

  114. Entire point of “watermark” is to enable trace-back to original purchased copy, thus identifying pirate (purchaser must be the pirate, right?). “Yer Honor, that book was stolen from me back in ’08.”

    For this to work, Amazon must have a table of substitutions & purchasers. Which means, if I steal that table, I can wage a disinformation campaign against the scheme. A relatively few books will discredit the entire operation.

  115. #122 John H. said:

    “All of this suggests that Cory Doctorow is really not a good role model for authors seeking a practical business plan, as he is far from typical.”

    Burn John, he’s a heretic!

    No John H., Cory is not the exception, he is the new rule. His way works because it works for him, so it will work for all authors! Cory is the golden beacon of light that shows us that e-books will not be pirated, and that giving away your goods only promotes the future sale of more of your product. He is the Truth of the post-scarcity bitchun society. Live the fraking dream, John!

    I was just having fun. Don’t burn John.

  116. @131 – This is what already does. Didn’t take long for that encryption to be completely stripped from their files either.

    Bottom line is, pirates will always find a way to pirate. Punishing customers will only make customers turn to piracy.

  117. It occurs to me that some of the forms of watermarking suggested here would result in DRMed Whatever discussing a sort of cat like animal named “Fluffy.”

    Won’t someone thing of the Changs?

  118. Perhaps the real answer is John’s watermarking. Different shadowy author pictures for each copy/edition. It would improve sales, as collectors would be driven to get the whole set.

  119. Well, something like half the novels I read these days have an obvious Mary Sue/Gary Stu. Why not go through at time of sale and rename that character after the purchaser of the book?

  120. “Perhaps we should suggest we should go into this software engineer’s code and swap some of the code around. Oh, sure, it might not significantly alter the meaning of the code. But then let’s run it and see where it gets us.”

    Would not bug me, in fact I do it all the time. Compiled languages get converted into machine code that does “more or less” the same thing. I would bet more then 99% of all software being written today is compiled code.

    Most compilers actually take your code (C, Java, C++, Eifel, whatnot) and convert it into some internal representation and do “machine independent optimizations” on it. Then they take that internal code representation and make some machine code out of it (or sometimes assembly language, and ask an assembler to make real machine code).

    Each optimization is a conversion of one form of expressing a set of operations into another sometimes radically different form. It is common to have dozens of these optimization steps at least TRY to munge your code around.

    I would guess over half of software being written today has this sort of thing going on (scripting languages frequently get a similar treatment).

    Oh, and modern CPUs? Some of them convert your machine code into other different machine code with (normally) identical meaning as they execute things.

    20 years ago I would have written my C code to “multiply by two” as “for the love of god shift left by one bit!” because I know that shifting left a bit is very very fast, and multiplying is very slow…and that multiplying by two is the same as shifting one bit. Today I don’t really bother because I know the compiler will figure it out. It probably did 20 years ago too, but I was taught by folks that had more experience with what are now 40 year old systems that didn’t do that so much.

    So yeah…I can see a coder coming up with “hey lets transform prose A into prose B with identical meaning” because it happens to their stuff all the time and ALMOST never causes anything to go amiss. Almost.

    English isn’t that easy though, and I understand your point. It is almost 100% sure to come up with something similar to what you wrote, but worse.

    However if an Amazon e-book is at the heart of it all HTML then you CAN make multiple different HTML streams that all generate the same rendered text. Spaces after a less-then and before the greater-then are optional. Upper and lower case for tags and other markup are treated as identical. For any reasonable sized HTML document you should be able to make millions of different encodings of the identical text. Identical as in the words that show up on the reader should be the same, in the same place, and the same fonts/styles. File size might be a little different.

    The downside is you can transform all those different HTML streams into an identical base encoding, and if whoever breaks the DRM on the wrapper decides to do that, then you almost definitely lose track of what the original HTML was.

    Better off to take the images in the book (and of the book cover) and fiddle with those bits. But that is a decades old trick, and probably hard to patent.

  121. Mythago @131 God forbid I would ever work for the NSA! No, I’m just a vindictive witch LOL. And virulently anti piracy. I worked in software development for 20 years, and so I’m very sensitive to idjits stealing other people’s hard work.

    It is a very draconian solution, but it does address the issue.


  122. Joann, so does just killing everyone who has ever bought a book. No piracy!

    Better still, just wipe out the human race entirely, and there will be no more crime of any kind.

  123. Xopher @143. Hmmm, I’ll have to give that some thought. People who buy books tend to be repeat purchasers, so it would cut down on the number of sales….. And according to the UN, wiping out the entire human race would help with the global warming issue. So maybe it’s a twofer — no crime and no global warming.

    Seriously, the information in the file would only be harmful if the purchaser put it out on the internet where the hackers could get at it. As long as it was on their kindle, or whatever they read the ebooks on, there would be no issue.

  124. Xopher @145 Good point. I believe it’s no more likely than one’s wallet being stolen or their computer or someone who has their credit card number’s computer being hacked. We accept those as possible risks.

    People know how to deal with a lost credit card. The credit card owner would only be liable for the same amount as if it were stolen or lost (I am guessing here. I haven’t called my credit card companies to verify).

    I guess a hacker could download the file off a random person’s kindle or computer and upload it to a server for others to copy, but then that would be theft and not willful copyright infringement. Still no worse consequences than having someone put your credit card number up on the hacker boards, which already happens

  125. But the credit card numbers could be read from the Kindle without the user knowing anything was stolen. That’s not the same as losing your credit card. You’re liable for charges up to the time you report the theft (or perhaps a bit before, but in this scenario it could be weeks).

  126. In the original article, Mr. Scalzi wrote: “Perhaps we should suggest we should go into this software engineer’s code and swap some of the code around. Oh, sure, it might not significantly alter the meaning of the code. But then let’s run it and see where it gets us.”

    Some engineers may not actually see a problem with this. Software obfuscation– changing code so that it’s functionally equivalent but no-longer human readable, is it’s own little niche for certain types of distributions alongside encryption. (It’s commonly applied to Flash applications for example, to prevent/discourage easy replacement of assets, changing outlinks, etc). The obfuscation companies are in as much of a running battle with decompiler writers as encryption companies are with crackers.

    @49- The Grey Area wrote “How about making e-books free? The catch might be that you will have to look at ads every once and a while. ”

    Again, just drawing on flash games, many are freely distributed with embedded ads. Anything moderately popular is findable with the ads removed or the ads replaced with someone else’s. In that market Monetarily-Free-to-User does not discourage people from cracking encryption and obfuscation to make the software completely free. Flash games make a much smaller demand on the user’s attention than e-text. I’d be very supprised if the demand for ad-stripped e-books was smaller than the demand for ad-stripped flash, if ad-supported e-books were the norm.

  127. Obfuscation through any of the means suggested above misses the point that it is very simple to strip out all the interesting content from a text stream and re-present it as a totally new file. If the human eye can see it and read it then none of these schemes will work.

    Unlike with multimedia material, you can losslessly extract all that text to make a new book.

  128. Xopher @ 143

    There will still be cats on coutners and dogs on the sofas of the world for generations. Surely these crimes matter!

  129. TFernando @149 et al – I think most engineers would have a problem with writers deciding that, hey, we can swap your code around, how hard can it be to figure out? Goto and loop are the same thing, right? I have an O’Reilly’s right here for reference!

    That’s kinda how a writer might react to hearing that a patent attorney or a software engineer is going to make ‘minor changes’ to their text for watermarking purposes.

  130. Surely substituting words isn’t necessary. All that’s needed is replacing a single space with a double space. Or ” with ”. Or and with &. And besides, 40 locations to toggle gives a billion different versions. It shouldn’t be difficult to find 40 places in a text where unnoticeable changes could be made.
    Actually changing the words is unnecessary and stupid. And doing it automatically is sure to lead to stuff like: “What?” Alan said. “I’m joyous.”

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