Tech Desk

From the Tech Desk

Digital Watermarks: A Protector for Publishers, or a Dangerous Road to Take?

Back in September, it was revealed that HarperCollins had partnered with a company called Digimarc to implement watermarking technology on its eBooks. The tech, called “Guardian Watermarking for Publishing,” is a fairly straightforward anti-theft, anti-piracy system. Essentially, when an eBook is purchased, the system automatically assigns that eBook a watermark that can be traced back to the person who bought it.

The watermark doesn’t store any personal information, but it can still be used by a publisher to identify the “owner” of an eBook, once that eBook has been posted somewhere online for free download. The Guardian system, meanwhile, scans the internet consistently, looking for pirated eBooks and reading their watermarks.

Once Guardian has identified the person linked to an eBook, it relays that information to the publisher. The publisher, in turn, has a few options of how to proceed. One option is to submit a request to the website hosting the eBook file that the content be removed due to copyright infringement. Another possibility, and the more relevant option given the existence of a watermark, is for the publisher to pursue legal action against the person who purchased the eBook (and who presumably also made it available to freely download on the internet).

On one hand, this is a much better form of anti-piracy protection than DRM (or Digital Rights Management), which actually restricts how buyers can use their eBooks. DRM prevents copying and makes file conversion essentially impossible. In other words, if you have DRM eBooks and decide to switch from an iPad to a Kindle (and from the epub format to the mobi format), you’re going to be out of luck for reading your old files on your new device. You will either have to carry around two devices in to have your full eBook library with you at all times, or you will have to re-buy your favorite books again. Neither course of action is suitable.

DRM is arguably the worst thing to come out of the digital revolution. Genuinely, DRM shows contempt for customers in a way that actually justifies piracy. That’s because DRM files are so incredibly difficult to use that they will inevitably cause headache for users. There’s a reason that Apple in 2009 killed DRM for the music files sold on iTunes. Previously, users had to deal with authorizing or de-authorizing computers and devices to play the music theyhad purchased. Not only did the system laugh in the face of customer convenience, but it also disrespected the entire concept of ownership. Similar negative words could be hurled at the DRM utilized by certain eBook publishers.

Watermarks are much more convenient. With this method of piracy protection, customers will be able to easily move files from one device to another, share files amongst a small group of friends or family, and maintain a comprehensive eBook library of favorites without having to worry about them becoming unusable once a device has outlived its lifespan. The problem of file conversions still needs to be addressed (let’s be honest: all stores, devices, and publishers should be using one standard eBook file type at this point), but beyond that, watermarks seem like a decent compromise for persevering usability, but still maintaining piracy protection.

Still, there’s a problem with the Guardian Watermark system. If and when publishers do start slapping customers with lawsuits for pirated content, any remaining good will toward the Big Six is going to evaporate in about 15 minutes, flat. In the music industry, record labels have tried virtually every variation of legal action to stop piracy. Suing pirates, shutting down websites, issuing warnings, etc. None of these efforts have helped to revitalize the lagging revenues of the industry, but they have turned the major record labels, as well as the RIAA (the Recording Industry Association of America), into widely hated corporate villains. If the major publishers start going after customers in similar fashion, things are probably going to get similarly ugly.

Interestingly, all of this could still be positive for independent publishers and self-published authors. Since smaller companies and independents would be a lot less likely to pay for watermarking or to pursue litigation against pirates, they would be championed as heroes of the industry—much like independent artists and indie record labels are respected today in the music world. Indeed, in music, the struggle with the big labels has actually helped to create a very vibrant, very niche independent music scene. A similar occurrence in publishing could bring more attention to independent publishers or authors, or could even help interesting or experimental content find a more substantial and engaged audience.

Granted, this is all hypothetical, and the major publishers could show much more tact in handling “pirates” than the major labels ever did. Still, keep an eye on watermarking technology and eBook piracy conversations in the coming months and years. As recent history has proven, piracy and the response against it have the potential to completely change an industry for corporate and independent players alike. 


Craig Manning is currently studying English and Music at Western Michigan University. In addition to writing for, he maintains a pair of entertainment blogs, interns at the Traverse City Business News, and writes for and his college newspaper. He welcomes comments or questions concerning his articles via email, at