Social DRM: It’s About Equal Access for All

By Benetech, posted on

This post originally appeared as a guest Beneblog by Gerardo Capiel, Benetech’s VP, Engineering.

One of the highlights of my meeting circuit each year is the O’Reilly Tools of Change conference in New York City. There is no better place to engage with colleagues about new technologies, changing business models, fresh ideas, and shared standards. Next month, I will be heading to TOC a couple of days early in order to participate in a W3C Workshop on eBooks and the Open Web Platform, where I will be talking about Social DRM (Digital Rights Management). What is it and why is it important?

As followers of this blog know, Benetech’s largest social enterprise is the Bookshare online library for people with print disabilities. Our commitment is to provide access to books for those who are unable to read a traditional print format and to do so without harming the economic interests of authors and publishers. You can read much more about this in Jim Fruchterman’s blog post, “Upholding the Social Bargain: Bookshare and Copyright Compliance.”

The Problem with Traditional DRM
Traditional “strong” Digital Rights Management (DRM) restrictions have traditionally been the most common way to control access to online books. However, strong DRM turns out to be an impediment to the commercial distribution of accessible ebooks. It turns out that traditional DRM mechanisms can’t tell the difference between access for the purpose of making an illegal copy and access for the purpose of sending the text to a braille notetaker/display or a voice synthesizer program that will read the text aloud. As a result, strong DRM has the unintended effect of preventing people with disabilities from reading the text that they are entitled to. We at Benetech are therefore a proponent of “social” DRM formats that allow interoperability with assistive technology (AT) devices and software.

Social DRM
We satisfy DRM requirements by employing a Seven-Point Digital Rights Management Plan. This plan includes using such techniques as:

  • Watermarking – Marking an ebook as being from our Bookshare library.
  • Fingerprinting – Embedding the user’s name in plaintext in the downloaded ebook file and hiding the user ID information invisibly inside the main body of the book.
  • Encryption – Delivery through secure/encrypted channels.
  • Monitoring – A security program monitors all transactions and automatically limits any user whose account downloads more than a fixed number of titles in a given month (typically 100 titles). In addition, Bookshare regularly searches the web for illegal copies of content originating from Bookshare user downloads and suspends the account of users found to have been the source of such content, as well as issuing take-down notices to the websites hosting such content.

When users join Bookshare we also make it clear in the agreements they sign that access to these books is a privilege and that bad behavior could imperil this access in the future. With 1.3 million ebooks being downloaded per year using the social DRM scheme (fingerprinting only, no digital locks), we see only about 10 instances annually of unauthorized copies available on the web. In almost all of those cases, the ebooks still have the name of our user in plain text in the file. On investigation, we find that most of these cases have to do with users who have inadvertently violated our terms by not understanding the technology. However, in a few cases, we have terminated access rights because there was evidence of clear intent to violate our commitment to restrict access to people with bona fide print disabilities.

“Born Accessible” at TOC
If you are interested in learning more about the future of online book publishing, don’t miss the session entitled Born Accessible: An up-to-the-minute update on the tools, standards, techniques and developments that support ‘Inclusive Publishing’ practices. Moderated by Betsy Beaumon (Benetech) with panelists Tim Coates (Bilbary), Larry Goldberg (NCAM at WGBH) and George Kerscher (DAISY Consortium and IDPF), we’ll hear about a new distribution model known as “Bookaccess” that will allow the sale of accessible content to a broad segment of new customers. See you there!