It’s now safer to pirate ebooks than purchase them yourself

Kindle ebook pirate
Image by Jonathan Auxier of

Legally purchasing an ebook may soon make you responsible for anything that happens to it. Thanks to a new digital distribution agreement publishers are making with ebook platforms, all ebooks may soon come with a digital watermark that’s specifically linked to a person’s account, so if a copy of that book somehow ends up on a pirating or torrent website, they know who to blame. So yes, even if you don’t pirate a copyrighted book yourself, if something you buy somehow ends up being given away to others, you could be punished.

If you’re having a hard time understanding the implications of this, think of an ebook like a real book, just for a second. Imagine if someone stole your book on the subway and ended up giving it to someone else. Now imagine that the police, or the publisher of that book, found that stolen copy and saw that it had “owned by [Insert Your Name Here], purchased at Barnes & Noble” in the cover. Not a problem, right? Now imagine Barnes & Noble decided not to let you buy any more books because your copy was distributed illegally. Not cool, right? Well if anyone gets into your Kindle or ebook library and takes some books, you’ll be the one who takes the blame. If you had stolen the book in the first place, you’d be better off, and still welcome in Barnes & Noble.

This gives ebook pirates incentive to hack into other people’s accounts and punishes the victims.

The campaign is nowhere near as harsh as the actions taken by the RIAA in the last decade, which included suing individuals who were found sharing .MP3 music files on peer-to-peer (p2p) networks like Napster and Kazaa, but it’s a slap in the face to anyone who is already doing the right thing and paying for ebooks. TorrentFreak reports that the watermark data will be kept for a “minimum of two years” and will link a specific transaction (date, time, amount) to an exact account holder (you), so anytime a pirated book shows up online, it can be tracked directly to your doorstep. The rule won’t just affect new purchases either. All purchases made in the past are pulled in as well.

It appears that this move is initially only targeting Dutch content publishers, but it’s not far off from coming to Western shores. The anti-piracy agency named BREIN, which is a Dutch acronym that roughly translates to “Protection of the Rights of the Entertainment Industry of the Netherlands,” will have access to all of the digital transaction records of all ebook purchases, data that used to be private.

According to Good E-Reader, Dutch ebook sellers aren’t all happy about it the new rules, which force them to hand over customer data.

“We got a new contract that states that we must directly give information about the buyer if some anti-piracy agency (BREIN) finds an e-book file online,” said Kurt Roeckx, who operates the Dutch ebook store E-webshops. “We must keep the information about the buyer for minimum of 2 years and maximum of 5 years. And if we don’t sign the contract we won’t be allowed to sell e-books with watermark anymore.”

This is one of the first wide-scale adoptions of a digital watermarking system that’s tightly tied to specific customer data. The first big experiment of this idea was JK Rowling’s Pottermore site, which controls the sale of Harry Potter ebooks. Pottermore allows you to download an ebook purchase eight times, but for personal use only. You are allowed to share it with someone under 18, but no one over. And if your Harry Potter ebooks somehow end up on a torrent-sharing site, you could be banned, or face other penalties. We don’t know of any lawsuits filed against ebook owners, though.

On the Pottermore site, it states that, “we reserve the right to suspend and/or terminate the accounts of users who we determine are repeat infringers.”

Currently, most ebooks sold in the United States are under extremely strict DRM (digital rights management) formats set by platforms like the Amazon Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook. Under the current system, you can’t really take a Kindle book off of a Kindle because you don’t actually own the ebook. Instead, you simply pay for the rights to use the ebook, which will only work in its respective proprietary app, Kindle device, or website. It won’t work outside of Amazon’s book readers.

If publishers in the United States move to this new Dutch/Pottermore sales model of having open, but watermarked files, users will be able to use their ebooks in a variety of reader apps, or share the file with a friend. If one of your watermarked ebooks somehow lands on The Pirate Bay, however, you’ll bear the consequences.

For some, this new open-but-risky watermark system may sound fine. But the bottom line is, such a system shares book purchasers’ information with a third-party agency and gives ebook pirates the incentive to hack into other people’s accounts to obtain safe-to-pirate books. Worse, if your books are pirated online, you’re the one punished.

I don’t want to be blamed for what happens to a digital book I loan to a friend or is confiscated from my computer. Do you?

(Note: I should thank a Reddit user for a link to this issue and inspiration for the headline.)


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