Earlier this summer, the German Booksellers Association announced a daft "watermarking" process for ebooks that would introduce random variations in the text as a means of uniquely identifying them. At the time, I pointed out that this was just silly: firstly, it's not hard to detect and vary the watermarks (just compare two different copies of the text using a 40-year-old program called "diff") and secondly, because the fact that a pirate site has a copy of a book with "your" watermark in it doesn't mean that you've done anything wrong. It's not illegal to lose your computer, be hacked, or give your hard-drive away.
What I totally failed to anticipate was that booksellers and publishers would use watermarking as a rubric for tracking and sharing information about everything that everyone is reading. In the Netherlands, ebook sellers have announced that they will retain full reading records on their customers for at least two years, and will share that information with an "anti-piracy" group called BREIN (a group that already has the power to order Dutch ISPs to censor the Internet, without due process or judicial oversight; and who, ironically, were caught ripping off musicians for their anti-piracy ads).
I am not often shocked by the insanity of anti-piracy efforts, but this one has me agog. As a former bookseller, I can't believe that people in the business of putting books into readers' hands would casually spy on their customers' reading habits, and, worse still, turn them over to a sleazy third party with a track-record of bullying, corruption, and censorship.
It's hard to imagine a less ethical business practice. Piracy (that is, "reading books the wrong way") pales by comparison alongside of it. If the Dutch booksellers had set out to build the case for piracy as the safest, most virtuous reading practice, they could have done no better.
The new digital distribution deal for eBook merchants will see them ‘watermark’ unique codes into the digital eBooks they sell which will identify a specific transaction number. These transaction numbers will be linked directly to a specific customer account.
So far the process isn’t much out of the ordinary, but the new deal will also bridge the missing link between random-looking transaction numbers in a digital file on the Internet and a real person’s identity.
The agreement will see vendors connected to the eBoekhuis platform share previously-private customer data directly with copyright holders and anti-piracy group BREIN. This means that should digital books turn up on BitTorrent networks or Usenet for example, with a minimum of fuss BREIN will be able to match the embedded watermarks with the customer who bought them.
According to the document seen by EReaders.nl, eBook vendors will be required to store customer transaction data and make it available to BREIN and rightsholders for a minimum of two years.