Digital Rights Management - Part 2. By Karen Coyle

Usage Rights

You might think that once you have the file open you have surmounted the DRM controls, but in fact the controls over access to the file is only the first step in DRM. Once the file is open there are many more controls that can be applied, such as controls over whether you can print from the file, copy passages to the clipboard, or whether the file expires after some time period. If you read ebooks, you have probably made use of a program with these controls. We'll look at two examples of file protection: the Adobe Acrobat Reader, which can read protected or unprotected PDF files and is a commonly used format for ebooks, and the Microsoft Reader, an ebook reader that uses its own format and protection technology.

Adobe Acrobat

Adobe Acrobat has had digital protection since the 5.05 version of the Adobe Acrobat Ebook Reader. The 6.0 version of the Adobe Reader combines the capabilities of the Acrobat PDF reader and the ebook reader in a single software implementation. By opening a file and clicking on File/Document properties you can see the protections that exist for that file. In the screen shot below we see the rights statement for an unprotected PDF file opening with Acrobat version 6.0.

Adobe properties list, unprotected file

As you can see, it states that this file can be opened with any version of Acrobat and that it has no security applied to it. It states that printing is allowed, and "content copying" is allowed, meaning that you can highlight areas of the document to copy to the clipboard function of the computer. Even though the document is not protected, not all of the possible rights are allowed, possibly because of software limitations. For example, it isn't possible in this software to edit the document or to use it to add comments to the file. One important right that is granted is for accessibility for readers with special needs. This accessibility grant may mean that the content of the file can be read out loud by text to speech programs, or can be captured and rendered by programs that increase the size of the font on the screen.

Now we look at the same rights display for a file that does have protection:

Adobe properties list, protected file

Notice that some things have changed here. To begin with, it says that the security method is Adobe DRM. It also says that the file can only be opened in Acrobat 6.0 and later. Presumably that is because Acrobat 6.0 is able to provide the protection necessary. It also says that printing is not allowed. It's not just not allowed, it isn't possible. When you open the file in the Acrobat software there will be no print button, and no print command in the pull down menu. Content copying is also not allowed. This means that the software will not allow you to capture any part of the content to the clipboard; it has essentially disabled the clipboard function for this file. And content extraction for accessibility is also on the "not allowed" list, so presumably the software is able to block the use of text-to-speech software.

Microsoft Reader

Microsoft Reader is ebook reading software, and it is used to open files with the ".lit" extension. Like the Adobe Acrobat software, it has some DRM capabilities. Unlike Acrobat, you cannot easily see a list of the protection properties pertaining to an individual book, but there is a description of these functions in the Reader's help file.

Microsoft reader has three categories of works that correspond to levels of protection. These are described in the help file as:

The Sealed eBooks are only protected from tampering. This is a useful function because it guarantees that the file that you have received has not been modified since it was created. It also prevents you from modifying it, such as replacing the author's name with your own.

The inscribed eBooks have something like a digital book plate saying who is the owner of that copy. By linking the file to someone's name, it is assumed that the person will be more reluctant to distribute copies to friends or over the Internet since it can presumably be traced back to you. (The Palm Reader uses a similar kind of deterrent: the ebook file in the Palm Reader contains the name on the credit card that was used to purchase the ebook. To open the ebook the first time on your device, you must input the credit card number that was used to purchase the book. Both the name and the credit card number have been included in the file that was downloaded. Even if you don't mind having a file with your name on it circulating around the digital space, you are highly unlikely to provide your credit card number so that others can activate the book on their handheld devices.)

It is the Owner Exclusive eBooks that have true DRM protection. These are generally commercially published books that are sold through online bookstores. To open an Owner Exclusive book in Microsoft Reader you must first activate your computer. What does this mean? The Reader help file explains:

"Activation associates your Microsoft Passport account with the specific copy of Microsoft Reader on your computer. The activation process downloads a software module to your computerís memory unique to you and your computer. This software module also uses your Microsoft Passport account number and other information unique to your computer, to protect eBook titles against unauthorized copying."

As described in the section above on basic DRM technology, activation essentially creates a unique identification for your computer. The "other information unique to your computer" refers to a hardware identification of some kind. So the books that you purchase cannot be opened on someone else's computer, thus rendering any copying of this file pretty useless.

In addition to having this "anti-piracy" function, the Owner Exclusive book also has use restrictions that apply to the legitimate owner of the ebook. At this level of protection the ebook will not allow content to be copied to the clipboard, so no copy and paste from the text is possible. In addition, the text-to-speech capability that is built into Microsoft Reader for accessibility purposes is disabled. This latter appears to be at the request of publishers whose contracts do not include audio performance rights. It is also rumored that some technologists fear that the text-to-speech could be fed back into a voice recognition program, thus reproducing the written text.

When I search the Microsoft Reader help document for the word "print," this is what I get:

Print not found

The Microsoft Reader has no print button, no print command in its pull down menus, and no mention of print in its help file. This is true for all documents, not just those that are considered to be protected by DRM. So if you were to convert a public domain document, like a federal government publication that has no restrictions on use, into a Microsoft Reader document, you would not be able to print from it. This is fine as long as we have document readers that are compatible with the public domain, but the desire for secure reading could mean that public domain capabilities are not included in any available reader software in the future.

Even in a file with no digital rights management capabilities there are limitations, deliberate or not, that are not unlike the inconveniences of copying hard copy books. For example, the Microsoft Reader help explains that even where copying is permitted, you can only copy one page at a time. This is because there is only one page at a time presented on the screen so that's all that you can highlight at a given moment. In a book that is not Owner Exclusive you could in theory copy the entire book, one page at a time. The tedium of this would prevent many of us from doing so, and like a photocopy of a paper book the end result would be inferior because the clipboard captures the text from the ebook but not the formatting.

Screen shot: you can only copy one page

Next: Rights Expression Languages

©Karen Coyle, 2003
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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.