This is not the first sentence of James Joyce’s modernist masterpiece Ulysses. But one day it could be. Maybe. Joyce’s book actually begins like this:
“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”
I changed just three words in that first version of Ulysses‘ opening, “stairhead”, “holding,” and “mirror,” but that might well be enough to catch a pirate, according to DRM researchers at Germany’s Darmstadt Technical University. As I have discussed previously, DRM, which stands for Digital Rights Management, is any form of software that protects the copyright of digital books. Some software prevents piracy, other software alerts those charged with stopping it.
SiDiM, the radical new DRM software being developed by the aforementioned researchers with support from the German government, would achieve the latter. By making subtle changes to a book’s text, punctuation, or formatting, SiDiM would effectively “watermark” a digital book, making that book unique and therefore identifiable to agencies tracking pirates.
Researchers maintain that this is a consumer friendly version of DRM because it wouldn’t prevent sharing a book between devices or tether it to a specific account, but the prospect of altering a book’s text, however imperceptible, makes my skin crawl. How would you know you are reading what the author intended? The process is said to be automated, so what’s the guarantee the changes are slight, or even imperceptible?
I am always curious as to how new technologies will change the way we write (did the telegraph shorten our sentences? what will the SMS do??) but this kind of software, which literally changes the text, seems comically dystopic. Certainly writers need protections if their works are to circulate digitally. Author Phillip Pullman recently pointed out how much money authors stand to lose if they aren’t compensated when their books are borrowed, and he makes a good case.
What sort of protections do we want as writers and what sort do we want as readers? There is surely a balance to be found, but my guess is that it will be less intrusive than the vision advanced by SiDiM.