Making a document harder to distribute
August 17, 2018 4:47 AM   Subscribe

Need to balance my company's ultra-paranoia about their IP against the need to distribute and share documents to a large audience.

My company produces educational materials - curriculum, lesson plans, PPT files for lessons, stuff like that. These are our main products, in addition to training and educational management in support of our curricula.

It NEEDS to be shared. If it cannot get into the hands of the teachers who are to use it, it is useless.

I WOULD LIKE it to be able to be shared electronically. Easier to publish and update.

If we were to set up some online form of file sharing, what options could make the materials a little less easy to be stolen and widely distributed outside the client network?

I know, this is kind of a stupid question! And we cannot put some kind of cumbersome DRM scheme into the files... well I mean, we could, but past experience tells me this would bring a whole bunch of other hassles, acting as tech support for legit clients who cannot get access...

In some ways I really just want to placate my bosses and let them think their IP as "safe"... I was thinking that creating PDF files of the docs which are just full page photos, to avoid easily getting the text into electronic format? What about color schemes that make photocopying harder? Or is that now an obsolete idea given current levels of technology?

I would really like to avoid what my bosses are leaning towards, which is distribution by physical hard copy only... we are producing stuff that will ideally be revised and updated very frequently.

Sorry I know there are a bunch of different rambling questions here.

Maybe the larger and better question is:

Should I think about this whole concept differently?
Is there some way to make the case about IP such that my bosses will change their perspective?
Is there some weird magic trick that will make this whole issue go away?

This is in China.
posted by Meatbomb to Work & Money (17 answers total)
Well, regardless of how secure the central storage location is, if what you're giving people are unprotected PDF files it will be effortless for them to re-distribute them however they wish. You can make them images full of text (although that will make your files needlessly huge, render them less usable for legit users as they won't be able to adjust the display size, and break them entirely for anybody who doesn't have good vision) but they can still just copy, share, repost, rehost, print, photocopy, screenshot, etc. those PDFs with ease. All you'd be stopping is the kinda unusual case where someone shares a PDF by copying chunks of its text into a Word doc or something, rather than just giving people the file.

Updating and redistributing these materials as hard copies only would be expensive, cumbersome, and make them less useful to your users. I'm sure you know that though.

I do seem to recall having to deal with (I won't be so kind as to say "using") electronic textbooks in university that were some kind of proprietary format that required a special reader program or which could only be read on a special website that required a login, and which would not be copyable without screenshotting every page individually. (A clever user could make a script to automate that, but it would take a bit of work.) They were uniformly awful to use and I hated them, but that might be a compromise that your bosses could accept.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:05 AM on August 17, 2018 [3 favorites]

Have those who will get the documents fill out a form identifying themselves and their right to have a copy. Then have their identifying information added to the pdf in various places. (I've seen this done as a footer on every page!)
Then give them a one time link to download from. This way if anyone redistributes, they'll have to remove their info or everyone will know who did it.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:11 AM on August 17, 2018 [8 favorites]

Could the “revise and update very frequently” part be where the value in your service is? The company I work for does business in China, and it’s basically taken for granted that stuff will get reproduced and sold without our consent. The business model then becomes providing a steady stream of improvement, that non-customers don’t have timely access to. And of course support, which may not apply in your case.
posted by Jobst at 5:11 AM on August 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

I’m fairly certain that the PDF format now includes all sorts of “features” o support exactly this type of IP concern. My direct experience is with building codes which require user authentication to open and prevent cut and paste in conforming browsers. This is at least as effective at making me laboriously retype code references as the hard copy alternative where I occasionally scan and send a reference that way.
It is also routine on pdf purchasing sites to embed unique identifiers into documents. I doubt that those have a real use unless you sincerely intend to track down and address purchasers who can redistribute.
posted by meinvt at 5:13 AM on August 17, 2018

I have worked on the other side of this, both as an educator implementing in a classroom setting, and more recently as a technical assistance and training provider at a regional level working with the classroom educators and school administrators. I've worked with both physical (book/workbook/poster) resources and electronic ones.

There are probably some things your company can do to protect IP with electronic dissemination, but I suspect your company is going to need that perspective change. There are so many ways to use resources without paying, and that's not ever going to change. It's true of physical media and it's true of digital. It's just cost of doing business, and they need to account for that in their pricing and setup. I have worked with both profit-focused curriculum developers and nonprofit ones, and we ended up using the latter because the product was just as good and hugely cheaper.

For example, a nonprofit curriculum would cost, say $65 for the teacher's edition and maybe $10/student workbook. (Physical or electronic/online). Compare that with $2000/teacher materials for the profit-oriented company.

• Physical media costs more to produce, disseminate, and update. It's more cost effective, period.
• Regular updates make the product more desirable and reflects well on the company. Lack of updates will position the product as less desirable.
posted by Stewriffic at 5:18 AM on August 17, 2018 [4 favorites]

Another idea is to look into asynchronous, online product for the students and license that access. Only works if your customers have internet, natch.
posted by Stewriffic at 5:20 AM on August 17, 2018

Great points by Stewriffic. The way this was "solved" for the entertainment industry was to make it easier to buy the legit product (lower cost, easy access via iTunes, Netflix, etc) than it was to pirate illegally.

If I were trying to do this in your industry, I would promote the updatedness heavily - have prominent version numbers or other time labels. Something like "Business Basics 3.8" with a new "point release" coming out every couple of months, or seasonal titles like "Fall 2018 Basket Weaving". Slap those numbers/labels on every page/image so that any user knows if they are using an out of date product.

You might also distribute the "main" product in a very accessible way, but have certain supplemental materials behind login-based websites. Quizzes, videos, customizable completion certificates or other rewards, etc. Stuff that people will want, but aren't as easy to share digitally.

And yeah, drop the price such that your product is an order of magnitude less than your competitors.
posted by Rock Steady at 5:28 AM on August 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

Also, have the company up their TA and training game. Offer different levels for different budgets. If someone has fat-cat $$$ to spend or are used to paying $2000/per, by all means have a package for them. But if you're working with a rural school where textbooks are the last thing added to the budget and the first thing cut, you're going to need to make it doable for them. So then when they do get an unexpected windfall, yay.

I know this is a US perspective I am offering, but another thing these companies here do is provide continuing education credits for the teachers. If there's something analogous in China, consider that.
posted by Stewriffic at 5:35 AM on August 17, 2018

All excellent points Stewriffic thanks for your perspective.

I am from a training background and have always been a little dismissive about "products" but now that I am producing them as our company main $$$ maker...

I try to tell them "the documents are useless without the training in how to implement them effectively"... and I still believe that... the problem is that in China people are always looking to cheap out, so if they can get your docs and pass on spending $$$ for the teacher training, they feel like they have "won" and saved money.

It is tough to change the minds of a huge culture.
posted by Meatbomb at 5:54 AM on August 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

Rock Steady these are also good ideas, I would favourite your stuff if I had access to that API from behind this Great Firewall!
posted by Meatbomb at 5:55 AM on August 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

the problem is that in China people are always looking to cheap out, so if they can get your docs and pass on spending $$$ for the teacher training, they feel like they have "won" and saved money.

Yeah, it's not too different here. And I'm not actually convinced most teachers need huge amounts of training to implement a well-developed curriculum. Once you go through a few of them, it's pretty easy to navigate another. What I have found effective is tailoring trainings to support teaching the subject well and tying those to the outcomes that the schools do value.
posted by Stewriffic at 6:13 AM on August 17, 2018

Unrelated industry, but I worked for a company that went with the easier access route and then also hired a guy to track down and destroy as many cheaters as possible. Kinda evil, but it worked (by destroy I mean things like lawsuits, actively getting people fired from their jobs, etc.). Sort of a carrot-vs-spiked-stick solution. They didn't publicize that guy, but word got around quietly.
posted by aramaic at 6:50 AM on August 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

Stewriffic not to get too chatty, but we are dealing with traditional Chinese teachers and we are designing student centered STEM curriculum with heavy emphasis on critical thinking... so in this case they very much do need training, at least initially, to get the basic concepts...
posted by Meatbomb at 6:50 AM on August 17, 2018

I think we are actually in agreement based on that update, and I am sure I didn't do a great job explaining what I meant. If it's needed it's needed. In my situation, it wasn't critical.

Point being, maybe the path to convincing your company lies in presenting them with new revenue streams that your customers want to pay for. Whatever those may be.

Best of luck.
posted by Stewriffic at 8:11 AM on August 17, 2018

If it's tied to live training events explain that the batch of materials is customized with a hidden code. That there will be a significant discount available to everyone in the class *until* a copy is found pirated.
posted by sammyo at 9:13 AM on August 17, 2018

JSTOR and the like sometimes give you PDFs of journal articles that have information about the downloader attached. "Downloaded via the University of Antarctica at 4:32pm on March 14, 2017" etc. Presumably this is so that if someone just puts this up on the web or whatever, they can figure out who it was (or so that people think they can and don't put it on the web). This info is usually written sideways on each page of the pdf. You could find a way to do something like that with client numbers? School name? etc.?
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 7:36 PM on August 17, 2018

I downloaded a pattern (that came as a pdf) and each page of the 52-page pdf had my email on it (e.g. “this pattern printed for leahwrenn”). It at least would discourage me from posting it online.
posted by leahwrenn at 7:33 PM on August 18, 2018

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