Copy-protect a book?
September 12, 2006 4:18 PM   Subscribe

A few years a book of mine was published by a well-known house. Now it is out of print. Last time I looked, a used copy cost $1,000 on

Despite such indications of continuing interest and demand, the original publisher does not want to reprint the book. The publisher's point is, it was a very expensive book to produce: hundreds of pages, hundreds of colour plates. I believe I may be able to regain the rights to the book and republish it myself. But I also balk at paying tens of thousands of dollars (maybe more) to print it. I would like to redesign it and offer it as a web download, for a modest but not entirely negligible sum, maybe $25.

My question is: assuming my book is offered as a pdf file (no other type springs to mind as offering both instant readability and unvarying design/formatting on all computers), is there a way to limit a purchaser's ability to make copies of the file? I want something like the existing copy protection systems for music. Put simply, I would like anyone who buys the digitised book to be unable to pass a digital copy on to anyone else (although I wouldn't limit their ability to print a hard copy).
posted by londongeezer to Technology (37 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
There is no foolproof way to protect a PDF, or, in fact, any digital file that is to be viewed or listened to, in such a way that it cannot be passed on. You can limit it through various forms of protection, DRM, and so forth, but if you release it as a PDF, it will be available on BitTorrent very soon after, regardless of how small the niche your market represents.

What you could do is to watermark the PDF in a different way for each buyer. This way, you will know who let your PDF get out into the wild.
posted by solid-one-love at 4:23 PM on September 12, 2006

Yes, PDFs allow fine-grained copy-protection so you can bar copying text out of it, opening a copied file (password protection), printing, looking at it cross-eyed, etc.
posted by adamrice at 4:24 PM on September 12, 2006

is there a way to limit a purchaser's ability to make copies of the file

Nope. I run into this all the time with websites trying to prevent me from saving fulltext PDF versions of medical journal articles.

There are many workarounds; one I've favored is printing the file. Then, when I get the Mac OS print dialog, I ask it to print to PDF. The new PDF file is equivalent to the old, but DRM-free, and I can save it or do whatever I wish with it.
posted by ikkyu2 at 4:26 PM on September 12, 2006

you can copy any file, no matter what format. it's all a matter of how much effort you want to put into it.

that being said, books as pdf are not all that unheard of. cory doctorow gives them away alltogether (while still selling hard copies via amazon, et all) and dan cederholm offers a chapter in form of a free pdf preview.

I think people will be fairly decent when it comes to downloading literature. of course there will be a number of folks who will share it but really, don't you want to be noticed? there is nothing better than word of mouth.
posted by krautland at 4:27 PM on September 12, 2006

Can you put DRM on it?


Does DRM work?


If people are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for your work, they must respect/love it to some degree. I suggest merely being up front and honest with your buyers: "If you buy, please do not copy and/or distribute this work, but if you know someone who is interested in the book, please send them to, and if they use the coupon code "HAPPYCUSTOMER5" they'll get $5 off." You could even create some sort of basic "affiliate" program, such that they get $1 (or something) for every sale that includes their name in some kind of "Referred By" field.
posted by Rock Steady at 4:39 PM on September 12, 2006

The other option is seeing if other publishers are interested in the book. Though color is still expensive, prices of other parts of the publishing process have gone down a LOT over the years.

And, since your book is already done, there would be very low editorial costs, low production costs, etc. The comp could just 'shoot' from a copy of the book.

We do this frequently at the publisher I work for, though we are a niche.

Depending on the subject of your book, this may be feasible.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 4:40 PM on September 12, 2006

I've said it before, my favorite PDF copy protection is Pragmatic Programmers. They produce a file for each order with the orderer's name at the bottom of each page. If John Smith orders the book, he gets a book with "Exclusively prepared for John Smith" at the bottom of every page.

It works with every PDF reader, and has no problems for reading on multiple computers, but encourages people to not share it on P2P.
posted by revgeorge at 5:13 PM on September 12, 2006

As someone who uses bittorrent quite a bit, let me offer this observation:

The more obscure/less technical/geeky the book, the less likelihood you'll have to worry about it being distributed without your permission. I really wouldn't worry about people putting it online for download, and if you generate each PDF with the buyer's name (usually this is done in the footer for each page) you're likely to be safe from copyright infringement.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:24 PM on September 12, 2006

Set things up so each PDF includes the name of the person you sold it to as a footer or something: "This Copy Created for XXXXXX." and make sure it has a link back to your website. That way 1) People will be disinclined to share the PDF with people they don't trust not to spread it widely. 2) any unpaid copying becomes promotion for you. (this isn't my idea, but I can't remember where I first read about it)

You could go further and sell the PDF for one price, like $25, and make a hard copy available via some high-end print-on-demand vendor.
posted by Good Brain at 5:25 PM on September 12, 2006

Still easy enough to remove with an editor (requiring a phone # would make that extra unappealing). A fun way of doing it is to put in the preface "This book has your customer ID/whatever stochastically embedded in the text of your copy. If you share this, I WILL hunt you down."
posted by devilsbrigade at 5:25 PM on September 12, 2006

As much as I hate the taint of print-on-demand, this is exactly the scenario that digital print on demand was originally touted as helping out.

Of course, it's only used by self-publishing housewives, but perhaps there's more reputable firms out there. I know plenty will sell through amazon, use an ISBN, etc.

Then again, if demand is great enough to warrant it and you can get the rights back, going with another publishing house will let you get away with no personal out-of-pocket.
posted by Gucky at 5:37 PM on September 12, 2006

So what's the book?
posted by dersins at 5:41 PM on September 12, 2006

Not really an answer to your question, but I've heard good things about They print on demand and you can offer your book in multiple formats (hardcover, paperback, pdf, etc). And it appears that they do color printing.

They only charge a fee for what you actually sell. No upfront cost you.

Disclaimer: I don't personally know anyone who has used lulu (my source of information is a fiction writer's podcast).
posted by jknecht at 5:44 PM on September 12, 2006

"hundreds of colour plates. "

A number of colors won't re-produce correctly on a monitor (and much less on a commodity color printer printing on standard paper). If part of the allure of the book is correct colors, or finely detailed illustrations, a PDF version might be disappointing. On the other hand, if the cost is 1/40 (=25/1000) of the professionally printed, maybe that's acceptable.
posted by orthogonality at 5:57 PM on September 12, 2006

As the others have said, PDF DRM is pretty easily circumvented and, once one un-DRMed copy hits P2P, you're screwed. The best solution I've seen is the "This copy was produced for John Smith, tel: 1234-56789, c/card: XXXX XXXX 1234 5678" footer on every page.
posted by blag at 6:04 PM on September 12, 2006

1. Check your contract. Any decent publisher will let the rights revert to the author after a book has been out of print for a certain time.

2. prices for out-of-print books bear little relation to what copies of the book are actually worth. I've seen one of my OOP titles listed at twenty times its cover price on Amazon; as an experiment I put up one of my own copies for half that price, and it didn't sell. It's possible that actually there's little demand for your book.
posted by Hogshead at 6:08 PM on September 12, 2006

I would also like to know what the name of the book is.
posted by grex at 6:16 PM on September 12, 2006

I know LuLu. A poetry journal I read, No Tell Motel, put out its print anthology, The Bedside Guide to No Tell Motel, via LuLu. The thing is beautiful - quality printing, cover design, page and inside layout. I was impressed that this was print on demand. My 2 cents.

Would also like to know the book!
posted by melixxa600 at 6:50 PM on September 12, 2006

we all want to know what the book is. tell us!
posted by sdn at 6:53 PM on September 12, 2006

Putting the buyer's CC number on there effectively makes it impossible to take the book out in public.
posted by adamrice at 7:07 PM on September 12, 2006

Unless you're expecting a ton of sales, which I suspect won't be the case with such a niche product, you could make a decent canary trap. Change a few words or punctuation here and there in each copy, and keep a record of what was changed. If one starts floating around on the internet, you can tell who distributed it by what changes were in that copy.
posted by Justinian at 7:14 PM on September 12, 2006

I produce “books” as original pdfs on CD (they have lots of video content, so they’re too big for downloading—I call them virtual workshops, not books any longer, since they’re not really printable), and I don’t protect them in any way, simply because it seems useless, as supported by the posts here. Still, I’ve never had any copying that I’m aware of, certainly none that has noticeably affected my sales.

I think this is because of its narrow niche appeal, and also the nature of the niche: home sewers, both male and female, who seem to be a particularly honorable and grateful bunch when they like the info. But I expect some folks are sharing them... I don’t mind; the profit margin is marvelous, as is the feeling of complete independence from a middle man. Only problem is marketing, of course.

A friend and colleague bought the rights back to his first book (for the same market) when it went OOP, and used copies were going for 3 figures. The publisher sent him the pdf it was printed from on a CD. He’s made far more from selling copies of that disk from his own web-site and at workshops than he ever did from the publisher’s efforts, and has gone on to create a half-dozen more books as original pdfs, with much success. He includes an OK-to-print-this-once ticket for the owner to show to Kinkos...
posted by dpcoffin at 7:18 PM on September 12, 2006

btw, I did a quick search at bit torrent for my stuff, not really knowing how to do that comprehensively. Didn’t find anything.
posted by dpcoffin at 7:22 PM on September 12, 2006

I don't know if this will be helpful, but:

Do you know which of the following is more true?

(1) Used copies of the book go for $1000 because the content is very useful or beautiful, and people would pay substantial sums for new copies.

(2) Used copies of the book go for $1000 because few copies were originally printed and it has become a collectible completely separate from the quality of its content, and the people buying used copies for $1000 would not pay $25 for a new copy.

It occurs to me that before you invest your time and money in a new version of the book, you should know whether there's demand for new books or only demand for old copies.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:23 PM on September 12, 2006

Xenophobe makes a very good point; that an old book is selling for a lot of money does not necessarily imply that there is enough demand to justify a large new print run.
posted by Justinian at 7:38 PM on September 12, 2006

dpcoffin: I found "On Making Pants" in about five seconds on an embroidery and sewing share site.
posted by solid-one-love at 8:19 PM on September 12, 2006

I do personally know someone who has used LuLu and loved it. It is a great way to offer your work to the public in a quality print format for a reasonable price (and yes, authors get a cut). Sorry, doesn't answer the question, but it's a data point and might be worth considering if you can get the file from the publisher.

And what's the book?
posted by fuzzbean at 8:37 PM on September 12, 2006

If part of the allure of the book is correct colors, or finely detailed illustrations, a PDF version might be disappointing.

That's not entirely accurate. When I did graphic design in another life, we would regularly export our InDesign files to PDF because you could specifically create CMYK or RGB output files. Mind you, a full page at 600 dpi will quickly balloon your document to mega-crazy file sizes if you're using TIFF instead of JPG image embedding. But the printed output will be fantabulous. "Hundreds of Color Plates" does make me worry, though, that it wouldn't fit on a single DVD.

This can actually be to your advantage, however. If you have to split the book over, say, 5 DVD's, it doesn't cost you that much, but all of a sudden makes distributing (that is, illegal distribution) extremely arduous. No one—and I mean no one—is going to want to put a 5 DVD set for a single book on a pirate bittorrent tracker.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:55 PM on September 12, 2006

Thank you everyone for feedback. There are useful ideas for me to consider here: personalising copies, or using print-on-demand. To answer ROU-Xenophobe, the main reason people want the book is the content. I believe they would still want it if the images were offered at lowish resolution (pdf) or lowish print quality (print on demand). To answer other requests: giving the title of the book would in all likelihood remove my anonymity on metafilter, so I hope you'll be understanding if I don't.
posted by londongeezer at 9:43 PM on September 12, 2006

I found "On Making Pants" in about five seconds on an embroidery and sewing share site.


So, where is this sewing share site, solid-one-love? And is there any way to track how often it’s been accessed?
posted by dpcoffin at 11:52 PM on September 12, 2006

There is a file format called .spdf. It is the same DRM tecnology that the Harvard Business School uses to protect their articles from unauthorized uses. Check out this link for more information about the product:
posted by speedoavenger at 1:11 AM on September 13, 2006

You could always ask the publisher if they'd be interested in producing a second edition, with updated material and such. At least that would get the book out there. Or you could shop it around to a new publisher if the rights have reverted back to you.
posted by cass at 6:36 AM on September 14, 2006

I would just repeat that if the book is going for $1000 on amazon you need to check how many copies are offered for sale. Used book sellers on amazon will routinely list a book for a preposterous markup if they have the only copy because they know that there might be one person or organization that must have it no matter the price and all they have to do is keep a book on the shelf, no overhead. They do this no matter what the book is or what its actual value is, all that matters is that they have the only one for sale. If you look at online booksellers forums, you see people reccomending this practice all the time.

If I could reccomend against DRM because it provides a serious barrier to entry and retrival and then you are in two businesses, selling your book and supporting its copy protection. If the book is rare and useful enough, look into a short run print job, which might cost more per book but physical existance is the ultimate copy protection. Also consider the drm free model and count on good will and scruples, with perhaps a watermark of the buyers name as insurance. DRM is lame (this is not just Cory Doctorow propaganda, I've sold ebooks and bought ebooks and they are a royal pain in the ass.)
posted by Divine_Wino at 6:37 AM on September 14, 2006

If you're OK distributing CDs of the book the CD-RX format used by fricken' Hexalock appears to be pretty secure (an hours googling around last week didn't reveal a generic crack) but is only readable on Windows.

Civil_Disobedient writes "That's not entirely accurate. When I did graphic design in another life, we would regularly export our InDesign files to PDF because you could specifically create CMYK or RGB output files. Mind you, a full page at 600 dpi will quickly balloon your document to mega-crazy file sizes if you're using TIFF instead of JPG image embedding. But the printed output will be fantabulous. 'Hundreds of Color Plates' does make me worry, though, that it wouldn't fit on a single DVD."

You clipped off the important caveat :

orthogonality writes "A number of colors won't re-produce correctly on a monitor (and much less on a commodity color printer printing on standard paper). If part of the allure of the book is correct colors, or finely detailed illustrations, a PDF version might be disappointing. "

How good is the printer? And you aren't going to see the vibrancy and dynamic range of a good print on any monitor.
posted by Mitheral at 7:27 AM on September 14, 2006

Frankly, I'd go with LuLu or Blurb over a PDF. I've purchased my fair share of PDFs and the first thing I do is print them and have 'em bound. As for DRM, forget it. Nearly every "protected" pdf I've encountered opened just fine with GSView, where I was able to copy to my hearts content.

Btw, Blurb is probably aimed right at you. They offer a layout program that's pretty spiffy. Granted, it's no Quark but it is really good. You put all your stuff in there, hit the button and you're done. And they'll do longer runs. I'm going to publish a special interest photography book (one of their specific specialties) sometime next year thru Blurb.
posted by jdfan at 7:32 AM on September 14, 2006

Don't put too much stock in the fact that it's listed for $1000 on amazon. Case in point, something I was lookin at buying a copy of earlier today:

The O'Reilly Perl CD Bookshelf.

The last two listings are for more than it costs new and it's still in print. And there's half a dozen units for sale at less than 1/2 the new price.

Putting that aside, a thing is not worth what someone is asking for it, it's worth what people actually pay. If you really want to gauge interest why don't you put one of your own copies (I'm assuming you have a few) on there at standard new price or a few bucks higher?

I don't recommend it but if you're willing to jerk someone's chain you can always list it and cancel the sale - I have had that happen to me as a buyer a few times so clearly there's some mechanism. It's annoying to the buyer but doable as a research tool.
posted by phearlez at 1:25 PM on September 14, 2006

I think the real issue here is going to be getting the rights to reproduce it from the original publisher. That contract you signed might be pretty restrictive, making all of this conversation interesting but futile.
posted by rachelpapers at 6:58 AM on September 15, 2006

« Older HDMI out -> dual-link DVI in. Success stories?   |   Can I get my firewire drive on a network Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.