Can Custos use Bitcoins to sink ebook piracy?

Can Custos use Bitcoins to sink ebook piracy?

Move over DRM and watermarking: if this startup has its way, your ebooks could soon be protected by Bitcoin bounty hunters.

The pitch

Custos for eBooks is a new, reader-friendly way to protect ebooks against piracy. Based on a patent pending technology used to protect screener copies of movies, it turns pirates on each other by embedding hidden Bitcoin bounties within ebook files. These bounties can be claimed instantly from anywhere in the world by a network of “bounty hunters” thus enabling rapid detection of infringements without inconveniencing honest customers.

The team

Custos for eBooks comes from Custos Media Technologies, specialists in creating technology for the distribution, management and protection of "sensitive media". It's a division of London-based Erudition Digital, a company that sells digital publishing solutions, including a direct sales platform which won an Innovate UK challenge.

Erudition Digital's director is Ryan Morison, an entrepreneur who has been involved in digital publishing start-ups for over 15 years. In 2001 he developed an ePub-like online reading platform; in 2003 he founded Offline Digital, which developed an award-winning multi-channel content management solution before being bought out by emerging market media giant, Naspers in 2009. Morison then ran an in-house innovations team within Naspers for two years before moving to London and founding Erudition Digital.

What's the gap in the market? 

The most widely used current solution to ebook piracy, “hard DRM” or Digital Rights Management, is far from perfect.

"Besides being easily broken and therefore ineffective in many instances, hard DRM restricts legitimate use, thus inconveniencing and punishing honest customers," Morison explains. "It also limits the options publishers have for selling and distributing their ebooks, making them reliant on a few dominant retailers and thereby reducing competition and customer choice. For example, publishers attempting to sell direct-to-consumer end up hamstrung with a poor user experience because hard DRM requires a convoluted set of steps for customers to register and access their purchases. Why would a customer buy direct form a publisher (or from an independent eBook retailer) when there is so much additional effort involved?"

Alternatives to hard DRM which have less of an impact on the customer, such as watermarking and social DRM, also have limitations in that they are only effective once pirated ebooks are found. Pirated content typically circulates in closed social networks or the dark net before reaching a site where a web crawler can find it, so detecting infringements can be tough.

"We saw an opportunity to develop a solution that avoids the downsides of hard-DRM while providing a more robust detection mechanism and powerful deterrent to piracy than standard watermarking or social DRM," Morison says. "Custos for eBooks provides publishers with an alternative to hard DRM which in turn makes selling through additional channels (including direct to customer) viable. This opens up many exciting possibilities for publishers with regards to how they market and sell their ebooks. It’s also better for readers, giving them the freedom to enjoy their purchases unencumbered on the devices and reading applications of their choice."

Success so far

The team has just launched their first live commercial application of the system. "From a security perspective, we’ve run pilots with our bounty hunting network to test the efficacy of the detection mechanism and have experienced detections in under 45 seconds on social media platforms, social networks, closed university networks, the dark web and even in emails," Morison attests.

Biggest challenges?

Despite DRM's drawbracks, publishers are loathe to abandon a system they're familiar with, especially consdering they would have to re-negotiate author contracts to accommodate such a change. Giving publishers the confidence to make the change is Custos team's trickiest task.

"One possible approach may be to enable them to test the waters by piloting our solution on selected titles or a specific imprint," Morison suggests. "Some publishers have already experimented with dropping DRM altogether but we’re hoping that our solution provides a more palatable option for many others who want to drop DRM but still require some form of protection against piracy."

Ultimate ambition?

Morison hopes to see Custos become the standard alternative to hard DRM - and he believes that this would also be an enabler for a thriving and competitive ebook market. "It would see publishers being able to market and sell their ebooks in creative ways over many different channels to readers who are free to enjoy their purchases, unencumbered on devices and apps of their choice," he insists.

Advice to other publishing entrepreneurs?

"Being an entrepreneur is all about managing duality and contradictions," Morison admits. "For example, you have to be passionate about what you’re doing as if it was your baby, but also willing to consider that your baby might not be as wonderful as you think. You need to be able to be persistent in the face of rejection, but also open to listening to others and adjusting your course where appropriate.

"One way to manage this is to be sufficiently self-aware to know your own biases and when to discard feedback (negative or positive) or to act upon it. I’ve ended up in many scenarios where if I had listened to feedback, I would have missed out on an opportunity and many others where I would have made a major error if I had ignored feedback received. It’s a rollercoaster ride and the trick is being able to interpret, process and respond to feedback correctly on a case-by-case basis."