Watermarking – The Answer to Digital Piracy?

You don’t have to go far to see a nice, heated discussion about copy protection. And you don’t have to go much further to hear just how discouraging the problem of piracy is. Dongles are evil and the only ones being punished by copy protection are the legitimate users…….you’ve heard it all before.

And it IS a problem. In fact, it’s one that takes up an uncomfortable amount of time from some development schedules as a developer fights to come up with something just strong enough to allow a healthy number of sales before the illegal users get ahold of it. And time after time, you hear about sales dropping off the moment a cracked version of their software comes out. It’s extremely disheartening.

Cinesamples, well-known developers of professional sample libraries, was able to successfully find not only WHO was responsible for one particular illegal distribution of their library, but also they were able to WIN the case against that person(who, ironically, is a sample developer of their own with a “no redistribution” policy). But how? Why don’t we hear of more success stories like this?

I think it’s because most devs either a) have no way of truly knowing who it was that distributed their software, and the websites involved are hidden behind layers of anonymous shackles, or b) they have just accepted the fact that their software will be cracked.

Regardless, there is something to be learned from this court case, and that is that you really can protect your products without hurting the paying user. With watermarking.

I can tell you, without revealing specifics, that these systems do exist and they do work as intended. I’ve seen it suggested by those trying to get around it that maybe they are just being faked out to scare people from illegally sharing their software. But I assure you, it works, and it’s real. So what exactly is it?

Watermarking in a few words

To put it as simple as possible, watermarking is the process of embedding hidden information on a file to either protect it, or to bind it to a particular user. In our case, the user’s information is embedded into the product files. Things like the user’s name, phone number, address and even payment method are placed into the hidden fibers of each file. This information is not able to be seen by just anyone, but rather only by the product’s creator who will have some sort of reader software that will reveal it.

The end result is that nobody wants to provide their version for the warez groups to distribute, as they would instantly be revealed by the developer. Most developers who use this type of protection require specific information that can’t be faked for proper payment, which makes it even tougher to fake the system.

The Benefits

While most software copy protection will inconvenience the user in SOME way, including the simple serial number or keyfile, watermarking is completely invisible to the end user, and doesn’t interfere with the user whatsoever. In fact, if the developer doesn’t tell them the watermark is there, they will never notice.

When a user has to install the software or library again, they don’t have to go through the developer, or ask for authorizations. Instead, they just use their original files. As long as it doesn’t get passed to somebody else, there is no downfall.

In addition to this, the benefit to the developer is that they can instantly detect who a file belongs to. If they find their file on a filesharing network, they can download the file, run it through the reader, and the answer is clear on who the file belongs to.

To make this better, the watermarking is designed to survive tampering. If the watermarking is on an audio file, it will survive through effect processing, slicing and rearranging, etc. So the user can’t alter the file and then pass it to their friends.

So with all these great things, what could hold a developer back?

The Down Side

In the past, watermarking wasn’t cheap. In fact, it was downright expensive. More developers are using this method of protection than ever now, so I’m guessing the price will go down as more options are made available. I don’t know the costs involved in creating such a system, or in licensing a third party system, but I’m told by more than one developer that it could certainly be lower.

Next, in many cases, the process is manual. There ARE automatic systems out there, but I believe they are proprietary and not available for licensing. So the developer has to have a support rep available to process orders for each customer individually, which creates a slight delay in order processing. Of course, this is not always the case.

Final Thoughts

I could go much further into this topic, but I think you get the idea. I have not mentioned specific developers or watermarking systems as I want to keep this as general as possible, and just let them do their thing without any further targeting. However, let me say this. Most every piece of software and library available has been released illegally somewhere. But I have a short list of products which have yet to see the light of day in the warez world, and guess what? They are ALL protected by watermarks, and this includes some products which have been available for sale for several years. Maybe somebody will beat the system some day and we’ll be back to square one. Maybe there will never be a perfect system. But at this time, I submit that this is the best way to go.