Removing DRM From Aaron Swartz’s EBook

After his death, Aaron Swartz became one of the Internet’s most famous defenders of the free exchange of information, one of the most polarizing figures on the topic of intellectual property, and the most famous person that still held on to the ideals the Internet was founded on. Aaron was against DRM, fought for the users, and encouraged open access to information.

Early this year, Verso Books published the collected writings of Aaron Swartz. This eBook, according to Verso, contains ‘social DRM’, a watermarking technology that Verso estimates will, “contribute £200,000 to the publisher’s revenue in its first year.” This watermarking technology embeds uniquely identifiable personal information into individual copies of eBooks.

With a heavy sigh, you realize you do not live in the best of all possible worlds.

The Institute for Biblio-Immunology had a similar reaction to Verso Books’ watermarking technology applied to the collected writings of Aaron Swartz. In a communique released late last weekend, they cracked this watermarking scheme and released the code to remove this ‘social DRM’ from ePub files.

The watermarking technology in Aaron Swartz’s eBook comes courtesy of BooXtream, a security solution where every eBook sold is unique using advanced watermarking and personalization features. “A publication that has been BooXtreamed can be traced back to the shop and even the individual customer,” the BooXtream website claims, and stands in complete opposition to all of Aaron Swartz’s beliefs.

After analyzing several digital copies of Aaron Swartz’s eBook, the Institute for Biblio-Immunology is confident they have a tool that removes BooXtrem’s watermarks in EPUB eBooks. Several watermarks were found, including the very visible – Ex Libris images, disclaimer page watermarks, and footer watermarks – and the very hidden, including image metadata, filename watermarks, and timestamp fingerprints.

While the Institute believes this tool can be used to de-BooXtream all currently available ‘social DRM’ed’ eBooks, they do expect the watermarking techniques will be quickly modified. This communique from the Institute of Biblio-Immunology merely provides the background of what BooXtream does, not the prescription for the disease of ‘social DRM’. These techniques can be applied to further social DRM’ed eBooks, which, we think, is what Aaron would have done.

34 thoughts on “Removing DRM From Aaron Swartz’s EBook

      1. One should also be able to read a book without any stupid proprietary code. Every document I create is written up in either plain text, or standard HTML4 and Bitmaps if I need more than just basic ASCII art to demonstrate my point.

        I hate how everyone has to keep re-inventing the wheel when it comes to displaying simple text. Especially when the resulting files become massive piles of binary data rather than just simple text. I don’t care about the file size, just that in a few years that file may become completely unreadable and useless.

        I have a copy of an encyclopedia on a CD sitting on my desk that is completely unreadable, not because of DRM, but because it uses some weird file encoding that nothing seems to be able to read properly anymore. How much knowledge will be lost once ePubs fall out of fashion?

    1. I agree with ejonesss, its an identifier, which is the best solution to current DRM heavy media, give people DRM free files when they buy, just watermark them so you know who released it into the wild when it gets added to a torrent…

      Reduce piracy, increase revenue, and you can stop going after the average downloader just those who release the files…

    2. Watermarked ebooks means that you need to go to police if you lose your reader. The finder could upload to books somewhere – and then the content mafia will hunt you.

  1. At least this one has some cleverness to it. Many ebook watermarking is pretty trivial to defeat. One from a famous online gaming book seller is defeated by using an open source PDF toolkit and doing a simple PDF-PDF conversion with a search and replace that utterly scrubs the watermarking out.

    Their prices are so low that they combat piracy that way, but the watermarking that many tout as “secure” is absolutely far from it.

    1. For anyone considering clicking on the above user’s linked username, don’t. Unless you like seeing 3 men having sexual relations. Which I don’t personally mind, but I figure lots of other people may not appreciate it as much as I.

      Oh and yes, I reported you.

  2. Is there any valid reason to want to remove this kind of watermarking when it in no way blocks the use of the file in any format / device you may want?

    This is purely inserting identifying information into your copy of the completely unlocked digital file. They are distributing some authors work, which you have paid for, and they are letting you use it as you please. If I want to loan a book to a friend in real life, I can give them the same water marked file, nothing is preventing me from doing so.

    Does this now entitle you to distribute it to the local warez board for everyone to have access to? I can’t in good conscious condone sharing out someones work like that, and unless I am missing something, that is all this kind of tool is good for.

    1. If I give or sell you a printed book and you give/sell it to someone else and so on nobody can look at it and reconstruct the fact that it was I who originally purchased it at such and such book store who purchased it directly from the publisher.

      If you pay real money for a digital item you should all the rights you get when you pay for any other item. This includes the right to be forgotten after you have sold it to someone else.

      Of course.. this all assumes that nobody along the line keeps a copy for themselves as they give or sell it away.

      1. Here I would agree with you, if you pay real money for a digital item you should then be able to be forgotten after you have sold it to someone else. The majority of people using this tool I feel aren’t going to be using it in this manner — feel this kind of watermarking is a much better solution from publishers over the device/locked activation required server verifying type DRM solutions. The kind where I don’t even know if the company will be around in X years.

        I do have the choice NOT to purchase these restrictive formats, I’ve never purchased any goods requiring the aforementioned phone home DRM. Would I get one of these watermarked jobs tho? I’d think so, and I wouldn’t have a problem doing so as long as I was aware of that restricting/watermarking.

        I suppose by the same line of reasoning, a purchased piece of software that comes with a license code which unlocks the software, should be cracked/nulled out, and the “fixed” piece of software now resold? The EULA of these probably disclose these as being a non-transferable license, licensed only to the original licensee — and while I may not agree with it I’m certain VersoBooks includes some similar kind of provision in their ebook distribution licenses.

    1. I wonder what the copyright status of Aaron Swartz’s writings were before and after his death? How did verso acquire the rights? Through the family members? Seized during the investigation & later sold? Those works in the public domain or under copyleft licenses can not be the legal basis for copyright infringement? The whole ordeal reeks of subtext and (continued) setting of examples…

  3. Swartz was mentally ill and made some very stupid and unnecessary choices that were self defeating. Almost as stupid as this story given there are multiple versions of the book on the web free for anyone to read and have been for at least several months.


    I feel so sorry for his family, killing yourself is a brutal thing to inflict on people who love you and invested so much of their lives in creating you. Especially when they know how pointless it was, given he could have easily disappeared and taken up a new life anonymously continuing his work via the internet.

    1. “Almost as stupid as this story given there are multiple versions of the book on the web free for anyone to read and have been for at least several months.”

      I’m not sure if you’re trolling or if you’re completely missing the point.
      It’s about the free spread of information without repercussions from greedy corporations not this one book. This isn’t DRM in the traditional sense it doesn’t stop anyone from spreading the book just makes it much easier for the publisher to sue those who do.

      “This eBook, according to Verso, contains ‘social DRM’, a watermarking technology that Verso estimates will, “contribute £200,000 to the publisher’s revenue in its first year.” This watermarking technology embeds uniquely identifiable personal information into individual copies of eBooks”

      According to their own statement the only way this can contribute to their profits is by suing random people since it’s not stopping the spread of these books. Considering what happened to Aaron that seems pretty fucked, no?

      1. Certainly the legal “case” against him looks completely trumped up. They were really out to fuck him over. People petitioned to have the prosecution and others fired, afterward. The rich shouldn’t be allowed to use the law as a weapon to fuck over whoever they want. There’s far too many bad laws like that. The ignorance that juries and the public generally have, I think makes court justice unjust, in many cases, it’s not doing what it’s intended for. It’s not serving the people. In lots of countries, USA particularly but the UK, certainly I know of someone who’s been unjustly imprisoned because the judge had a personal grudge against them. I could tell the story but it involves a friend who doesn’t want it sharing.

    2. Regardless of why he committed suicide, what you say is abso-fucking-lutely wrong and selfish. I hear the argument all the time, “suicide is bad because you hurt the people you care about, shame on you”. Well I’m sorry, I don’t remember you people owning my life, even if you initially created it, mom and dad or whoever. One’s life is just that, one’s own life. I may choose to do with it as I wish, so long as I don’t harm others in the process, no one should stop me from choosing what to do with my own damned life.

      Now I probably sound like I’m about to do myself in (which I’m not), but I’m honestly only saying this because I’ve personally been suicidally depressed for many years, and when I hear shit like that it makes my blood boil. Am I hurting my family members by ending my own life? Absolutely. Do I have to care and cater to everything they think and want? Fuck no, it’s my life to live. If I think it’s not worth living anymore, then it’s not because I’m “mentally unstable”. It’s because this world is way too fucking much to bear, and I’d like to take a very long, permanent vacation from it all.

      This man for whatever reason decided his life wasn’t worth living, and I believe we should respect his decision to do so, whether it was a “bad idea” or not. So, please buddy, shut your fucking trap before spouting further selfish nonsense.

      P.S. No I don’t plan on killing myself, I just felt like personal experience has some relevance here.

      1. Dude, the world’s a terrible, shit, and depressing place, if you’ve any brains at all enough to notice. There’s good things too but overall I wouldn’t recommend life as an experience.

        But it does hurt terribly your loved ones. Inflicts psychological damage that can last a lifetime. Like abuse can. Someone close to me made a pathetic gesture at suicide, not really serious, to get the attention of some arsehole. At the time I helped, was sympathetic, but didn’t tell this person how furious I was after.

        Sure that’s different to genuine suicide but some of the feelings are the same.

        After pondering, I’ve figured I’m gonna die soon enough anyway. 14 billion years without a hint of me, 70 or 80 of life, then another almost-infinity afterward. May as well look around a bit while you’re here. Bit disappointing I was born to live during the Stupid Ages. Which is all of history so far. I want a Star Trek TNG-style Enlightenment! Post-scarcity where some fucking grown-ups are running things for a change.

        The IQ bell curve, what a pisser!

        1. I agree with you entirely, and you’re absolutely right about people who fein suicide, that’s a terrible thing to joke/lie about, especially around people who care about you. My one moral (as stated above) is “do no harm to others”, so faking something like that for your own benefit is absolutely unforgivable.

          At the same time, I do wish that we would do more for people intent on suicide, if just to give them a chance to think it over. I hate how it’s a crime to threaten/attempt suicide, we should instead be asking ourselves what we could do for these people before they try it, not once they’ve already made up their minds!

          Btw, TNG is exactly the future I’ve always hoped for as well! “Make it so, Number One!”

          1. It wasn’t fake, was a genuine paracetamol overdose. The person just didn’t want to die. I’m in a taxi to hospital with someone close to me, worried sick about liver damage and them dying, and they’re on their phone to this dickhead asking for dickhead to come see them.

            The person and dickhead were in a bad romantic relationship, but person was young and dickhead much older, and already had a wife and a girlfriend. Person was third in that. And still dickhead cheated on all three of them, if the idea of fidelity even makes any sense at that point. So fucked-up all round, but dickhead really inexcusably should have known, and acted, better. Dickhead was a nightclub bouncer, if that helps understand the situation, and I think it does.

            I have to think all 3 women involved were more than a bit psychologically damaged. Which is a nice way of picking 3 women to abuse like that.

            People, eh? What are they like. I’ve got dozens of stories like that, about all sorts of folk.

      1. new hampshire (state) has a motto, ‘live free or die’. its on their license plates, or was, last time I was there.

        didn’t patrick henry say ‘give me liberty or give me death’ ?

        sometimes, people would prefer to be free OR just give up on the pain and suffering we call ‘living’.

        I don’t blame aaron. I would probably do the same; the thought of any non-trivial amount of time in lock-up would also make me think about what other choices I would have.

        life can be great; but life in prison is probably not worth living. I don’t hold any absolutes on life. if life is that bad, its not worth living. I believe that, aaron belived that and many other SANE people believe that, too.

        1. Was just reading “The Repairer Of Reputations” yesterday, from “The King In Yellow”. Yog-Sothoth showed up and he kept nagging me to read it. That has government-run “lethal chambers”. Or apparently, the narrator’s not entirely reliable. Set in 1920, written in 1895 or so.

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