In my last RPG Tech Talk column, I talked about some of the hopes that I have for the ‘DnD Next’ generation of technology tools for role-players. One of the items I would like Wizards of the Coast to look seriously at again is the distribution of their core books through an electronic mechanism such as PDFs.
It’s almost 3 years since WOTC pulled the plug on PDF sales, citing piracy as the main reason. They also mentioned at the time that they would be exploring other means of digital distribution, but that hasn’t come to much, other than their novel lines being released for a number of e-reader platforms. This is however a much different case than role-playing product digital distribution, where the need for a controlled layout is required. E-readers in general do not lend themselves to displaying such publications, and in fact there are few wide-spread digital formats other than PDFs for this purpose (Microsoft’s XPS format has a similar role, but despite having been around for several years now, how many people actually know about it…).
In the meantime, all other third-party publishers have continued to make their content available through PDFs, seemingly without any major piracy worries. Pazio, who with their Pathfinder RPG are seemingly now Wizards’ biggest competitor, has clearly continued to embrace the PDF format, and I think they’re benefiting from it. Now I do realise, Wizards, as the 800 pound gorilla in the RPG zoo, are a bigger target for piracy than many other companies, but surely there is a solution out there that works!? I for one would rather they put their tech budget into solving this problem for their customers than sinking it into VTT tools etc that only a fraction of their user base will ever use regularly for gaming!
Another point worth noting is that although Wizards do not sell any of their published books in PDF form, they do produce PDFs of all their DDI content – which actually accounts for a significant proportion of their content. Strange that they do not view this as a priacy risk?? I guess it’s because this content is only distributed digitally, so can’t affect book sales, but it’s still an interesting anomaly.
So, how could WOTC go about giving us what we all want – the ability to carry our tomes of D&D books round in digital form? Some ideas:
Simple stuff …
In most cases when you purchase and download a PDF online (e.g. from RPGNow or its variants), the actual file will be ‘watermarked’ with your account name, so its obvious who purchased the PDF. Just as obviously, there are simple ways of removing this watermark, unless the file has a password added that prevents this happening.
In the simplest form of piracy protection, Wizards could ensure that all distributors of its PDFs introduce a watermark at point of sale which identifies the document sufficiently to trace the actual purchaser, and to password protect the document so that the watermark cannot be removed by standard tools (this password would not need to be user-specific, as only the distributor would ever need to know it).
This doesn’t stop someone loading the PDF onto a file-sharing site, but it does mean that without taking some effort, it would be like leaving your contact details at the scene of a crime!! However, one flaw with this approach is that you don’t want the watermark to obscure the actual text, so they are typically placed at the page borders; this unfortunately means that someone could use image editing tools to remove the watermark, and recreate the PDF without it – a time-consuming process, and quality would undoubtedly suffer, but this wouldn’t deter a determined pirate…
A Step Up …
The next level of security is to set a password that must be used to open the file, which prevents any illegal copying or imaging editing of the content.
The process might be that when you purchased a PDF from Wizards’ online store, they would require you to log on with your DDI account, and the password for the PDF would be generated using these credentials. Each PDF in circulation would then have a unique password – making the required piracy effort even greater. What, you say – you mean everyone would need a DDI subscription just to purchase a PDF!? Well no, I’m sure that Wizards could have the concept of a free DDI account which was just used as an ‘account’ on their site, and from which you could retrieve password details for your previous purchases if required.
This scheme would preclude purchasing Wizards’ PDFs from any online site other than their own – this may be desirable for WOTC – but if they do want to support third-party distribution, this could be achieved by providing a web-service or similar interface that the distributor could use to pass credentials in and receive the appropriate password in return.
A downside to this idea is means that everytime you want to access a PDF, you need to enter a password. It might also cause platform issues if some PDF readers (e.g. on a smartphone) did not implement the ability to de-crypt secured PDFs. I think many people would take this over not being able to have their D&D books in any digital form however!
The two ideas above are possible using security features that are built directly into the PDF format, so there’s nothing particularly complex or clever here. They do however, rely on the quality of the security, which can always be broken by the application of enough technology and computing power, so you can never completely stop piracy. The real goal is to make it difficult enough that ‘casual piracy’ is deterred’.
Unfortunately, it does seem that perhaps Acrobat PDF security isn’t necessarily as strong as you’d like, so maybe we need to look at some more complex options… which I’ll cover in Part 2…