RPG Tech Talk: The PDF Dilemma (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this article, we looked at the PDF security options that are available natively in the Acrobat PDF format itself. These included the ability to password protect and encrypt a document, as well as control actions that are available, such as copying or printing. Ostensibly, this seemed like a sufficient set of controls to protect the IP of electronically published D&D products. Unfortunately however, it seems there are two quite significant potential issues with the native approach:

  • The Adobe encryption is relatively easy to crack, being only 40-bit, and there are plenty of programs out there that can achieve this on normal equipment.
  • The Adobe PDF specification does not enforce that a specific PDF viewer implements the security restrictions! This does seem rather lax in current times!

So it looks like a more solid DRM (Digital Rights Management) solution would be needed to persuade publishers like WOTC to get back into the PDF game. There certainly are options out there, but there are often constraints that come with them. Lets look at a list of key potential ‘wants’ for such a system:

  • Simple access and technology requirements
  • To be able to use PDF files both on-line and off-line.
  • To be able to use PDF files on any device – PC, Mac, Phone, iPad etc…
  • Ability to print PDFs
  • To be able to read PDFs as soon as they are purchased
  • To be able to lend a PDF to a friend, like you would a hard-copy book

The above is a feature list from a user’s point of view. I can imagine WOTC might have an expanded list of requirements:

  • Able to integrate the DRM system into a ‘branded’ store
  • Able to work with 3rd party distributors such as RPGNow.
  • Simple administration of licences
  • Simple publishing of protected documents
  • Ability to provide various publication options e.g. perpetual licence, subscriptions, time expiry etc.

Are there products out there that can support these features? After some research, I decided to review one product against the requirements: Safeguard Enterprise PDF Security from LockLizard. Unlike many products that I looked out, their product did not rely on continuous access to a central server and/or passwords to be maintained for each document (if you remember the vitriol when WOTC moved to an online only Character Builder, I think you know where I’m coming from…). So, lets have a look:

End User Requirements:

The Safeguard product works by encrypting the entire PDF document with AES 256-bit encryption – this is military strength, so there’s not much out there that can break that without super-computer efforts! So how does the user read the document? Well, this is the downside – the user needs to use a specific secure PDF reader, supplied by Lock Lizard, rather than a standard Adobe Acrobat Reader. Its available for Windows and Mac (with some constraints), so straight away this rules out your phone or tablet :(. Still, I reckon most people would take this over no PDFs, at least to start with. As smartphones and tablets start to dominate the end-user computer market, I’m sure the product would catch up.

The upside is that once you have the PDF, and the secure reader, you don’t need to remember a password, or be connected to the Internet, except for the first time you load it. Once only the secure reader will connect to the licensing server, download a machine specific licence file, and from that point on the PDF can be read on that machine forever (unless the publisher has specifically added some expiration controls). It is also possible to ‘transfer’ the licence to another machine, in case the user upgrades, or even to ‘lend’ the PDF to a friend (i.e. the original user would no longer be able to access it). The PDF can also have print and copy controls built into it, but the secure reader can put watermarks or user information in the printout to discourage mass distribution.

Wizards’ Requirements

Pretty much all of the requirements that Wizards might have from their perspective seem to be catered for, although I’m sure there would be some significant integration requirements. Using the LockLizard eCommerce Add-in, most of the functionality could be hidden behind D&D branding, whether on their own website, or via a 3rd party. The product also has features to allow the licences to have various expiry options based on both the document or the user. For example, for a Core Rulebook distributed as a PDF you would expect the document to have a perpetual licence; but for a subscription based PDF (e.g. Dragon Magazine) the licence for the user might expire in a year (renewable of course…), allowing access to documents published in that annual period, but nothing after that.

Of course, this is a theoretical look at the problem based a small amount of research, and clearly there would be many many issues and details to resolve, but the fact that products are definitely out there that could fulfil a significant proportion of the required use cases does lead me to believe the problem is solvable … if Wizards really want to 🙂

I for one, hope they do, and can …

And if not …

I mentioned in Part 1 that WOTC might be looking at other forms of electronic distribution, like eBooks, but that these formats weren’t really suitable for publications with complex layout requirements…

… Well, recently Apple released a software product called iBooks Author, aimed primarily at  producing interactive textbooks. Might it be applicable to RPG products? Lets take a look at this in another column 🙂

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6 Responses to RPG Tech Talk: The PDF Dilemma (Part 2)

  1. Pingback: RPG Tech Talk: iBooks Author | Tolrendor DM's Blog

  2. Castelain says:

    It’s the tablets/e-readers that need to be supported going forward.

    At the risk of annoying the Linux/Mac fans, a windows only solution can still be used by them using boot camp/wine etc. Not ideal I know but a solution of sorts at least. It’s the tablets/e-readers that are key now.

    I plan of preparing a version of an upcoming product suitable for tablets/e-readers so this isn’t just a theoretical issue.

    • tolrendordm says:

      As a MAC user that uses Parallels for his Windows requirements, I accept that 🙂

      And agreed that Tablets/e-Readers are a key platform … now, which version to support first …

      • Castelain says:

        By market share it would be iPads but I think most gamers would rather take a cheapy (£80/$120 to £140/$199 range say) to sessions than a premium item such as an iPad.

        Almost all of the budget tablets/e-readers are built on Android so I think that is the no-brainer for the first platform with iOS next.

  3. Castelain says:

    Good article.

    It is a dilemma, protecting your hard work whilst not causing any inconvenience to the user/purchaser.

    If the Lock Lizard solution was more mature (more platforms/OS’s supported) then it could well be the solution.

    • tolrendordm says:

      Thanks for commenting.

      I agree – platform fragmentation is the biggest issue, as the end user wants not to care where they can use their documents.

      Once upon a time you could get away with just a PC solution, but with the proliferation of Macs, Linux, iOS, Android etc,
      this is no longer acceptable.

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