Q

Securing Web site content

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I wrote a book on how to play guitar and have decided to publish it on a Web site. However, I am concerned about securing the content. There will be two areas on the site, one with free lessons available for anyone and a private section for paying customers that will be billed either monthly or as a one-time fee. I have filed a provisional patent on some of my inventions that I use to teach the subject, and of course, I will be taking out a copyright. But what can I do to prevent people from copying the lessons and e-mailing them to their friends or worse yet, posting them on the Net?

Should I be looking towards some type of encryption? Is there a way to imbed code that will disable the copy function? How can I protect myself?


You have a hard problem to solve. It's the "Content Protection" problem, and it's the same problem that the record companies have, the movie studios have, book publishers have and so on.

There are relatively few technological solutions available -- or at least ones that will work. In fact, I and other cryptographers have written that the real problem is probably not solvable. Subsets of the problem (like keeping basically honest people basically honest) are more tractable.

Here are some suggestions:

Put in a paragraph in an "about the author" section explaining that you're a starving musician, and this is how you make your living, so please do not copy your stuff. This sounds stupid, but people I know with small businesses doing shareware and so on claim that it works.

Make it easy for people to pay you. There are a few payment systems on the Net, like Paypal. If you make it easy for someone to click a link and pay, then it's more likely you'll get paid.

The hardest content to protect is content where the presentation is all there is. Music is like that -- all there is to music is the sound. Movies are like that -- all there is is the picture and sound. But an interactive system with indexes and so on are harder to effectively copy, because they can't just take a snapshot of your screen. If you have an innovative way to teach -- which if you get a patent you do, definitionally, then you're probably not just giving out static pages, and thus there's something to be lost by someone who just takes screen shots.

Having said all manner of discouraging things, here's something that can help. A company called Beatnik has some content protection schemes for musical content. In the interest of full disclosure, I have friends who work there, and I've done security consulting for them. For what it's worth, one of their founders is Thomas Dolby Robertson, the rock musician. Check out what they have.

Another thing to consider is non-technological solutions.

Copyright and patent protections are legal protections for your ideas. I've written about them before in searchSecurity. Copyrights protect expressions, not ideas. If you re-wrote this article in your own words, you wouldn't be violating a copyright on it. However, copyrights give their owners large-scale rights. For performing artists, it's interesting to know that you have the right to control the performance of your works. The playwright Samuel Beckett once stopped the production of one of his plays because he disagreed with the director's view of the play. He did this with copyright powers.

Patents come close to protecting actual ideas. Should you get a patent, you'd have broad powers on control of your teaching tools.

However, both of these require you to police your intellectual property. You have to find the violators yourself. There are a number of ways to do this and little hacks you can do. For example, mapmakers frequently put intentional mistakes or add in nonexistent things to catch people who copy their maps. You might be able to do something similar.


For more information on this topic, check out these other SearchSecurity.com resources:
Web Security Tip: Web sites and the law
Best Web Links: Copyright and Intellectual Property
Best Web Links: Securing the Internet and E-commerce

This was first published in December 2001
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