Knocking Over the Straw Man: A Case Study in Copy Protection

by Schuyler Erle

A friend I have known for some years recently described via e-mail his attempts to print hardcopies of an encrypted eBook that he had purchased. Disclaimer: I do not advocate or condone the actions described below. This information is provided for educational purposes only.

So, there exists a book that you want to read, and it is only available in eBook format, meaning you need to sit there and read the screen. Blech. Here is the step by step on how I sort of circumnavigated the copy protection of an eBook, and brought it back to the world of paper.

The book in question is David Foster Wallace's "Up Simba - 7 Days on the Trail of an Anticandidate" on John McCain. BTW, I did actually buy this book, paying $4.95 through for the privilege of downloading it.

Part 1: Try to Crack Protection...

  1. Try to open the PDF in Acrobat in the vain hope that this would be all you have to do.

  2. Open the PDF in Notepad, in a similar vain (sic).

  3. Find out what type of copy protection would allow this book to be opened in eBook reader, but not Acrobat. Learn that an unlocking key exists on Adobe's webserver. Groan.

  4. Learn about Advanced eBook Processor, the fabled program that got Dmitri Sklyarov imprisoned, that cracks eBooks.

  5. Immediately download this program.

  6. Groan as you realize that Adobe has put in a built in foil for this program by this time. If only you had an
    earlier version of eBook Reader.

  7. Try to find an earlier version of eBook Reader. Fail.
  8. Download the full PDF specifications, available for free on Adobe's website. Age 10 years looking at the first few
    pages. Give up.

  9. Become extremely indignant, seek out a nearby soapbox, and rant about how Adobe is violating your rights for fair
    use of something that you own. Consider donating half your paycheck to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Burn your bra.

  10. Repeat steps 1-6 a few times, not because you think it will work, but because you have no other ideas.

  11. Become frustrated and desperate, willing even to consider...

...Part 2: The Brute Force Approach


  • Adobe eBook Reader

  • Encrypted eBook

  • Adobe Acrobat 5.0 (full version)

  • Quite Imposing Plus (an Acrobat plugin that will make you wonder how you ever used Acrobat without it)

  • Adobe Photoshop 6.0

  • Two hours of free time

  • Patience

The method:

  1. Load eBook and Photoshop. Change your monitor's resolution to the absolute highest it will go (in my case, 1280x1024).

  2. Set eBook reader to two page view, so two full pages display on screen at one time.

  3. Take a deep breath.

  4. Hit Print Screen. Switch to Photoshop. Create a new file and paste the clipboard data into it.

  5. Repeat step 4, intermingling step 3 every once in a while, until you have copied all the pages to files in Photoshop.

  6. Create a script that crops out all of the eBook stuff, saves as PDF and closes. Run script on all open files.

  7. Manually concatenate a PDF to include all of the single pages into one PDF (two pages per page).

  8. Get a drink.

  9. More groaning as you realize that for half of the pages, you have the taskbar captured at the bottom.

  10. Go to [company intranet site] and download License key for Quite Imposing.

  11. Fix problem in step 9.

  12. Crop the right half of the PDF. Save as "odd.pdf". Crop the left half of the PDF. Save as "even.pdf".

  13. Use Quite Imposing to shuffle even/odd pages together and "create booklet" so that you can print the pages double
    sided and staple them together, like a book.

  14. Save.

  15. Go to bed, exhausted. Realize that although you can now print the book (at a resolution roughly equivalent to
    150dpi, not bad). Your file size has grown from 900kB to 28MB.

  16. Smile!

On a technical note, I subsequently exchanged e-mail with the author of the above, asking "Have you considered using optical character recognition on the JPEGs you screencapped, to get the PDF back to its original size?

The author's response:

Thought about it. Scrapped the idea for a few reasons. a) I don't care
about file size. This wasn't an elegant solution. b) I deal with OCR all
day, and in my experience, you end up needing to spell check and reformat
the entire document anyway, a bit too much brute force for even
me. Besides, with the roughly 150dpi pages, I'm sure its recognition would
be less than stellar. I may as well have just retyped it. I printed the
book out, and it was of sufficient high quality that from normal reading
distance, you don't notice the lack of vectored text, aside form an odd
blurry quality. I got what I wanted out of it. I can (and just did) read
the book laying on my bed, or at the kitchen table, at my leisure. *shrug*

Frankly, this classic "worse-is-better" solution makes the whole copy protection thing look a little silly. Given how easy it was for this person to print an eBook that he'd purchased lawfully, do digital rights management "features" really and truly protect the rights of the copyright holder? Or do they merely serve as an barrier to fair use by the consumer? While we're at it, since when did "fair use" suddenly exclude printing a document that you've acquired legitimately for your personal consumption?

Does printing an eBook for personal consumption constitute "fair use"? Or does it infringe on the rights of the copyright holder? Discuss.


2002-05-30 14:30:23
You are trafficking an anti-circumvention device.
You had better remove it, or the CCDEA (Copyright
Circumvention Device Enforcement Agency) will
arrest you and seize the O'Reilly properties.

...Well someone had to say it...

Actually this reminds me of the movie "Traffic"
(or its BBC predecessor "Traffik", which was far
better, IMHO). I bet a good movie can be made
about this situation. And it will be Art imitating
Life imitating Art.

Ken Engel

2002-05-31 00:53:58
Are eBooks practical?
As an owner of a PDA, I do find ebooks useful as you can cram hundreds of megabytes of information in one tiny device. Most text I can find I would convert them into eBook format. At least all the text I got are from a printable source. Printing dead tree format can be useful at times, especially when you need to skim the material over and over or you need to scribble in some notes/doodles.

EBooks on a computer is not really a good idea as your eyes can get tired, especially on a CRT. I still don't see why a user cannot print eBooks, although you might kill more trees in that format, it is still the most comfortable media format. Even subscription based web sites are printable. I'd really like and option to print out my eBooks. I don't mind not being able to copy and paste.

Anyway, this is one of the reasons that I've never bought an eBook before, no matter how cheap they are. I buy real books, or I go to the library. O'Reilly's CD Bookshelf is great, I can print or convert to eBook or read it on the screen. Now, that's what I call fair use.

2003-03-20 14:44:20
isn't this what safari is doing? nt
2003-04-22 12:54:18
Like photocopying a book...
This is essentially the same as taking a physical book to kinko's and photocopying page after page. I'm sure publishers realize this and figure it'd too tedious for someone who could just shell out ~$20 to buy another copy (plus cost of paper and/or ink/copymachine fees would probably add up to be the same, or close to the price of the book in published quality WITH binding! oooo!)

I think there shouldn't be any kind of protection on eBooks. It's just pointless. The author here described a method that easily defeats the security of a locked ebook. Besides, purchasing an ebook SHOULD be $5 and you can do whatever you want with it. They have $0 (that's right, ZERO) cost of materials, and it probably took them 5 minutes to convert the author's Word document to a PDF. There's no way they can justify locking their books.

As a personal opinion, I think the whole ebook idea was retarded. I mean, at least with REAL books it's difficult to make copies and distribute or sell them, whereas with ebooks, just pop it into your shared directory for kazaa and millions of people have free, unlimited access to an ebook that cost one person $5. I think publishers will/have lose a ton of money simply by distributing digital representations of their products. It's software piracy, but for books...which essentially qualify as software.


2003-04-22 12:58:07
Re: Traffic
The author clearly stated that Adobe's software is now immune to the ebook cracker. He indirectly indicates that it's useless...outdated. It's like saying "I tried to use a Windows 2000 Key generator for my legally purchased copy of Windows XP." The fact that you downloaded the keygen and ran it, but used it for something other than intended (to use on Windows 2000) makes the example above completely legal. If the keygen were used for Windows 2000 and not XP, THEN it would be illegal.

The author has nothing to fear.

2006-05-03 22:50:00
Is there any reason why you wouldn't just set the ebook reader to display a single page at a time, run it full-screen, fit to height, then use printscreen to actually, um, print the screen?

If you only want a one-off printed copy, there's no need to convert to digital storage.

Just a thought...