Join 3,557 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)

Tags:

Lego robot that strips DRM off Kindle books
September 8, 2013 8:37 AM   Subscribe

Peter Purgathofer, an associate professor at Vienna University of Technology, built a Lego Mindstorms robot that presses "next page" on his Kindle repeatedly while it faces his laptop's webcam. The cam snaps a picture of each screen and saves it to a folder that is automatically processed through an online optical character recognition program. The result is an automated means of redigitizing DRM-crippled ebooks in a clear digital format. It's clunky compared to simply removing the DRM using common software, but unlike those DRM-circumvention tools, this setup does not violate the law.
posted by SpacemanStix (50 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
That mostly just looks like a way to wear out the spacebar on a MacBook Pro, to be honest.
posted by fifthrider at 8:45 AM on September 8, 2013


Fancy work of art.
posted by R. Mutt at 8:47 AM on September 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


More on Peter Purgathofer. I'm wondering if the university has any position on this.
posted by IndigoJones at 8:50 AM on September 8, 2013


I'm not a lawyer but I don't see why it wouldn't violate the law simply because it is mechanical rather than software. On the other hand, U S laws don't apply in Austria so he's still ok on that front.
posted by TedW at 8:52 AM on September 8, 2013 [3 favorites]


Software DRM removal from ebooks violates the law in Austria?
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 8:52 AM on September 8, 2013


Interesting work of art. As a countermeasure, I could see Kindle books being rendered on-the-fly with chunks of captchas, legible to humans but impenetrable to OCR.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:53 AM on September 8, 2013


Wouldn't this be easier if he used the desktop Kindle app and just took a screen shot of each page (screen)?

Why use the physical Kindle device?
posted by dfriedman at 8:54 AM on September 8, 2013


IA totally NAL, but as far as I understand it, any device that circumvents DRM/copyright protection is illegal. It's kind of misleading to think that because this doesn't futz with the Kindle DRM, then it is somehow legal.
posted by carter at 8:54 AM on September 8, 2013


but unlike those DRM-circumvention tools, this setup does not violate the law.

Yet.
posted by Spatch at 8:54 AM on September 8, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm wondering if the university has any position on this.

From the ATD link:

"Another thing: He’s only ever scanned one book, and that was just to prove the concept. And he hasn’t shared it anywhere “…since it would get me in deep trouble,” he says."
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:58 AM on September 8, 2013


I'm sure this violates copyright in the same way that scanning and OCRing a physical copy would.

Not that I disagree with being able to strip DRM, but saying it's a legal method is dubious.
posted by Ickster at 8:58 AM on September 8, 2013 [3 favorites]


Meaning that yeah, it doesn't run afoul of the DRM-curcumvention laws, but runs afoul of regular copyright protections.
posted by Ickster at 8:59 AM on September 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


"I'm not a lawyer but I don't see why it wouldn't violate the law simply because it is mechanical rather than software."

IANAL, either, but I was going to just assert that the law in question is specific about the DRM software and hardware and breaking/circumventing it. But "circumventing" caught me short and I can't say exactly how taking images of the screen isn't circumvention in this sense. It certainly "feels" like it's not the same thing.

"As a countermeasure, I could see Kindle books being rendered on-the-fly with chunks of captchas, legible to humans but impenetrable to OCR."

I mentioned previously that I regularly remove the DRM of the books I purchase because it makes them more usable for me. I don't redistribute them because I am hesitant to do that for ethical reasons (hesitant because I just don't know exactly what I think about it, even though I've considered this stuff for a long time and carefully), but it's also occurred to me that it would be pretty easy to generate individual identifiers (for each purchase) inserted into the markup somewhere and very obfuscated so that it would be difficult to automate its discovery/removal. But IP holders could have done this (forcing retailers to do this) with pure data sales of music and other things, and they've not done so, and pirated ebooks are currently very low on the IP holders concerns. Still.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 9:02 AM on September 8, 2013


The book being scanned in the video is The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Fifth Annual Collection from 2008, specifically the story Kiosk by Bruce Sterling.

I hope this has been a valuable contribution to this conversation.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 9:02 AM on September 8, 2013 [10 favorites]


Great. Watch congress make it illegal for robots to read, and then suddenly we'll just have moronic robots who only watch Honey Boo Boo and are smug that everything they needed to learn, they learned at their last compile.
posted by mccarty.tim at 9:08 AM on September 8, 2013 [23 favorites]


Yeah, I would not bet on this not being a “circumvention device” under the DMCA, and thus illegal to “manufacture, import, offer to the public, provide, or otherwise traffic in”. The European directive described on wikipedia doesn't sound much different, though I don't know what Austria's implementation may be.
posted by jepler at 9:09 AM on September 8, 2013


Meaning that yeah, it doesn't run afoul of the DRM-curcumvention laws, but runs afoul of regular copyright protections.

I think this is the answer. The process does not break whatever is built into the file or hardware level that prevents accessing the data directly, and also easy copying (and towards which particular laws are directed). His process works with the output which, as also noted, falls under copyright protection laws, but perhaps in a different way, and for which the inventor is also trying to be careful. Although, there may be some overlap between these two conceptual areas, depending on how you look at it.
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:10 AM on September 8, 2013


“The owner isn’t even an owner anymore but rather a licensee of the book,” he says.

That's all you were with a physical copy of the book. Just because you can hold the book in your hands doesn't mean you own the intellectual property rights.
posted by photoslob at 9:17 AM on September 8, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'm pleased that my North American publishers, at least, make this sort of thing unnecessary.
posted by jscalzi at 9:18 AM on September 8, 2013 [11 favorites]


Note: neither the original article nor Purgathofer's statement on the Vimeo page make any claims about the legality of the project. Purgathofer says "The DIY kindle scanner is an art installation reflecting this loss of rights Jeff Bezos first defended for us, but then chose to remove. It also is a statement about the futility of DRM."

Boing Boing appears to have added that detail themselves.
posted by figurant at 9:18 AM on September 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


How much does the author get from the copying?
posted by touchstone033 at 9:19 AM on September 8, 2013


Maybe they could fight the man further by mixing in some Megabloks?
posted by Artw at 9:33 AM on September 8, 2013 [4 favorites]


That's all you were with a physical copy of the book. Just because you can hold the book in your hands doesn't mean you own the intellectual property rights.

Why is this so hard for people to understand? There may be totally legitimate pro-piracy/file sharing arguments out there, but I hear this 'you don't own the content' nonsense all the time.
posted by graphnerd at 9:38 AM on September 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


That's all you were with a physical copy of the book. Just because you can hold the book in your hands doesn't mean you own the intellectual property rights.

The difference between ebooks and physical books is not in IP rights, but rather in the doctrine of first sale: you buy a proper book, you own it and can resell it. Not so much with ebooks. (For the most part.)

(Incidently, under Dutch law, making a copy like this for home use is actually legal.)
posted by MartinWisse at 9:41 AM on September 8, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'm wondering if the university has any position on this.

I picture a monacled IP hoarder saying "VUT dafuq?".
posted by srboisvert at 9:41 AM on September 8, 2013


As mentioned above, first sale rights are removed with ebooks.

Breaking DRM is a different kind of crime than breaking copyright. If you break DRM in order to break copyright, those are separate crimes, each with its own penalties.

$5000 in Canada. This isn't a fine for distributing the content - just breaking its DRM.


Finally, if he provided a tool that allowed circumventing DRM (even without breaking any copyright law in the process), he would be subject to fines or criminal prosecution (Dmitri Skylarov spent months in jail for sharing information about breaking DRM). Since this tool does not interact with the DRM, he can provide its design with less fear of prosecution.
posted by idiopath at 9:57 AM on September 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


The ultimate brute force method. Should be in a cracker museum. The day will come.
posted by stbalbach at 9:58 AM on September 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm a bit confused, though. Isn't this a technique called the Analog Hole or something like it? I thought the technique wasn't so much novel as the implementation?

I mean, haven't there always been guys aiming their camcorder at the TV?
posted by mccarty.tim at 9:59 AM on September 8, 2013


In some European countries, it is legal to make a copy of media you have bought for personal use, however it is not legal to break DRM. I expect that's what's going on here.
posted by walrus at 10:13 AM on September 8, 2013 [3 favorites]


If the legal claim originated with the article's writer, as it appears to have, that's shoddy and incompetent journalism. For something that major, you cite a source or you don't make the claim. Heck, something that significant should be backed-up with a quote. I see no indication Doctorow is a lawyer in any jurisdiction, however familiar he may think himself with copyright law. Whether he's right or wrong about the statement, he's dead wrong not to cite a source.
posted by cribcage at 10:23 AM on September 8, 2013


It's Boing Boing. Someone could fall off a bicycle and they'd add some editorializing about DRM.
posted by Artw at 10:30 AM on September 8, 2013 [9 favorites]


It's odd to see such a simple robot mediating communications between two more powerful computers. Very Rube Goldberg. A servo controlled by the laptop to trigger the page button on the Kindle would be enough. Of course, a USB cable _ought_ to be all that is needed to copy bits around, but the whole purpose of DRM is to make such things more difficult than they need to be.

I'm not a lawyer, and the legalities differ from place to place, but the fact that he is using using such a contraption doesn't necessarily mean he is free and clear of any "illegal to bypass DRM" laws. After all, the end result is that the DRM is bypassed, and it seems to me that is what most courts usually care about. While they often accept legal technicalities as having weight, technical technicalities tend to be regarded as trying to play games with the law.
posted by swr at 10:30 AM on September 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


This provides a legal way to protect yourself from losing your purchases at the whim of Amazon:

Linn travels a lot and therefore has, or should I say had, a lot of books on her Kindle, purchased from Amazon. Suddenly, her Kindle was wiped and her account was closed.
posted by 445supermag at 10:30 AM on September 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Just because you can hold the book in your hands doesn't mean you own the intellectual property rights.

No, but those "rights" only impacted the few people with the production facilities to make copies.

With digital goods, the fact that you can't use them without copying has the effect of stripping other rights. Move it to another "shelf?" Loan it to a friend? Sell it entirely? All trumped by copyright.

As noted, this doesn't really get around that fundamental problem, and arguably doesn't get around the DRM restrictions.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 10:50 AM on September 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Re whether or not this device "violates the law": Sure, using it to scan a book whose contents are under copyright would be a violation of copyright law. However, under the DMCA, DRM-stripping software violates the law regardless of whether you actually use it to violate copyright or not. Merely owning or producing DRM-stripping software is illegal. This device "doesn't violate the law" in the sense that you can build, buy, or own it legally, much as you can own a camera or a photocopier. (Or so it is claimed; IANAL.)

It reminds me a bit of the wine-making kits that were sold during Prohobition, containing compressed grapes, yeast, and a booklet stating "Federal law prohibits doing the following..."
posted by baf at 11:06 AM on September 8, 2013


Wouldn't this be easier if he used the desktop Kindle app and just took a screen shot of each page (screen)?

Why use the physical Kindle device?
--dfriedman

All the 'not using software to bypass DRM' and 'an art installation reflecting this loss of rights' may be the real reason, but as an engineer, it seems to me that using Legos and a Mindstorm to press buttons on a Mac and on a Kindle to capture the book is a wonderful end in itself, and just taking screenshots avoids this wonderfulness altogether.
posted by eye of newt at 11:11 AM on September 8, 2013 [7 favorites]


Legal, no; Lego, yes!
posted by Segundus at 1:11 PM on September 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


A lot of respondents in this thread are looking at copyright law from a US perspective. From what I understand of EU law, what he's doing is not illegal in Austria unless he's doing it for commercial purposes, since he owns the book and is making a copy for personal use, which is allowed for, and he is not selling or distributing a technology designed to break DRM protection.
posted by walrus at 1:41 PM on September 8, 2013


It's odd to see such a simple robot mediating communications between two more powerful computers. Very Rube Goldberg. A servo controlled by the laptop to trigger the page button on the Kindle would be enough. Of course, a USB cable _ought_ to be all that is needed to copy bits around, but the whole purpose of DRM is to make such things more difficult than they need to be.

One of my favourite bits in the original Matrix movie was the robot arm that dialled the analog dial phone.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:20 PM on September 8, 2013


I wrote a script once to steal books from Google Books. It worked by just searching for common words in the book, and then downloading all the pages and organizing them in a PDF. That's how I discovered most books in Google Books are missing two or three pages, presumably to prevent exactly what I was doing.
posted by miyabo at 2:55 PM on September 8, 2013 [3 favorites]


miyabo: Seems like that's where this robot could really shine, at least for Kindle books that have 'real page numbers.' Limits the possible OCR errors to three pages or so.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 3:57 PM on September 8, 2013


> The book being scanned in the video is The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Fifth Annual Collection from 2008, specifically the story Kiosk by Bruce Sterling.

That's a story about the government trying to stop a social revolution triggered by 3D printers that can copy themselves as well as other objects:
“I swear he didn’t steal it! This fabrikator is a copy, see. It’s a pirate copy of another fabrikator in Warsaw. But nobody knows it's a copy. Or if they do know, the cops won't be looking for any copies around this town, that's for sure.”

Borislav’s doubts overflowed into sarcasm. “You're saying it’s a fabrikator that copies fabrikators? I’s a fabbing fab fabber, that’s what you’re telling me, Fleka?”
posted by mbrubeck at 4:58 PM on September 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


In the late '90s I saw a Mindstorms contraption set up to automate World of Warcraft farming by physically pressing a sequence of keys and mouse clicks in a loop all night long. I thought it was an elegant way to sidestep the software macro / anti macro detection software arms race that was heating up at the time.
posted by ceribus peribus at 5:12 PM on September 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


"In the late '90s I saw a Mindstorms contraption set up to automate World of Warcraft farming..."

I would love to see that myself. Did you take a camera along with your copy of WoW and a WoW server when you traveled back in time?
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 5:28 PM on September 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sorry, I guess I'm used to calling all fantasy MMOs WoW. It must have been EverQuest or whatever the kids were playing back then.
posted by ceribus peribus at 5:50 PM on September 8, 2013


I love that somebody did this and hate that they had to.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:26 PM on September 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


DRM remains hilarious.

Way back in the 80s, oh the fuss that was made about how hard it was to prevent software from being copied. Companies making games for the C64 even resorted to inserting floppy-drive mis-aligning/destroying code that smashed the read-head repeatedly against the stop. All the while the majors were crying oh woe and BBSers and magazine-correspondents eventually agreed that there was no solution to protecting bits from becoming copies.

To this day world and our senses remain resolutely analog, while those who've colonized the digital realm continue to dream of buttoning up their thousand-year digital Reichs. If only our brains could be made digital.
posted by Twang at 9:57 PM on September 8, 2013


Even in the US, you can make copies for your personal use, especially for backups. That's fair use. DRM cripples a lot of that legitimate use, and the complaints above about licensing would only really apply if you're distributing it. It's weird to see people so quickly taking the side of people who want you to have less utility in the things you buy, and complaining that the author doesn't get paid. What? Of course they don't get paid. You have the right to make copies for yourself.
posted by klangklangston at 4:32 PM on September 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


That's fair use. DRM cripples a lot of that legitimate use, and the complaints above about licensing would only really apply if you're distributing it. It's weird to see people so quickly taking the side of people who want you to have less utility in the things you buy, and complaining that the author doesn't get paid. What? Of course they don't get paid. You have the right to make copies for yourself.

Erm, yes. But the distribution is the problem, isn't it? Assuming that this process wouldn't result in mass distribution of copied e-books ignores...well...the Internet.
posted by touchstone033 at 10:37 AM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Distribution is a separate issue. While it could be used for infringing distribution, it's better to wait until there's actual evidence of that then to preemptively decry it.
posted by klangklangston at 11:13 AM on September 13, 2013


« Older Viktor Safonkin is an artist who classifies his st...  |  Somewhere in-between the space... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments