Using Flash for Digital Right Management

It's not foolproof, but it can help deter folks from 'ripping' your content

Flash and Digital Rights Management is a topic not often discussed. In fact I tried to do a little research on the topic for this article and could turn up very little. I must start this article off by discussing why I wanted to get digital rights manament (or DRM as all the cool people call it) going for a project I recently worked on. Recently I self-published a book called Web Designers Success Guide. After being no-so thrilled with publishing with larger publishers (they tend to give you fat advance and you never see royalties due to "hidden" clauses in the big old contract you sign) I decided to write and publish my own book using Lulu. The process is simple, you create your book in what ever program you want (I use InDesign CS2) and then upload it as a PDF. They print it on demand as people buy it. Lulu offers authors the ability to sell the book as a PDF and via dead tree (paper). I decided that selling the PDF would be bad since my target audience are very wired web designers and my PDF would end up making the old Peer-to-Peer book tour and I won't get paid!

So I locked my book in paper for now. I did a lot of research to find an affordable solution to host my PDF so people could read and print it out... but not copy and share the PDF. I found some very costly solutions such as LockLizard and WebPublisher for locking down my PDF to the server so people can't "share it" with their friends. I also found a whole host of other solutions provided by not-so trustworthy companies that many not be here tomorrow. In fact if you do a search for DRM and eBooks using Google you will find all sorts of fly-by-night operators who offer "DRM" for files. Most of these companies require you to host using their systems. The problem is most of these companies don't give a phone number or address for their business, something that scares the hell out of me. So the only real solutions seem to be expensive ones.

What does any of this have to do with Flash and DRM?
You thought you were reading an article on Flash and DRM? Well you are... after doing a lot of searching I have discovered that you can use Flash to achieve a high degree (while not foolproof) form of DRM.

One of my clients wanted to create a full site using Flash. Other than making cool animations and such the main thrust for creating the site in Flash was to stop or slow down users from stealing the content from the site. In fact the Flash site does a really nice job of making stealing content much more difficult than traditional HTML or even a PDF. Using some tricks we were able to stop people from doing the easy "dash-and-dine" rips. Here is a list:

  • The old rip from the browser cache trick: Users just open up their browser cache and pillage the SWFs from their own hard drive. We added internal ActionScript code that disables the SWF if it isn't played from the original server.
  • Print screen (PrtScn Button Trick): While you can't totally disable this, you can make it frustrating for the average user by "trapping" for the "print screen" button. And telling Flash to copy blankness into the clipboard of the computer. There are easy ways around this (which I won't reveal) but it's enough to frustrate users.
  • Remove the "right click": While this might seem like a simple option. We used simple embed statements "menu=false" to remove the print command from the "right click" menu. This alone is often enough to discourage users from copying the content.
  • Local shared objects: Using local shared objects (Flash's answer to the cookie) we can also do some other fun things to discourage users from messing with the Flash content.
Of course there are many ways around this. Advanced users can get their hands on de-compilers for Flash (there are many around) and users can just circumvent the print screen by using "other tools." But for the most part if you have a subscription site where you want to at least slow people down from ripping you off, using Flash as a good DRM tool is a cheap and effective way to do it without spending thousands. And you can be assured that there are ways around those expensive PDF DRM solutions as well. Ours is cheap and doesn't require the user to install a different plugin... It works very well right with the Flash Plugin they have installed already.

So How Does This Apply to My Book?
In the upcoming months I plan to launch my book, along with many other articles I have written in the past as the form of a subscription-based website. This site will be completely built in Flash and will utilize all of the DRM topics I discussed above. The idea here is to slow down the copying of the material to the point where it doesn't affect the bottom line too much. As with all DRM solutions there is no "magic bullet" - users who are determined will always find a way around to steal the content. But the most important method is to make it so painful the average user won't bother, thus making it easier to make doing business this way profitable.

More Stories By Kevin Airgid

Kevin Airgid is an internationally recognized interactive designer. He has created interactive projects for the Amnesty International, Bell Canada, Buick, Cadillac, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Chevrolet, Detroit Tigers, ESPN, DR. PEPPER, NFL, Lexus, Marriott Hotel, McGraw-Hill, Ford Mercury, Jeep, Siemens, and Toyota.

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