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Amazon Patents Changing Authors' Words 323

theodp writes "To exist or not to exist: that is the query. That's what the famous Hamlet soliloquy might look like if subjected to Amazon's newly-patented System and Method for Marking Content, which calls for 'programmatically substituting synonyms into distributed text content,' including 'books, short stories, product reviews, book or movie reviews, news articles, editorial articles, technical papers, scholastic papers, and so on' in an effort to uniquely identify customers who redistribute material. In its description of the 'invention,' Amazon also touts the use of 'alternative misspellings for selected words' as a way to provide 'evidence of copyright infringement in a legal action.' After all, anti-piracy measures should trump kids' ability to spell correctly, shouldn't they?"
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Amazon Patents Changing Authors' Words

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  • Patentable? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by OnlyPostsWhilstDrunk ( 1605753 ) on Wednesday October 28, 2009 @09:52PM (#29905431)
    This bugs me about patents. This sounds like an exact copy of what they've done with maps for years. They add/remove/rename tiny roads in the middle of nowhere and if you distribute maps with those roads then they know you copied their stuff.

    Everything is a damn patent these days. Yo dawg, I put a clock in your clock so I can sue you while you check the time.
    • by cjfs ( 1253208 )

      Everything is a damn patent these days. Yo dawg, I put a clock in your clock so I can sue you while you check the time.

      Don't worry, I've found prior art [] on placing a ____ in a ____. We'll have that patent invalidated in no time!

    • On 9/11/2001 the Twin Towers were attacked By terrorists. In November 2001 President Gore declared war on Afghanistan.

      Hmmm. There appears to be something wrong with my history book.

    • by localroger ( 258128 ) on Wednesday October 28, 2009 @10:27PM (#29905739) Homepage
      It's an heretical thing when mapmakers do it, lying (even trivially) and corrupting their craft because of the threat of being copied. It should not be tolerated there nor should the practice claimed by this patent application be tolerated, not because the patent is bad but because the practice itself is an affront to all of us.
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by cdrguru ( 88047 )

        With the Internet, it is everyone's right to destroy the revenue model of any business they choose to target. You and I should equally be able to force any business into bankruptcy just by posting their creations online for everyone to download for free. With suitable bulletproof hosting, the original owner isn't going to be able to do anything about it.

        It is all about making things free that didn't used to be. Devalues everything over time - creators get the message that they might as well make it free

      • by Techmeology ( 1426095 ) on Thursday October 29, 2009 @03:45AM (#29907555) Homepage
        Pirates can work together. Suppose you have ten pirates. They each download a copy of the book. They then compare their copies with each other - crosschecking them (after, of course, stripping the DRM). Nine of the ten books use "to be or not to be", and one uses "to exist or not to exist", and similarly for other words. They may then produce a more accurate copy of the book. So now, instead of pirate versions being technically superior (due to the lack of DRM), they're also more accurate! Well done, Amazon, you've patented a wonderful scheme to ensure people don't trust genuine products! Normally I am very anti-intellectual property. On this occasion, however, I do hope Amazon is granted it and enforces it. Perhaps it would some day prevent someone else doing the same.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by dintlu ( 1171159 )

          Clever, but that's not what pirates are going to do.

          Pirates are going to purchase books anonymously, by using prepaid credit cards, stolen credit cards, or hacked amazon accounts. It's the easiest way and it guarantees the pirate isn't associated personally with the distributed work.

    • by tinkertim ( 918832 ) on Wednesday October 28, 2009 @10:50PM (#29905941) Homepage

      Aww come on. This is the smuckin fartest invention ever!

    • That fingers other mapmakers but not people who purchase your maps.

      Encyclopedia makers did this too.

      Amazon seems to hope to individually change each book sold--- I think their goal is unrealistic.

    • Re:Patentable? (Score:5, Informative)

      by Your.Master ( 1088569 ) on Wednesday October 28, 2009 @11:13PM (#29906105)

      I don't blame people for not reading the claims section, because it's necessarily an obtuse fusion of legalese and jargon.

      But no, they did not patent *doing* this, they patented the *way* that they do this. Patents cover implementations, and not ideas. Some have argued that the line has been blurred with certain classes of patents, but it hasn't blurred so far that the concept in the slashdot summary is actually locked up as IP.

      Frankly, I can't be bothered to look at the claims either. But the idea itself certainly lends itself to ideas that are patentable (whether they should be patentable or will be rendered retroactively invalid is another question). For instance, I'm curious how they identify which words should be replaced, and the system by which they choose a synonym that hopefully doesn't destroy rhyming patterns, metrical rhythm, puns, shades of meaning, and ambiguity in words with multiple meanings that don't completely intersect the candidate synonym's meaning.

      Also, whatever they are they doing to prevent the trivial case of three copies being compared to recover the original. Maybe they have a bunch of sets of synonyms that are commonly replaced so you need more to get the original, but even then, do they arrange it in some way so that the source of the leaks can be traced down despite the alteration? Or maybe they just assume that book pirates are morons.

      They might do nothing for any of those cases, mind you. Once again, I can't be bothered to read these damned things. Which is part of why I don't submit articles about ones that I've decided I think are actually stupid.

      • by Gerzel ( 240421 ) *

        I'd be more worried if they used this system that someone would sue them for false advertising or worse. For claiming to sell them the work of an author but actually selling them an inferior derivitive.

        For fiction books and literary works the changes might not mean much, but what of a legal book, or financial book? Or any book where the shades of meaning can mean quite a lot and the exact word matters.

        Purposely doing this to consumers is a bad idea as it is deliberately introducing data corruption.

      • hair splitting (Score:3, Interesting)

        by jipn4 ( 1367823 )

        But no, they did not patent *doing* this, they patented the *way* that they do this.

        You're incorrectly assuming that a common shorthand for talking about those kinds of patents implies ignorance of the patent system.

        To spell it out for you: the "way" they patented this is an obvious engineering solution to the actual problem they are trying to solve. If you gave the problem of "alter the text so that each customer gets a unique copy" to a CS undergraduate, this is the kind of engineering solution they'd co

    • The new Bezos contest: Who can be more evil
    • Re:Patentable? (Score:5, Informative)

      by pvera ( 250260 ) <> on Wednesday October 28, 2009 @11:17PM (#29906127) Homepage Journal
      Yes. And that is a variation of the classic canary trap ( []): copies of classified documents that are not 100% identical. When the leaks surface, you can trace the original recipient of the compromised copy. I like the thing with the maps because it is the kind of thing that makes the violator look like a complete idiot, and it's impossible to defend in court.
      • I was thinking exactly that. Additionally, in spy circles, I am certain that at least someone has tried to write a computer program to do this too. They may have even wrote a computer program to automatically change other computer programs, helping to prevent ultra-secret source and executable code from going rogue. Unfortunately, the spooks don't document their tools, hence Amazon can patent it.

        This falls in the category of ultra-obvious inventions. The really tough problem is doing the text changes i

      • Simple solution! (Score:5, Interesting)

        by KingSkippus ( 799657 ) on Thursday October 29, 2009 @05:22AM (#29907895) Homepage Journal

        It seems to me that there's a pretty easy way to defeat this. Use the technology against itself.

        If you ever want to distribute something, make your own minor spelling variations and substitute your own synonyms into the original, thus further altering the altered work. If someone sues you, just point out the fact that their copy "proving" you're guilty doesn't even match the copy of the work that was distributed.

        You could use this idea for just about anything that is digitally watermarked. Don't want that MP3 traced? Introduce your own small, imperceptible variations into the waveform. Don't want your printer tracing you through microdots on your hardcopies? Write a driver that adds its own microdots, and lots of 'em. And so on...

    • Re:Patentable? (Score:4, Interesting)

      by tgeller ( 10260 ) on Wednesday October 28, 2009 @11:52PM (#29906371) Homepage
      I used to live in a false street. The official map for the San Francisco Muni had a tiny spur named Tulip Street, just off of Russ in SOMA. That was my bedroom.
    • Yes, the term for it is "watermark". And watermarking, even synonym watermarking is nothing new. It's too bad they didn't use that word in their patent description. If they had known the right word to search for, they would most likely have found a number of prior art examples.

      In any case, it will be interesting to compare (to diff) the different watermarked versions of the same ebooks. I predict this will increase the number of illegal copies of the watermarked PDFs, not reduce them.

  • They'd NEVER file multiple lawsuits against people for infringing totally obvious patents, right? Of course not! That'd be like saying that Slashdotters actually believed half the stuff they said about freedom and rights.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by osu-neko ( 2604 )

      They'd NEVER file multiple lawsuits against people for infringing totally obvious patents, right? Of course not! That'd be like saying that Slashdotters actually believed half the stuff they said about freedom and rights.

      Quick! No one's said anything stupid yet! Let's construct a straw man so I have something to ridicule!

  • Advertising (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Kell Bengal ( 711123 ) on Wednesday October 28, 2009 @09:55PM (#29905461)
    Yup - that's the killer application.

    Change "Johnny nervously wrinkled his brow as he reached for his Coke" into "Johhny nervously wrinkled his brow as he reached for his Pepsi".

    If this doesn't happen, I will eat my hat/del/ ACME Brand Prestige Fedora TM.
  • canary trap (Score:3, Informative)

    by dwbassett42 ( 752317 ) on Wednesday October 28, 2009 @09:56PM (#29905473) Homepage
    This is just the Canary Trap [], which is nothing new. It's in fact been around long before Tom Clancy gave it that name. Why do they get to patent it if it's demonstrably older than that?
  • Sounds familiar (Score:5, Insightful)

    by cjfs ( 1253208 ) on Wednesday October 28, 2009 @09:57PM (#29905477) Homepage Journal

    Amazon also touts the use of 'alternative misspellings for selected words' as a way to provide 'evidence of copyright infringement in a legal action.'

    Sabotaging your product out of fear someone might violate your copyrights. Where have we seen that [] before?

    If it wasn't obvious infringement prior to the changes, what's the big deal?

  • Canary trap (Score:5, Informative)

    by dido ( 9125 ) <[hp.muirepmi] [ta] [odid]> on Wednesday October 28, 2009 @10:00PM (#29905501)

    Intelligence agencies have been doing this sort of thing for decades, giving slightly different versions of a sensitive document to suspected spies or places where possible spies might have access to it, with some subtle changes in the words, seeing which one gets leaked or appears elsewhere. Tom Clancy coined the term Canary trap [] for the technique. Patriot Games was published in 1987, but its real-world use for exposing information leaks most likely predates the novel.

    • by vanyel ( 28049 ) *

      mapmakers have been doing this for decades, if not centuries...

    • Re:Canary trap (Score:5, Informative)

      by jeisner ( 56981 ) on Wednesday October 28, 2009 @10:41PM (#29905867)

      Intelligence agencies have been doing this sort of thing for decades, giving slightly different versions of a sensitive document to suspected spies or places where possible spies might have access to it, with some subtle changes in the words, seeing which one gets leaked or appears elsewhere. Tom Clancy coined the term Canary trap [] for the technique. Patriot Games was published in 1987, but its real-world use for exposing information leaks most likely predates the novel.

      But the classic Canary Trap requires someone to modify the document manually, which is hard to do on a large scale. Here it is being done automatically by an algorithm.

      However, I am aware of published methods for this problem dating back to 2001 [] by Mikhail Atallah at Purdue. In fact Atallah received a patent for followup work [] in 2007, a year after the Amazon patent was filed.

      Here are a few hundred papers [] on the subject, via Google Scholar. Some adjust whitespace, some modify images of the text, and some attempt fairly sophisticated syntactic analysis and restructuring of selected sentences.

      I apologize that I haven't read the Amazon patent, or read the prior literature carefully, or gone to law school, so I can't comment on whether the patent seems valid or not.

  • I have no doubt the patent system is broken when "synonym" is an important part of a patent.
  • Theft or Fraud? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    If Amazon (of the licensee of the patent) is not providing the content purchased, then they're either committing theft-by-substitution (not the same as bait-and-switch, in which the customer is actually sold an alternate product) or outright fraud by not delivering what was sold. A text product is not simply a collection of words, it's a specific selection of words in a particular order ... and spelling counts, even in the case of Lord of the Rings where Tolkien creates whole languages.

    Can fraud actually

  • by stevens ( 84346 ) on Wednesday October 28, 2009 @10:06PM (#29905555) Homepage

    I love watermarks that can be defeated with a spellchecker and a thesaurus!

    • Right, something like this is not hard to reprogram. You could reprogram on yourself:


      Original: Johnny took a sip of his coke.
      Amazon: Johnny took a sip of his pepsi.
      Your Program: Johhn took a sip of his Dr. Pepper.

      So much for tracking...heck it may even blame the wrong person.
      • by pluther ( 647209 )

        "So much for tracking..." ?

        A novel has, say, 75,000 words. The system changes, oh, let's say, 100 of them, in various ways.

        So what are the chances of you being able to change enough yourself to obscure the changes they made? How high can you raise the probability without obscuring the text into unreadability?

        Yeah, if they can do this on the fly when distributing digital copies of books, they've got something. Adding your own changes before distributing might help you track it, but it won't obscure theirs.

  • by straponego ( 521991 ) on Wednesday October 28, 2009 @10:11PM (#29905593)
    That thing looks better all the time.

    Amazon, free tip: words matter. Especially in books.
  • by sed quid in infernos ( 1167989 ) on Wednesday October 28, 2009 @10:15PM (#29905627)
    First, I read about this in a Tom Clancy novel in the 80s. Sounds like prior art to me. Second, if I buy a book, I expect the words in that book to be the ones the author (with the help of his editors) put there. If I buy "Tale of Two Cities" and they deliver something that starts with "It was the best of eras, it was the worst of eras," then I'm not getting what I paid for. Sounds like false advertising.
    • by reashlin ( 1370169 ) on Wednesday October 28, 2009 @10:27PM (#29905737)
      Sounds much more like Amazon infringing on copyright by selling an item subtly changed from a prior copyrighted work.
      • Not if the copyright holder gives permission.

      • If they have the right (given by the author) to sell the original works, there is almost* nothing stopping them from changing it.

        * there was a case in Canada where a sculpter was able to force a mall to whom he'd sold a sculpture to remove christmas lights from his sculpture because it "defaced" it.
        • There is a difference between a right to sell the original works and a right to do whatever you want. Similar to how an author can sell right to publish to one person (even limiting it to certain regions of the world, as many books have different publishers in different areas of the world), right to make a movie to another, etc. The contract probably states if the publisher has the right to make certain modifications.

  • by plasmacutter ( 901737 ) on Wednesday October 28, 2009 @10:19PM (#29905653)

    A synonym is not reflective of the intent of the author.

    As Al Franken points out, 'friendly' is a synonym for 'intimate', so coulter obviously stated she was having a trist with franken when asked by a reporter!

    Authors choose their diction carefully, at least good ones do, and that should not be tampered with.

    Lesson learned: do not shop at amazon if you respect artistic integrity.

    • by godrik ( 1287354 )
      I was about to say it. If they do that, I'll never buy a book at their e-shop. I don't care about watermarking that does not change the visual quality of a rendering (despite each video technology improvement shows the imperfectness of previous records ), but changing the content is not acceptable. why not change the color of the hair of actors in movie while we are at it ?
    • I can't believe they would actually try to apply this to others' works without their consent. This seems more likely to be used *by* authors. Or at least some of them in certain situations. Could definitely be useful for corporate memos, etc. to find leaks. :-)

  • Moral rights (Score:4, Informative)

    by davidwr ( 791652 ) on Wednesday October 28, 2009 @10:29PM (#29905755) Homepage Journal

    Canada and some other countries have "moral rights" which belong to the author.

    Changing words without his permission could violate these rights.

    In some countries these rights are inalienable and non-assignable. This means the author can't be ordered to waive them by the publisher or other copyright-holder.

    • They can't be forced to but can someone say 'we will pay you an extra million to give up this right' is that legal?

  • by Tynin ( 634655 ) on Wednesday October 28, 2009 @10:33PM (#29905785)
    And people complained about the King James version being altered. I can just picture it, 20 years from now, a group of tomorrows theologians are busy studying the Authorized Amazon Version of the Bible trying to deduce the 'real' meaning of the text/God.
    • by mbone ( 558574 )

      Let's hope that tomorrow's theologians actually know how to read Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew, and so are not dependent on translations, authorized or otherwise.

  • by Tanman ( 90298 ) on Wednesday October 28, 2009 @10:39PM (#29905843)

    If I was an author who had slaved a year over a book, and anyone but my editor (with my approval on each change) altered my precious words and distributed it as my work, I'd sue the pants off of them. It'd be like if someone was selling prints of my painting and changing a brush stroke. You just don't do that. Words are the author's paint.

    • by cdrguru ( 88047 )

      As an author, you probably get to do that when you reach the revenue generation level of Stephen King or Issac Asimov. Until you have 10+ books to your name the publisher's editing team is going to do whatever the heck they want to your book and keep the copyright to themselves. It is in the contract you grudgingly agreed to because you wanted to be a published author.

      After you sign such contracts for the first ten books, you might just be able to negotiate that your words are inviolate and you get to kee

      • Eventually it is going to be much more common to self publish for these reasons. Yes it happens a ton already but you aren't going to get your book into all the chain stores by yourself. If you can self publish on a major ebook (or on demand print) store with the option to opt out of this service, keep all rights to terminate distribution, etc. then more people will start doing it.

  • I was doing this with Cliff Notes 35 years ago

  • ...that is, introduce deliberate errors into their maps to detect copyright violations. Here's an example [] of an island that was simply "dropped" in the middle of a lake.

  • This is yet one more reason not to get a Kindle or buy any eBooks from Amazon.

  • Hmm? Does this mean Amazon has re-invented and patented The Dialectizer? -- []

    Or the lolcat translator? - []

    "SPEEK SOFTLY AN CARRY HOOJ STICK" -- Theodore Catavelt

    "Speek sufftly und cerry a beeg steeck" -- Theobork Borkevelt

  • by Frightened_Turtle ( 592418 ) on Wednesday October 28, 2009 @11:05PM (#29906027) Homepage

    First, there is already pre-existing examples of this practice. Indeed, Tom Clancy described this very technique in one of his novels and called it, "The Smoking Word Processor."

    Second, as an author, I go through quite an effort to ensure that the spelling and grammar are correct throughout any work that I created. To have Amazon completely throw away my efforts and ruin my work would really anger me. This might encourage me to inhibit Amazon from selling any of my work.

    • So someone distributing the altered work would not be in violation of your copyright because you have not copyrighted the altered work.
    • Errmm... I could have sworn that Clancy called it "Canary," not "The Smoking Word Processor." Either way, it's 20-year old prior art.

  • Acquires two copies of the work in question. Merges the differences- compares those lists and generates a copy that fingers someone else or no one.

    • Yay, I knew these philology classes would pay off!

    • by mbone ( 558574 )

      Wouldn't work, at least if they do it right, and the text is long enough. This is a form of steganography, and what you are proposing is actually hard to do. Imagine Amazon makes, say, 1024 changes in a text. Each change can be regarded as a binary bit (being either present or absent), so each text copy has a unique 128 byte number hidden in it. If Amazon gives out 4 million copies, that means they only need about 24 bits to uniquely identify any individual. If I get my hands on 5 copies, and can correct ea

  • BRILLIANT! (Score:3, Funny)

    by chill ( 34294 ) on Wednesday October 28, 2009 @11:09PM (#29906065) Journal

    We can set the copyright lawyers, representing the authors and publishers, against the patent lawyers representing Amazon. With any luck, they'll sue each other into the poor house and leave the rest of us alone!

    Alternatively, we could establish a special court that handles these copyright vs patent cases. When all the lawyers arrive, wall the area up, cut the bridges and toss in a few spiked baseball bats to let 'em fight it out with. Maybe in New York...

  • by mbone ( 558574 ) on Wednesday October 28, 2009 @11:11PM (#29906091)

    Mapmakers have been adding fictitious towns for many years (as many have commented).

    People who sell lists have been doing this for many years. (Who's Who, for example, adds a few fictitious people for this purpose, and I believe so do the Yellow Pages.)

    People trying to catch spies have been doing this for many years. (I first heard about this during the Thatcher years in the UK, and it wasn't new then.)

    So, how, exactly is this new and non-obvious ?

    • Mapmakers have been adding fictitious towns for many years (as many have commented).

      Damn, I've always wanted to become the mayor/sheriff/owner of my own town.

  • Wow.... just, wow.
  • Great. I'm looking forward to a whole new crop of engineering textbooks with references to "water goats" instead of "hydraulic rams"

  • This idea has been around forever - and it works.

    The plagerist - the infringer - is almost by defintion a lazy son of a bitch. Reviewing text line-by-line. The movie frame-by-frame. That's hard.

  • by RichMan ( 8097 ) on Wednesday October 28, 2009 @11:34PM (#29906243)

    Unless they have specific permission from the owner of the copyright work for any such modification. Any operation such as this would be an unauthorized derivative work and be in violation of the original copyright. The variations would be derivative works, not works in their own rights. Their creation would have to be authorized by the owner of the original copyright material. []

    Subject to sections 107 through 122, the owner of copyright under this title has the exclusive rights to do and to authorize any of the following: (1) to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies...; (2) to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work; (3) to distribute copies...of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending....

    • by cdrguru ( 88047 )

      Yes, but this is likely happening on the Internet, a pretty much law-free, consequences free zone. Nobody on the Internet pays much attention to copyright, so it is only realistic that corporations are going to start taking advantage of this.

      If Russian hackers can steal your bank account and nobody can do much about it, expect to see Sony stealing your music compositions and selling them on the Internet soon. If college kids can download movies, expect Netflix to start downloading them and offering them f

  • by Impeesa ( 763920 ) on Wednesday October 28, 2009 @11:39PM (#29906279)
    If this becomes widespread, here's how it'll go: first, pirate groups will only have to pay for/obtain a couple extra copies, and come up with an automated reconstruction system that will compare the copies and perform error correction. Then the publishers will start obfuscating things more and more, and the pirate groups will develop more and more advanced algorithms. Eventually, the publishers will be publishing near-100% noise, with their heads too far up their asses to realize it, the only people buying copies will be the dedicated pirate groups, who will afford it by charging for their services, and before you know it, "content miners" will just be another step in the chain. The establishment is just last generation's rebels, am I right?
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      You underestimate how evil a watermarking algorithm can be. Rather raising the number of words changed, amazon can simply make sure one set of an official copy's edits are unique, but another set overlaps exactly with group A of other accounts, another set overlaps with group B, another overlaps with group C... such that a naive copier will still be caught, and collaborators will never be able to be completely certain they removed every watermark.

      Then amazon builds sets of potential pirates for each book th

  • Would the author consider this as some form of plagiarization?
    After all, the author has probably only given them permission to distribute his work, not to distribute numerous altered versions.

    For that matter, using synonyms can actually change the feel and meaning of a sentence when viewed in context of the whole.
    And for documents relying on factual materials, quotes, and many sciences, swapping out words for synonyms will completely destroy the statements.
    Just imagine this for your research, "Fermilabs has

An elephant is a mouse with an operating system.