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Controlling PDF Accessibility

Started by Filip Luszczyk, February 18, 2010, 11:18:51 PM

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Filip Luszczyk

Is there a way to display PDF files online without making it possible to save the file itself?

That is, impossible without resorting to some m4d h4ck1ng sk1llz, obviously...

The idea is to make the document available online, but also to make sure all content is accessible exclusively where I want it to be, for as long as I want. Preferably, reading the document would also require registration, so that it couldn't be accessed anonymously.

I'm open to non-PDF formats, as long as they offer similar layout potential. HTML will not work.


I think what you want to do is stream a PDF. It's possible, but I hope you have good coding skills. You could also learn Flash to do something similar (IIRC).

However, here's a little not-so-secret: anything someone sees/hears on the web is downloaded to their computer anyways. It may not be easy to find where, and it might be deleted after use, but it is there. Even streamed files can be captured (if it passes through your computer's hardware..and everything can save it -- I have a couple widely available browser plug-ins that let me capture or save supposedly "secure media" with a button push). There's also the problem that you'll spend more effort than it will end up being worth trying to keep a few illegitimate users from seeing the files, with a side result of alienating your legitimate users increasingly the more difficult you make it for the illegitimate users.
Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
Wild Hunt Studio

Jasper Flick

And even lots of people without m4d h4ck1ng sk1llz at least know how to make a screenshot. But most people'll honor a "do not redistribute" notice too. And those that don't honor it often aren't stopped by feeble security measures.

HTML pages might actually be a good technical option, because people generally don't save them. They revisit your site instead. Meshing that with PDF, you could end up with an in-browser pdf reader (probably using Flash) somewhere on your website.

The main questions is why you want to go through the hassle of keeping a firm grasp on your content.
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Filip Luszczyk

Quote from: Jasper FlickThe main questions is why you want to go through the hassle of keeping a firm grasp on your content.

Well, that's because of my burning desire to keep it in a firm grasp, obviously. One could just as well ask why plenty of people give their content away so lightly :)

At this point I don't charge money for my content, but the content is not exactly free. There is no such thing as free content, I don't think so. Most of the time, there's some sort of symbolic currency flow going on, I think.

This is a bit more elusive than easily quantifiable rewards like hard cash. The trick is to accurately identify the symbolic curreny one's interested in and take measures to channel its invisible flow efficiently.

For instance, for many people in this hobby the currency = attention, apparently. Or, more specifically, the sense of earning attention. It's easy enough to generate the sense of it by putting some shiny stuff online, regardless of the actual amount and depth of attention generated. It seems plenty of people here on the Forge and related sites fail to channel the flow of attention very efficiently. Also, attention has a remarkably short expiration period. As a result, if one observes the "community" for a couple of years, it's easy to notice a steady turnover of attention junkie designers. Overall, game design and publishing are not particularly efficient sources of the symbolic currency of this sort. Shiny micro-games seem to work, but regular blogging/podcasting/$G drama appear to be more dependable sources.

So, I had some arguably shiny stuff freely available online for some time, and it generated just enough attention to make me aware this is not the sort of profit I need.

Currently, I can think of only a single sensible reason to go public with my content at all. As a primary consumer of my own content, I need to continually secure and expand my consumption capacity. That is, if I want to continue playing 2-3 sessions a week, I need a steady influx of potential players. More potential players = greater scheduling flexibility and lower risk of suddenly finding myself without a solid gaming group to play my games with when life hits the current one. I wouldn't like to join the we write, we publish, we advocate, we play twice a year crowd, you know :)

Throughout the last year I've been directing most of my efforts towards expanding my pool of potential players. I have no use for attention in itself. What I need is actual play that breeds more actual play, ideally among gamers who might be interested in joining my Skype games, and preferably among gamers who I might want to socially interact and play with in the first place. The last part is crucial. Taking measures for my content to reach gaming community in general would be counterproductive, or at the very least more frustrating that it would be worth. I know what sort of people I could draw relatively easily, and the last thing I need is another wave of such people to deal with. The point is to reach the right few individuals, excluding as many activists, collectors, weirdos, casual gamers and other people who won't breed solid actual play as possible. Obviously, it wouldn't help me if the few individuals potentially interested in playing my stuff remained anonymous to me. Hence, my current desire to control the distribution of my stuff.

That's the symbollic currency I charge for my content: helping the expansion of my personal player base. I have no reason to cater to audiences that won't pay that price. For all I care, if someone uses my content, but we don't even interact, never mind play, for all purposes the person could just as well not exist. A portion of my effort is wasted.

Note that I've already encountered the above issues.

The worst case so far was one anime fandom activist who kept distributing an early, outdated and broken version of my game without my knowledge, even though at the time I had a major update publically available for download for anyone interested in joining my online playtesting sessions. Apparently, the guy didn't quite register the "designer not included" part and generated some (relatively small scale, but still) hype that suggested the version distributed was quite advanced. Now, I knew the guy enough to be aware that although he was quite enthusiastic about the game he did not actually play it, and he also did not want to join my Skype sessions. You know how some people will always find an excuse not to spend their free evening actually playing the game they apparently like, but somehow still find the time to post about it? That guy. He sure did earn some attention for posting about my game, reviewing it and distributing the file, though.

The number of new links to the update: zero. The number of new playtesters joining my games thanks to his buzz: zero. I have no idea how many people downloaded the game through his rapidshare links, and I have no means to track them. Perhaps the buzz generated some actual play - I guess that's unlikely, but since local anime fandom is neither particularly picky about the quality of their games nor vocal about their gaming, I'll never know for sure. Not that the design would benefit from further playtesting of that early version, anyway. At the time what I wanted was to playtest the publically available update, but I was always one player short for starting that game.

A few related incidents prompted me to be more careful about releasing my content online. Also, to stop wasting my time dealing with the useless crowd. That was the right choice. Adopting a strict Go Play! (or gtfo) policy proved very productive throughout the last year. The player pool expanded considerably, I'm finally playing my stuff on a regular basis, and w00t, first time since 2006 I'm actually bringing some projects to completion.

My conclusion is that controlled accessibility is good. Barriers to entry and audience filters are good, as long as bright enough beacons pointing the right poeple in the right place are maintained. Raven's concerns about alienating legitimate audience are not valid in this particular case. Those who'd get alienated by my filters are not my legitimate audience, by definition.

And so, your question invited me to ramble :)

Anyway, to the point...

Most of my content is currently accessible for the registered users of the social networking site where we organize our Skype games. This solution was ideal throughout the last year. It is no longer ideal. First, HTML limits presentation. Second, it's no longer six people who know each other fairly well, there's a slow inflow of new users who I don't know well enough to trust they won't take my stuff outside without explicit permission. Third, there were people voicing their interest in seeing my stuff who clearly won't register to the site and play with us, ever. Fuck 'em. No play, no cake.

While it's necessarry for me to have my content online, I'd rather hinder its distribution outside the registered members. There only needs to be a single way to access it, i.e. coming to my place and saying "Hi!".

For the purposes of offline play, I plan to have a small number of print copies to distribute. Whether those will be available to the general public, I'll decide on a case by case basis, but since it's unlikely I'll charge money for those, the symbollic currency stays the same. With print copies, the requirement to order is enough of a barrier. Even though there's a slight possibility of redistribution, at least I'll know who got each copy initially, and I seriously doubt anybody would bother circulating photocopies or scanning the thing. The owner of a print copy or his players might need the electronic version, obviously - and as long as I have the access controlled, they would have to directly contact either me or one of my players.

Filip Luszczyk

Now, obviously, I'm aware of the streaming issue, and I know how to use the print screen button. M4d h4ck1ng sk1llz :) Most people won't bother, it would be easier for them to revisit and link their players. However, people do have a PDF saving reflex (I do), and some do save HTML (I occasionally do).

Also, people actually don't give a damn about "do not redistribute" notices, in my experience. That might be true of many people hanging out in design circles, but for an average gamer out there the designer is some abstract internet entity rather than an actual person to reckon with. People interact with files, not authors.

Heck, I've seen people putting my Vassal Engine module on Rapidshare for their friends to download, even though that one is freely available for anyone on Vassal site. Because, why would they just link them there?

Of course it's not possible to prevent someone who really wants to pirate the file. The point is not to provide a fast and easy way to save the file via browser alone. I believe that even a few additional clicks should be enough to stop most common users and prompt them to just link the site to others.

Flash might work, actually. That's a pretty good suggestion, Raven! I'd have to learn at least some basics first and figure out the hosting, but those could prove useful for other purposes as well.

Mike Sugarbaker

It doesn't sound like it'd be difficult to hand-generate a PDF for each person who wants it in this case. Watermark it with their name, and maybe add a few unique clandestine word changes if you're concerned that someone has PDF-editing software.

...unless I'm misunderstanding exactly how you're determining who gets to access the content. (What kind of content are we talking about here, anyway? Do they really need it just to be in your game?)
Publisher/Co-Editor, OgreCave
Caretaker, Planet Story Games
Content Admin, Story Games Codex

Jasper Flick

QuoteFor all I care, if someone uses my content, but we don't even interact, never mind play, for all purposes the person could just as well not exist. A portion of my effort is wasted.

What effort? How does a person you never interact with inconvenience you? Doesn't your model work like advertising, in that you only care about the 1% of those who see your stuff that do buy it?
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Paul Czege


So, your goal would be to make your stuff available as a way of connecting with like-minded folks? You could load your stuff to Google Books.

My Life with Master knows codependence.
And if you're doing anything with your Acts of Evil ashcan license, of course I'm curious and would love to hear about your plans

Ron Edwards

Hey everyone,

I don't know much about Filip's product, but he has explained at length that he really does care about the access issue. Plus he's a bit defensive about it and really doesn't want to discuss it.

So please, let's focus this thread on the available technology and options, not on why Filip should or shouldn't want to do this thing or some other thing. He's stated his needs and the forum is supposed to be here to help him; clearly he's not concerned about access and piracy merely reflexively, and therefore intended help aimed at his goals isn't help at all.

Filip, whatever phrasing or line of inquiry irritates you so far, please do your part and ignore it rather than being diverted into trying to fight it. Some straightforward technical points and options have in fact been presented, so please focus on those.

Best, Ron


Filip, just a heads up that I spoke too soon: Flash isn't as secure as you might think. There is a Firefox extension that allows you to download .swf files with a click.

Thing is, you're running into what a lot of web designers and content managers have struggled with for years: how do I control my content once I release it for others to see? (Unfortunately for your purposes, there's never been a good, working solution to that problem. I think, to your frustration, you'll find that there are solutions that will allow you to get close to total control, but there are still going to be leaks -- sometimes easily exploited leaks.)

I'm still thinking on it to see if anything else comes to mind that will work the way you seem to want it to work.
Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
Wild Hunt Studio

Filip Luszczyk

As Ron points out, the reasons I ramblingly outline above are not really open for discussion - not in this thread, at least. I'm fully aware this is not a particularly common approach, but I know where I'm heading with this and so far it proves fruitful.


Thanks, I'll take a closer look at the options they offer. I wasn't aware the sevice was open for individual authors interested in uploading their content. Seems like this solution might be worth serious consideration. I like it how you can't easily copy or print the document, but can still search it.

Now, I recognize the value of having some preview material available publically. If it was possible to set full access permissions for specific users, that would be just perfect for my purposes.


Well, I generally don't come to internet forums with easy problems :) I started this thread specifically because I'm aware experts have worked out some solutions throughout all those years of their struggle, but I'm only very vaguely aware about the specifics. I wouldn't be all that surprised if it was a no solution issue, actually. If that turns out to be the case, I'll have to revise my strategy, I guess.

However, I think the impression of my need for total control might be blurring the issue. The control does not need to be total - it only needs to be total enough :)

First, it makes little sense trying to prevent overt and intentional piracy attempts. That was already discussed to death in various threads, there's no way around that. So, no real point to worry about that. I think I already have some basic anti-piracy measures in place: specifically, it's not possible to access the site without being invited or having one's request approved, and it's not possible to stay for long without getting actively involved in the community and meeting others via VoIP. For those requesting membership, there are questions to answer that filter out obviously inappropriate people. This is by no means foolproof, but if the person was active on the internet, I'm usually able to assess things quickly, identifying potentially problematic behaviors or associations. Otherwise, the first few days are telling, and a new user plain won't stay for more than a few weeks without joining any games. From that point on, we're no longer interacting solely on the "abstract cyberspace entities" level, and I don't think people tend to pirate buddies. And even if that happens, at the very least I'd know precisely who to cut of from any future content. I don't think much more could be done in this regard.

It's more about "accidental" spreading of the site's exclusive content due to ignorance, carelessness and, especially, fanboy attitude, but not necessarily ill will. Here are some more specific examples of what I'd rather prevent:

* People who are genuinely interested in seeing my games for one reason or another, but not interested in actually playing them, retaining a copy for reference purposes after a visit, and perhaps spreading it as a seemingly free content.
* 18-20 years old newcomers who just totally, totally have to take the content outside and show it to their friends from other communities, because they totally, totally have to see this or that and otherwise won't, because they won't register, because we eat babies.
* Mistakingly approving an account for somebody who suffers serious reading comprehension and/or communication problems and consequently, turns out completely unpredictable.
* Completely illogical behavior, like that guy sharing a publically available Vassal module on Rapidshare, even though he had to link his players to Vassal site anyway so that they could install Vassal Engine in the first place. (Someday, rolling my eyes too much is bound to start causing severe pain.)

That sort of stuff.

Overall, what I want is a bit like putting foam protectors on every hard edge or corner to prevent accidental damage to young children. I already have some foam here and there in my place, but there are still some big sharp corners that stand out. So, I feel I could use some more foam - but not necessarily to the point of having the house built entirely out of it :)


Watermarks don't appeal to me. There's something about them that makes me feel uncomfortable about that solution, but I can't even articulate it well...

QuoteWhat kind of content are we talking about here, anyway? Do they really need it just to be in your game?

Game manuals, settings, support material, in wildly varying states of completion. Players in my game need access to the content to be in my game. The same applies to my friend's players, should I not participate in their game. Potential players need some access to the content before they decide which game to join. Assuming I'll have print copies to distribute, providing their owners and their players with some access to the digital version seems sensible as well. Also, sometimes, for reasons, I might actually want to share the content with individuals who don't and won't participate in our games.

Mike Sugarbaker

One problem with watermarks is they really only tell you who to blame after something goes wrong. So yeah.
Publisher/Co-Editor, OgreCave
Caretaker, Planet Story Games
Content Admin, Story Games Codex


QuoteHowever, I think the impression of my need for total control might be blurring the issue. The control does not need to be total - it only needs to be total enough :)

I was trying to say that, and failed. But, yes, that's pretty much what I'm looking into, something that will meet enough of your primary needs to be a viable solution -- basically, hat even if possible to still make a copy, something that will keep the majority of users from doing so.
Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
Wild Hunt Studio