A publishing friend of mine recently told me about a sales report they’d received from a major retailer in which some of their books had zero sales. It turned out that there had been plenty of sales, however—they just all went to counterfeiters. In case you think this is an outlier, it’s not. Counterfeiting is a serious, nontrivial problem facing the industry.

Counterfeiting occurs when a party poses as a book’s real publisher to sell fake versions of books. Sometimes a bad actor may pose as a legitimate publisher as part of a scam, taking orders and payments but never delivering the goods. But more often these days, counterfeiters are delivering fake versions of books.

Sometimes these versions are obviously fake—bad scans of a book are not uncommon. Sometimes the fakes are actual EPUBs that the counterfeiter duplicated and are thus hard to differentiate from the real thing. And because they are usually cheaper, counterfeit editions often appear high up in online recommendation engines.

As a key person at one Big Five publisher explained, “Almost all the material that is counterfeited is changed in some way. Often someone acquires authentic content, such as EPUBs, and then strips metadata from the file, alters the file, and republishes the file as an e-book under a different but similar author name, title, and publisher, using close-enough cover and marketing materials to catch lots of eyeballs and often tie the fake edition to the real editions in online stores.”

In recent years, the W3C Community Group’s Anti-Counterfeiting Task Force has been exploring potential solutions to the problem. One promising avenue for redress is a standard I’ve mentioned in this column before: C2PA, a metadata standard developed by the Coalition for Content Provenance and Authenticity. C2PA is a metadata specification that enables creators of content—not just text but also other files, including images and audio—to digitally “sign” their content to establish its authenticity. Earlier this month, C2PA was adopted by OpenAI, Meta, and Google—a clear indication that the standard is being taken very seriously.

But C2PA has one big vulnerability: it can be stripped out of a file. Fortunately, a solution appears to be in the works, which is to pair C2PA with a new standard, known as ISCC, the International Standard Content Code.

Sebastian Posth, managing director of Liccium in Leiden and a member of the W3C Anti-Counterfeiting Task Force, has been a driver of the development of the ISCC. He describes ISCC as a “content-derived hash with near-duplicate matching capabilities.”

Sometimes the fakes are actual EPUBs, which the counterfeiter has duplicated, and are thus hard to differentiate from the real thing.

By hash, Posth means a complex string derived from the data that comprises a digital asset—the actual bits and bytes. If that asset is altered in any way—by changes to its content, its metadata, even subtle changes to colors in a book’s cover image—an ISCC derived from that altered asset will not exactly match the ISCC of the real thing. And because ISCCs can reveal “near duplicates,” removing the metadata of a real digital book would no longer disguise counterfeit copies. A publisher will be able to register the real ISCC, and if a new ISCC derived from a file purporting to be authentic doesn’t sufficiently match but falls within a certain range, it is likely a close counterfeit of the original and deserving of a closer investigation.

“The beauty of the ISCC is that it can identify a cover or other aspect of the book that is close, but not the same, as the original, as being a potential issue,” Liisa McCloy-Kelley, chair of the Anti-Counterfeiting Task Force, explains. “So, where counterfeiters think a different color or tweaking the author name is going to thwart tools that find matches, the ISCC can be used as a tool to call out these potential counterfeits. And it works with any file type. You can use it for covers, for EPUBs, images, PDFs, even audio files.”

For publishers, it’s an important development, and one to keep an eye on. Combining the detailed provenance information provided by C2PA with the ISCC’s ability to detect modified assets (and at the same time identifying the original that’s been modified) could finally deliver the tools publishers need to effectively combat the growing problem of counterfeiting.

Bill Kasdorf is principal at Kasdorf & Associates and a founding partner of Publishing Technology Partners.