F for Facsimile: What are ‘Digital Forgeries’?

Last week, I attended the 2014 Foxcroft Lecture, given by Nicholas Barker, entitled “Forgery of Printed Documents”. The lecture prompted the question, what would we consider to be a ‘digital forgery’?

Make Up

The lecture was an investigation into a practice that emerged in the 18th century, when reproductions (‘fac similes’ – Latin for ‘make alike’) of early printed texts were created either as honest replicas, or to enable missing pages from antiquarian books to be restored to ‘make up’ a complete work. In some cases, the original pages had been removed by the censors, for others the pages had been left out in error during the binding process, and mostly they had simply been lost through damage or age.

Other factors created the need for these facsimiles: the number of copies of a book that could be printed at a time was often limited by law (censorship again at work), or works were licensed to different publishers in different markets, but printed using the original plates to save time and money.

Despite the innocent origins of facsimiles, unscrupulous dealers and collectors found a way to exploit them for financial gain – and of course, there were also attempts to pass off completely bogus works as genuine texts.

Replication vs Authentication

Technology has not only made the mass reproduction of written texts so much easier, it has also changed the way physical documents are authenticated – for example, faxed and scanned copies of signed documents are sometimes deemed sufficient proof of their existence, as evidence of specific facts, or in support of a contractual agreement or commercial arrangement. But this was not always the case, and even today, some legal documents have to be executed in written, hard-copy form, signed in person by the parties and in some situations witnessed by an independent party. For certain transactions, a formal seal needs to be attached to the original document.

Authenticating digital documents and artifacts present us with various challenges. Quite apart from the need to verify electronic copies of contracts and official documents, the ubiquity of e-mail (and social media) means it has been a target for exploitation by hackers and others, making it increasingly difficult to place our trust in these forms of communication. As a result, we use encryption and other security devices to protect our data. But what about other digital content?

Let’s define ‘digital artifacts’ in this context as things like software; music; video; photography; books; databases; or digital certificates, signatures and keys. We know that it is much easier to fabricate something that is not what it purports to be (witness the use of photo-editing in the media and fashion industries), and there is a corresponding set of tools to help uncover these fabrications. Time stamping, digital watermarks, metadata and other devices can help us to verify the authenticity and/or source of a digital asset.


In the case of fine art, the use of digital media (as standalone images or video, as part of an installation, or as a component in mixed media pieces) has meant that some artists have made only a single unique copy of their work, while others have created so-called ‘multiples’ – large-scale editions of their work. (The realm of ‘digital works’ and ‘digital prints’ produced by photographers and artists is worthy of a separate article.)

Making copies of existing digital works is relatively simple – the technology to reproduce and distribute digital artifacts on a widespread scale is built into practically every device linked to the Internet. Not all digital reproduction and file sharing is theft or piracy – in fact, through the wonders of social media ‘sharing’, we are actually encouraged to disseminate this content to our friends and followers.

The song doesn’t remain the same

Apart from the computer industry’s use of product keys to manage and restrict the distribution of unlicensed copies of their software, the music and film industries have probably done the most to tackle illegal copying since the introduction of the CD/DVD. At various times, the entertainment industries have deployed the following technologies:

  • copy-protection (to prevent copies being ripped and burned on computers)
  • encryption (discs and media files are ‘locked’ to a specific device or user account)
  • playback limits (mp3 files will become unplayable after a specific number of plays)
  • time expiry (content will be inaccessible beyond a specific date)

Most of these technologies have been abandoned because they either hamper our use and enjoyment of the content, or they have been easy to over-ride.

One technical issue to consider is ‘digital decay’ (*) – mostly, this relates to backing up and preserving digital archives, since we know that hard drives die, file formats become obsolete and software upgrades don’t always retrofit to existing data. But I wonder whether each subsequent copy of a digital artifact introduces unintentional flaws, which over time will generate copies that may render nothing like the original?

In the days of analogue audio tape, second, third and fourth generation copies were self-evident – namely, the audible tape hiss, wow and flutter caused by copying copies, by using machines with different motor speeds, and by minor fluctuations in power. Today, different file formats and things like compression and conversion can render very different versions of the ‘same’ digital content – for example, most mp3 files are highly compressed (for playback on certain devices) while audiophiles prefer FLAC. Although this is partly a question of taste, how do we know what the original should sound like? With a bit of effort, we can re-process an ‘original’ downloaded mp3 into our own unique ‘copy’ which may sound very different to the version put out by the record company (who probably mastered the commercially released mp3 from studio recordings created using high-quality audio processing and much faster data sampling rates).

So, would the re-processed version be a forgery?

(*) Thanks to Richard Almond for his article on Digital Decay which I found very useful.








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