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As the debates rage about digital content, publishers, consumers, and libraries, I was reminded of a piece on DRM I wrote years ago.  In June of 2007 I published an article in School Library Journal entitled “Imagine No Restrictions: Digital Rights Management.” The opening line of my article is “We dream of a world with free access to content.  In the meantime, there’s DRM.”  *sigh*  Sadly, that is still true.

I wrote the article as a primer for library staff on what DRM is and why it matters for libraries.  In re-reading that article from long before eReaders became popular, I was struck by how applicable the ideas still are today.  The article covers device compatibility, DRM as a roadblock to use, and the archival issues raised for libraries.  I also provide talking points for discussing DRM and library digital content with library users…something we all end up doing, often with a frowny face and a serious sense of guilt.

If you’ll indulge me, here are two passages from the article that seemed to bear repeating, in addition to my grumpy epithet for DRM: “Despicable Rights Meddling”:

If you buy a physical version of a song or movie, you are warned about the law, but generally trusted to follow it. If you buy a digital version, however, the DRM code forces compliance.


Libraries must be part of the solution here, not the problem. With our current econtent models, we’re coming down on the wrong side of this debate—not the side of content delivery, accessibility, and customer service, like we should. Publishing companies like Springer and BWI are offering ebooks free of DRM. This is the model we should be promoting and demanding from all vendors. Otherwise we will continue to limit content to a select group of our users, and that select group will continue to get smaller as DRM becomes increasingly restrictive.

This article was a reminder to me that we’ve been discussing this issue for many years.  Librarians have cared about access to digital content since digital content was invented.  We have worked to educate staff and customers.  We have asked for leadership from our professional organizations in legislating change or working with the Librarian of Congress to make effective changes to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

And still, we wait.  But now we’re mad, we’re organized, and we’re pushing for change from all directions…not waiting for approval or sanctions from above.  As a friend said to me last night, “Librarians are going all Egypt on this one.”   In response to both the HarperCollins eBook licensing changes and the eBook User’s Bill of Rights we’ve seen grassroots efforts from the masses, opinions from all sides, and social media organization and information dissemination.  My favorite is the Librarians Against DRM and Readers Against DRM graphics (designed by cartoonist and artist-in-residence Nina Paley).  We’ve also seen mass media coverage on a scale I haven’t seen since the PATRIOT ACT.  And it all started with opinionated librarians blogging, tweeting, and some great investigative reporting from Josh Hadro at Library Journal.

I am very happy that American Library Association is now moving forward with a game plan for advocacy, including the work of the ALA eBooks Taskforce I’m a part of.  In the next couple of weeks I expect we will see more on these issues — from ALA and from librarians directly.

I encourage you to inform yourself, inform your co-workers, and push for change.  Call and write to publishers, authors, and your larger library organizations like consortia or regional partnerships.  Your voice matters.  Your voice can indeed create change.  Continue the revolution.

“Lessons from 2007 on Digital Rights Management”

  1. Tim Says:

    I love that I’m reading this this evening. As I arrived at work one of my colleagues was asking for my take on HC, and with a heavy sigh I replied that I think the library community has been letting this one slip for a long time now. Though I’m glad an edge has been found for librarians, I hope when we look down we realize we’ve been treading on thin air, Wile E. Coyote-style, for a long time and with all sorts of digital content. In case the Task Force is looking for input, that’s mine. Roll the Berserker!

  2. Sarah Houghton-Jan Says:

    @Tim – If it consoles your professional sadness any, there are several of us on the eBooks Taskforce that agree with the “Roll the Berserker!” approach. We’re working…whether formally within the taskforce or outside of it. Berserker away!

  3. Martin Edic Says:

    Books are different for one big reason from movies and music: Their file size is tiny. Right now you can download a free torrent with 2500 titles in it in minutes. You cannot do that with large files. So, without some kind of protection, any ebook can be copied instantly, unlike their paper counterparts. It simply not an apples to apples comparison.
    That being said, the total lack of any agreed upon standards for ebook formats puts a new digital publisher like us in a confusing situation. DRM or no DRM? How does ISBN fit in, a technology designed for physical book inventory management? Bowker has no idea. What about ebooks whose content is updated frequently? They are coming. The distribution channels all want different things from publishers. Libraries want different things from publishers. And readers don’t understand why a book on one device can’t be read on another (it can as long as it’s Kindle and purchased from Amazon, who doesn’t sell to libraries…)

  4. Martin Edic Says:

    Without DRM any good hacker could steal every ebook in a library system in minutes. How do we feel about that?

  5. Sarah Says:

    *With* DRM any good hacker could steal every ebook in a library system in minutes. Let’s be real.

  6. Martin Edic Says:

    You’re so right Sarah- regarding hacking. But from a business perspective there are times when DRM makes sense and publishers are businesses. For example, if I sell an ebook to a CEO and she thinks everyone in her company should read it (this is happening), without DRM she can copy it and pass it around to any number of people instantly and simultaneously. Otherwise she has to buy those copies. Hard copies of books have built-in rights management- it’s very difficult to copy the physical object.
    Do you have a problem with the DRM built into the software you buy? I don’t see why books are different.

    However I do need to make it clear: I do not agree with Harper’s policy on limiting the lifespan of a book. They are simply trying to hang onto an old way of making money instead of being innovative and finding new ways to define publishing.

    The fact is that books are going the way of vinyl records and libraries need to reinvent themselves (which I believe they are doing much faster than the publishing industry). My sister is just completing her MLS and has no idea whether she will ever actually work in a library, a depressing situation.

  7. Lea Says:

    I agree that libraries need to reinvent themselves to some extent, but I don’t think it’s a fact that “books are going the way of vinyl records,” and that’s not me being an idealist, it’s completely accurate that public libraries circulate millions upon millions of books annually, and stats- at least where I am from in NY- have been going up in the past few years. I think it’s dangerous to assume that just because we have all of these new emerging technologies that the public is no longer interested in a good old-fashioned book. Libraries do need to reinvent themselves, but that is not to say they should be replacing their original function of providing information in a physical format to the community– rather, they should be adding to this foundation with newer services.

  8. Dan Says:

    I think a big part of the problem here is that libraries currently need to use third parties like Overdrive to supply ebooks to their patrons. Libraries need to be able to purchase eBooks that show up in their OPACs and are downloadable from the OPAC itself. Whatever system is devised so that publishers can make money and libraries can effectively lend eBooks needs to work without a third party like this.

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  11. Dish Washer Reviews Says:

    DRM is the bbackbone of the whole system

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