08 February 2008

DRM For Libraries?

This is a very bad precedent:

the BPL [Boston Public Library] has launched a new service powered by a company called OverDrive. The system gives BPL patrons access to books, music, and movies online -- but only if they use a Microsoft DRM system.

There are lots of problems with the introduction of this system: it bars access to users of GNU/Linux and MacOS and creates a dependence on a single technology vendor for access. These are important issues, certainly. The worst problem, however, is much more fundamental.

By adopting a DRM system for library content, the BPL is giving OverDrive, copyright holders, and Microsoft the ability to decide what, when, and how its patrons can and cannot read, listen, and watch these parts of the BPL collection. They are giving these companies veto power over the BPL's own ability to access this data -- both now and in the future. Cryptographically, BPL is quite literally handing over the keys to their collection. In the process, they are not only providing a disservice to their patrons. They are providing a disservice to themselves.

Libraries should be about opening people's minds, not closing off their collections.


Scot Colford said...

Listen, we all know that DRM is annoying at best. But we're able to offer content that would not be available to anyone in digital format otherwise because publishers feel comfortable with DRM. I hope that changes, but until then, I'm not sure what you're asking us to do.

Here's the official response. Rest assured that it was written by a real human being who knows what he's talking about, namely me:


One of the most popular new services provided by the Boston Public Library is OverDrive, a vendor-supplied lending system for electronic books, audio books, music, and videos. Digital Library Reserve, the vendor from whom we license this content has secured thousands of popular, high-quality titles from many major publishers under the condition that digital rights management (DRM) measures are taken to ensure that the material cannot be redistributed. Furthermore, the specific DRM schema used on OverDrive titles allow material to circulate for distinct periods of time, permitting the library to honor its licensing contract and to provide a service paralleling the loan of physical material. No personal patron information is shared with OverDrive or other third-parties in the download or DRM process. Please see the BPL privacy policy for more information. (http://www.bpl.org/general/policies/privacy.htm)

While we are well aware of the frustration DRM schema can cause end users, we feel that the high numbers of use (nearly 100,000 downloads since September, 2005) send a strong signal that our customers want access to the material OverDrive provides. For many years, the BPL has offered material in a variety of formats that require specific hardware and/or contain copy-protection technologies (DVDs, Macrovision-protected VHS tapes), but we’ve never been asked to discontinue circulation of this material because not every customer has the ability to use them.

Almost all of the titles available through OverDrive are also available in other formats. Customers who are unable to use DRM-protected content can certainly access the same content via CDs, DVDs, print books, and magnetic media. We also provide links to several other sources for digital eBooks, audio, and video that are in the public domain, and therefore do not require DRM.

Boston Public Library is committed to providing free access to community-owned resources and will continue to search for partners who can provide material to the most number of users possible.

Scot Colford
Applications Manager
Boston Public Library

Glyn Moody said...

Thanks for taking the time to comment.

I appreciate this is frustrating for you, but for me the key sentence is when you say “I hope that changes”. Well, it's not going to change, or only very slowly, if you acquiesce in DRM. Again, as your response puts it: “we feel that the high numbers of use (nearly 100,000 downloads since September, 2005) send a strong signal that our customers want access to the material OverDrive provides.” Why should the publishers change?

Now, you know as well as I do all the arguments against DRM – how it overrides fair use, locks out classes of users (typically those using GNU/Linux) and is dependent on the company remaining in business. The publishers – with a few honourable exceptions – simply don't care about these issues (I know, I used to *be* a publisher, at Reed Elsevier).

This is nothing personal: I have even more problems with the BBC adopting Windows-only DRM for its iPlayer (now graciously being extended to Macs – but no GNU/Linux). But the point for me is that the BBC – and libraries – should be in the forefront of this fight for free access to knowledge for everyone. You should be refusing to accept DRM, and when users complain about the lack of certain titles, you should point the finger at the guilty parties (and if, as you seem to indicate, the titles are in any case available without DRM elsewhere, or in the public domain, then why on earth are you allowing DRM to be imposed?)

Anything else merely makes you a vector of the disease instead of part of the cure.

Scot Colford said...

Thanks for keeping the discussion going! I'm just glad that we're able to actually have a conversation about this.

Yes, of course DRM stinks. But regarding my hope that the DRM-laden environment of digital media changes, I feel a bit more optimistic than you sound. Things are changing, at least in the retail world and I have it on good authority that library services are soon to follow, thanks to vocal people like yourself. (And Apple users, too, actually.) I can't really say to much more about what I know is coming, as it's still early, so forgive the cryptic tease. Just watch our site in the coming months.

I think, too, that we're coming at the role of libraries from different directions. Our goal is to increase access to content, not to change the publishing industry. Our focus is on the user -- and I anticipate your objection -- so why would we not offer a service that the majority of our patrons can use? Discontinuing the service doesn't improve any of our other services. And as other bloggers have pointed out, eliminating DRM from our library would also mean the exclusion of standard formats like DVDs.

Believe me, we're doing all we can to encourage open access to library materials. Check out the recent stories in the New York Times about our partnership with the Internet Archive and Open Content Alliance, for instance. (Just ignore the misleading headline.) But we have a mission to fulfill and that's to "to serve the cultural, educational and informational needs of the people of the City and the Commonwealth". The people want access to current, popular eBooks, audio books, music, and video. And as of today, these materials are only available to us in Windows DRM protected format.

I think we really do agree more than we disagree. We just don't want to punish users who are not concerned about DRM in order to take an noble, if fruitless stance on a philosophical issue. Our mission is to serve, not to preach.

Glyn Moody said...

I agree we're definitely on the same side, it's just that sometimes I wish libraries would have a little more ambition in terms of helping the fight for the knowledge they hold and transmit.

I look forward to the coming developments you hint at. Meanwhile, you'll excuse me if I get back to my preaching....