libraries & DRM

N.b.: blog comments are still broken here at No Maps. Open-source software doesn’t fix anything if you don’t know how to use it!

N.b.2: post updated with a correction, & language clarified.


Today is the Day Against DRM, the Free Software Foundation (FSF)’s Defective by Design campaign day of action.  DRM stands for “digital rights management”, a somewhat misleading term for software, file settings and other mechanisms that restrict what users of electronic content can do with that content. In the last few years, as consumer purchasing and end-user distribution of media and content has grown, and publishers worry about how to maintain revenue models by selling this content, the use of DRM has grown. Many products have DRM attached to their files or DRM support built into their product:

  • Apple’s iTunes, the iPad & iPod
  • The Kindle
  • Many computer games and programs
  • etc.

A long list is provided by Defective by Design. DRM technologies vary, but the basic idea is to keep you from distributing content illegally (e.g. without paying for it) or otherwise modifying it. Compare to, say, a paperback book: once you buy it, you own that physical instance of that work and are free to do with it as you will, whether that’s razoring out sections you don’t like or giving it to a friend (although to be fair the copyright mechanics of library lending & used-book resale, two freedoms at issue, have always been murky with analog content as well as digital — anyone who pretends otherwise is confusing cultural precedent with legal fact).

DRM proponents argue that these technical restrictions protect copyrights, and incomes for content creators and publishers. DRM opponents argue that these restrictions restrict consumer freedom to an unacceptable degree.


DRM issues intersect the library world in a variety of ways. Of course, libraries of all types are in the business of gathering, purchasing and distributing content of various types — books, journal articles, databases, special collections, audiobooks, movies, etc. Basically, if it’s ever been published in any way — or has the potential to be published — some library at some point has probably worried about whether or not they can collect it and lend it out. This is our mission — to preserve & make accessible the world’s knowledge. Now, what a library collects, and what format they lend it out in, depends a great deal on who a library’s clientele  is: a public library clientele may demand audiobooks of the latest thriller, while my patrons here at a research university need the latest scientific papers.

And it is at this point that I diverge from the stance of the Defective by Design folks, whose work I otherwise respect quite a bit. You see, as might be expected in this brave new world, a good number of products made and marketed for libraries involve DRM. For instance:

  • SAE (the Society for Automotive Engineering) slaps DRM on their downloadable technical papers — though the papers are in PDF format, SAE has bought another product that rides on top of the file (and is supported by Adobe reader) that restricts how many times you can print a paper that you pay for and download (to three times, in this case).
  • Another example is that of ebrary, an e-books third party marketer that takes electronic books from publishers, resells them in their own e-reader product, and applies DRM. For instance, the amount you can print at one time is limited, as  is how you can interact with the documents.  In many ebook vendor packages, seat restrictions apply so that only a limited number of people can see the book at any one time. Most e-book resellers do some version of this. (Edited to add a correction from my friend who has ebrary in their library, which I do not).

Both these examples are egregious moves on the publisher’s part, because they both actively interfere with how patrons can use the products, and they restrict the use of content that is fully purchased by libraries (again, think of a book). And the library community has actively protested DRM use in both of these products.

But it’s worth asking why we use these things in the first place. As an engineering librarian, I helped work on an analysis of the SAE sitution for our institution that led to us dropping our subscription (for this and other reasons). But I will still buy a paper for someone if they need it. Why? Because they need it. Above all, I hold a duty to my patrons to help them get the information they need, and sometimes that’s not available in any but a DRM’ed format. We can and will fight it, but the situation remains. Perhaps if all automotive engineers everywhere rose up in protest, SAE would change its ways, but libraries feel stuck in the middle.

Libraries that buy DRM’ed audiobook or ebook subscriptions perhaps have some choice; there are more products available, though most are DRMed and demand is high. But I guarantee that every librarian who has made the choice to purchase a DRM-based product in recent years has done so because they feel that having the content would benefit their clientele more than not having it would. And that’s our goal.

And so I agree with the spirit of Defective by Design’s letter to libraries: I do think DRM is bad and should be removed from our collections, and I think we should work with publishers to make content more open. But I disagree with the tone of confrontation, and I disagree with the premise that it’s always a binary choice, and the implied idea that DRM is the only factor that should be weighed in a content purchase.

I hope going forward — on this day and all the other days that libraries worry about what they can provide to folks within the constraints of budgets and technology and available products and community need (365 days a year, in other words) — that the library community and the anti-DRM community can work together productively, without hostility and with mutual understanding and appreciation that in the end, we have a common goal: freedom of access to information, in all its myriad and beautiful forms.

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