A couple of weeks ago I went to see a band I’ve loved for ages play a show. They don’t play live much — one of them lives in Brooklyn and the other in London — and it was a sweet treat to hear so many of my favorite songs. They played one song in particular that I really like and haven’t heard recently when I listen to their CDs on my computer or phone. After wondering whether it was a new or unreleased track, a bit of digging revealed that I do actually own the album that includes the song, and in fact the album itself is in my Itunes. But Itunes had been skipping over it, as if it didn’t even exist. Somewhere after some update Itunes had decided that I don’t have the rights to listen to it anymore, because my partner had bought the album for my birthday a few years ago, and Itunes was pegging it to his account rather than mine.
Once I figured things out it wasn’t hard to get the album back into my regular listening rotation. But this small annoyance illustrates a bigger issue: the problems created by digital rights management (DRM). Today is the International Day Against DRM, advocacy initiated by the Free Software Foundation. The FSF’s Defective By Design campaign seeks to eliminate the restrictions to digital media use imposed by DRM. While DRM is intended to combat piracy and other illegal uses of music, ebooks, movies, software, and other media, it also restricts uses that seem perfectly reasonable from a user’s perspective. And while (as the website notes) DRM has become much less prevalent in music recently, other media are still very much affected.
DRM is an enormous thorn in the side of academic, public, and other libraries. Cory Doctorow’s article in the Guardian yesterday, which discusses scifi publisher Tor Books’ decision to stop using DRM on its ebooks, covers many of the issues around DRM well. Some that are most pressing for libraries include:
With the proliferation of ebook formats the landscape is cluttered and complex, and it can be difficult to determine which ebooks can be read on which devices. This hurts libraries and readers immensely. Like many libraries we’ve acquired lots of ebooks recently which seems like good news for our students and faculty on the face of it: we’re a small physical space and our readers have long commutes, so ebooks could be super useful. But the barriers to actually getting that content on your device are so high, requiring many confusing steps and sometimes including downloading additional proprietary software. While my colleague Allie Verbovetskaya created an awesome handout to guide our users, I still worry that it’s just too much to bother with.
Number of Users
One of the wonderful things about digital media is that it’s easy to allow multiple, simultaneous uses. This is a feature, not a bug, but DRM seeks to restrict multiple uses. Don’t get me wrong: writers write, publishers publish, and I believe that both deserve to get paid for their work. But I think there’s something wrong when I have to wait 6 wks to read an ebook from my public library because someone else has it “checked out,” or when only 1 student at a time can read an etextbook because the publisher’s price for a license that supports multiple readers is prohibitively expensive. There has to be a better way.
So Happy Day Against DRM! Learn more on the Defective by Design website, which includes a guide to DRM-free media and other great resources:
And for more on library-specific DRM issues, check out the Readers Bill of Rights, Alycia Sellie of Brooklyn College and Matthew Goins’s wonderful project: