Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Copyright, Digital Rights Management (DRM), and Libraries

A colleague here at the library recently brought to my attention a post on the Boing Boing message board regarding libraries and intellectual property and, more specifically, about libraries' use of content controlled by Digital Rights Management (DRM) software. An organization called is encouraging people to write their libraries to demand that they quit buying digital material from publishers who impose DRM technology on users.

It's intellectual property, it's digital, and, judging by the message board posting, it's got people riled up. It must be complicated, right?

It sure is! But it's also interesting, if you're into this sort of thing.

DRM technology is a blanket term used to describe any software that restricts the use of something that is sold digitally but still protected by copyright.

Wonder why you can't burn a million copies of your mix CD that you made with songs you bought from iTunes? That would be DRM.

Remember the scandal that erupted a couple of years ago when Sony encrypted music CDs with some piracy-prevention software that made people's computers susceptible to viruses? Another form of DRM.

If you've ever tried to read or listen to an eBook or watch digital content from one of the major vendors that the library buys from, you have also experienced DRM. These companies generally require that you use their proprietary reader to view the book. This is so that they can restrict the amount of pages you can print, the amount of copies you can make, etc, and prevent people from illegally copying the works.

If you read the whole complaint from the anti-DRM crew, you'll find that their primary complaint is not about the clunkiness of these interfaces (having worked in libraries, I suppose I could furnish a few complaints if you want me to), but rather about the need to use certain software to access the digital material you borrow from the library. For instance, to read an eBook, you may need to have Internet Explorer. To listen to a digital audiobook, you may have to have Windows Media Player. If you want to watch streaming video content, you may have to have Windows Vista. Not all vendors have the same software requirements, but the argument seems to be that enough do that it has an effect on the software market -- if enough library users are using digital material that requires them to favor a certain brand of computer products, there is an adverse effect on the other software producers.

The companies that attach these restrictions to their materials are not doing anything illegal. What they are doing is using a contract to prevent libraries from exercising rights that they would otherwise have. Libraries have enjoyed a fair amount of wiggle room in our application of copyright law. By building restrictions into licensing contracts, the publishers are preventing what has been standard practice for decades, or at least as long as photocopiers have been around.

The professional organization that represents librarians, the ALA, recommends a compromise in the form of updated guidelines for DRM. What do you think? Is it fair for companies to exercise this level of control over their intellectual property?

Carrie Russell has written an indispensable copyright reference for librarians called Complete Copyright: An Everyday Guide for Librarians. No DRM concerns for this book; we only have it in print.

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