Libraries: Kick DRM Out!

<a href=""></a> has announced an action against libraries that support DRM on their collections. Boston locals can join them this Saturday from 1pm to 3pm at the Boston Public Library's main branch...


That's effectively what this group is saying, using a departed director as a convenient scapegoat.

Maybe it's a good idea--maybe public libraries should not have any resources that contain DRM--but that does rule out almost all DVD (and, by the way, almost all videocassettes, except that the restrictions weren't digital), pretty much all subscription audiobook/music/etc. digital resources, Playaway, many (if not most) licensed databases...

I'm not wild about DRM either. But trying to "throw out" all of it is essentially arguing for a return to nothing but books and physical sound recordings.

Protest the library for doing their job and serving their patrons?

Yeah, let's ask the (I assume) barely staffed and private-sectorly funded library to also be an intellectual property and civil litigation law firm! Awesome.

That would make our nerdy, stupid, pointless, vain, navel-gazeing attempt at social activism so much easier. We can go back to being smug about our Macs.

Hey, librarians! Can you also get around to ending the war, building an electric car and impeaching the President? Hurry up, or we'll protest.

Let's protest the post office next! FREEEEEEEEDOM!

Jackasses. The lot of them. I hope they get the Bull Connor treatment and that the fire hoses scatter their small, clever glasses, messenger bags and little camping water bottles all over the street.

Listen, we all know that DRM is annoying at best. But at the BPL, 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 that scrapping the new, popular service is helpful to anyone.

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. (

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
[email protected]

> Introducing DRM changes the line between what is your own, and
> what belongs to the Englobulators.

> The issue is: the Library, by using "DRM", supports the general
> principle that we should be under surveillance and that our
> computers should be under the control of the Englobulators at all
> times. No, we should not be under constant surveillance and no,
> we should keep our computers our own. That means no DRM. None
> whatsoever.
> Don, you may quote this, with attribution, and a warning that I
> cannot, this month, enter the public conversation.
> oo--JS.

I agree with Walt that there's nothing new about DRM, or about restricting library materials to those who can afford the equipment required to use them. But this recognition leads me to a different conclusion: why is it acceptable for public libraries to restrict any of their materials in this way?

Books have certain physical requirements for use—namely light—and libraries have historically provided not just books but well-lit reading rooms. It seems to me that a truly public library would provide means of access for those who can't afford to pay for the proper devices. Why not have a listening room where anyone can sit (for an unlimited length of time) and listen to the OverDrive media files on library-owned computers with library-owned headphones? Maybe this is something that BPL already provides.

If not, then the library is at risk of becoming what Ivan Illich called a "false public utility": something that exists as a public service only to those who can afford the appropriate equipment. Illich wrote in Tools for Conviviality that as a result of industrial production, "Public utilities are turned from facilities for persons into arenas for the owners of expensive tools."

It's also worth noting that DefectiveByDesign is concerned about not just access but preservation: DRM does serious damage to a library's ability to maintain and preserve the materials in its collection, which, as DBD notes, is part of BPL's legal mandate. I'm curious about the library's response to this part of the complaint.

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