The issue of Digital Rights Management (DRM) has been around for as long as ebooks have been around—and not only ebooks, but digital content in general, including online journals, movies, TV shows, games, and software. DRM is usually discussed in the context of copyright and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, which makes circumvention of measures that control access to copyrighted works a civil offense (in some cases even a federal crime). But DRM isn’t copyright. It refers to actual technology—a code or a set of codes—applied to restrict the digital use of copyrighted materials. In the publishing world, it is a way of ‘protecting’ digital books against copyright infringement and piracy, which have been a major concern to publishers since the advent of the Internet. By using protection—usually via three DRM types, Amazon for Kindle, Apple’s FairPlay for iBookstore and Adobe’s Digital Editions Protection Technology—publishers (or copyright holders) are able to control what users can and cannot do with digital content.
This means that people buying ebooks, whether for personal or institutional use, are paying for usage, not possession (as has been the case for centuries with print books). When encrypted with DRM, ebooks cannot be easily (if at all) copied or printed, viewed on multiple devices, or moved from one device to another. Further, they can only be downloaded a certain number of times (even when legally bought online) and, if necessary, blocked in certain territories around the world (or made invisible to users in certain countries). Such restrictions have given publishers and authors some peace of mind over the past two decades, but they have resulted in many inconveniences for legitimate users, including lay readers who purchase digital content on sites like Amazon and researchers who access digital content through libraries.
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These same restrictions, many believe, are one of the essential reasons for the popularity of ebooks in the consumer market is stagnating. Apart from the fact that users tend to prefer print over digital when reading for pleasure (vs. when doing research), various DRM-related limits placed on ebooks— including territorial restrictions and inability to copy, print, and share—have only contributed to the overall decline in consumer ebook sales in recent years. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in January 2018, only seven percent of Americans read digital books exclusively, while 39 percent read print books, and 29 percent read both print and digital.
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[S]ome trade publishers have been embracing the concept of DRM-free ebooks from the very beginning, including technology publishers like O’Reilly and Microsoft and genre fiction publishers like Carina Press, and Tor.com. On the academic side, many publishers have been providing DRM-free titles on their own platforms for a number of years—including Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, SAGE, Springer/Palgrave, Elsevier, Wiley, De Gruyter, Brill, and Emerald, among others—but, until recently, they have not been giving large aggregators like EBSCO the option to distribute their titles DRM-free.
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In the world of research and academic libraries, the main issue has not been the preference of one format over the other, if for no other reason than for the fact that the sheer volume of academic titles published every year, is overwhelming. Based on the number of titles profiled by GOBI Library Solutions, a major library services vendor, at least 70,000 academic titles are published annually in the English language alone. Since the advent of the first library ebook platforms and subscription databases about 20 years ago, academic librarians have had their ‘hands’ full keeping up with the onslaught of digital resources, while experimenting with ever-evolving ebook business models and understanding their short-term and long-term repercussions. Indeed, the key ebook issue in academic libraries has to this day revolved around the effects of various business models on budgets and libraries’ ability to build sustainable digital collections for their institutions.
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A survey published this spring by Library Journal—whose goal was to investigate academic student ebook experience in four-year colleges, universities, graduate programs, as well as two-year or community colleges—found that 74 percent of students accessing ebooks through libraries believe there should be no restrictions placed on ebooks; 66 percent prefer to use ebooks with no restrictions; and 37 percent have taken a principled stand and only use ebooks that have no restrictions when conducting research.