The Long and Winding Road To Drm-Free Ebooks In Academic Libraries

From No Shelf Required:

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 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.

Link to the rest at No Shelf Required

12 thoughts on “The Long and Winding Road To Drm-Free Ebooks In Academic Libraries”

  1. It’s hard to take this seriously when it makes questionable claims that the consumer market for e-books is stagnating or that users prefer print when reading for pleasure. What is really odd though is the writer’s apparent belief that DRM actually works to prevent e-books being copied or read on multiple devices. How could anyone write about e-book DRM without knowing about or mentioning Apprentice Alf is beyond me (unless it is some legal thing to pretend that this does not exist or she’s only concerned with academic works which may use different DRM systems?).

    • I have to respectfully disagree. The article is about libraries, and primarily academic ones. Hence the reference to the extensive collections of EBSCO. Most public libraries under a general cap in size have some EBSCO stuff, but they find it easier in a lot of cases to only have “pop magazines” through Texture / Zinio for Libraries. EBSCO pushes mainly academic titles out to the educational libraries.

      I think the reason that the article makes no reference to AA or other tools is not because they are pretending they don’t exist but because the article is about libraries — and no honourable librarian is going to strip DRM and risk the hefty fines that would accrue if it was revealed a library was doing so. We might get away with it for personal use, a library has no such “personal use” protection. And as the cited ALA article plus the main article point out, libraries are having major problems dealing with:

      – Challenges balancing traditional first sale doctrine against potential liability for treating digital resources the same way;
      – Potential expiry dates on content can limit preservation and archival purposes, particularly for culturally and historically significant works; and,
      – DRM approaches tend to limit well-established fair use, library or educational exceptions to copyright law.

      While I question the effectiveness of DRM generally, in this case, DRM works technically perfectly for the publisher — the libraries generally have to comply and pay the set price (I find it interesting it does NOT however mention that an unlimited user price is not the same as the single user price — just as I can subscribe to an academic journal for perhaps $200 a year, the institutional / multi-user price is often 4-5 times that amount).

      At the library level, DRM works as intended. At the individual level, once a user gets ahold of it, that’s a whole other ballgame. As the refs to Sci-Hub reflect.

      Having worked in an academic library earlier in my career, the identification of issues for librarians seems pretty solid…

      I would have liked though a comparison with non-academic libraries and other tools / actions out there…the use of OverDrive, ADE, and Zinio, for instance (all three of which I use for my public library, and all three of which come with some basic DRM built-in that works relatively well…unless I want to strip it, in which case it doesn’t work at all! hehehe)


  2. Digital Restriction Management has never truly worked – and never will. Oh, it might slow down or hinder an honest reader, but if someone wishes to have it they can bypass it with little effort.

    No matter the form, at some point the text has to be in a form the reader can actually ‘read’. At that point there are any number of ways to take a ‘snapshot’, run it through character recognition software and you now have that page of text, turn the page and do it all again. (Yes, there’s tons of software out there for most current DRMs, but there are ways around ‘all’ DRMs because at some point a human has to be able to see/hear/read them.)

    Some DRMs take more work than others to bypass (maybe that’s why certain people keep claiming ‘books’ are better than ‘ebooks’?) but all can be broken. The key to not having them broken (or simply copied) is to make buying the org cheaper or more reasonable than bothering with coping or having to bypass the DRM. (And I hear far to often of people having to find a ‘bypass’ because the DRMed product they actually paid for doesn’t/won’t work for them.)

    As to what the students thought of thinks? Why bother doing something that others can’t check without running into DRM paywalls?

    • Oh, it might slow down or hinder an honest reader, but if someone wishes to have it they can bypass it with little effort.

      That’s what it is designed to do. It keeps honest readers who just want to share a great book with their sorority email list from doing so. They all shared paper books in college, and just want to do the same with an eBook.

      Unless we are dealing with nukes, 100% is not the objective.

      • The POINT is that Digital Restriction Methods hurts ‘only’ the honest – and does nothing to slow/stop the dishonest.

        Which actually causes it to make more sense to copy/crack than to buy anything with DRM on it.

        • Exactly. That’s the point of DRM. To keep the honest folks from sending books to their sorority email list.

          Some people care about DRM. Most don’t know anything about it, and don’t care. Activists have been complaining about DRM for the last ten years, but most people just shrug and click on the next book.

  3. I hate being treated as a criminal when I’m not doing anything I consider wrong. Removing DRM (if I were to do such a thing through an easily obtainable method) allows me to backup my files for my own use. It also allows me to improve them — adding the covers and metadata that their publishers so often omit, and adding my own personal categorizations.

    Repeating: for my own use.

    • Moi aussi. I manage my elibrary with Calibre. DRM gets stripped. I find Kindle for PC to be touchy, so I view this as a necessary precaution. And I add my notes and ratings to the metadata:
      end …2018.03.25

      • I’ve never had any problems with Kindle for PC – at least for reading, its treatment of collections is crap. However, I’ve never used the PC files when stripping DRM for back up – despite the convenience of having it already there on the PC – as the file names were sufficiently obscure that I was never sure which book went with which file. Plus I had automatic update turned on and ended up with a version that downloaded KFX files which Calibre couldn’t cope with. I assume that you’ve got round these problems.

        I use the files from a Kindle e-reader, latterly downloading them for transfer via USB to get the non KFX version, though one has to take care as the file name may not be unique. As you say you can then play around with the meta data, etc.; for favourite titles I may even go through correcting the typos. The only problem comes when the book is updated as the updates don’t automatically make it to the back up version.

        • I reinstalled the Kindle for PC version from just before that update and plan to keep it indefinitely. (By the time that becomes untenable, I imagine there will be a plugin to deal with KFX).

          I rename the Amazon files as soon as they are downloaded into something intelligible, and since Calibre stores its version into author-sorted categories, (plus I get the imported filename from the Calibre metadata) that’s really all I need. I never need to refer to the original file again, since Calibre has the MOBI version in its own system, though I do stash them, just in case, in folders by year, where I annually lament the scope and thus cost of my book habit.

          • Karen: the KFX plug in is already here. See Nate’s post of 16 April:


            It seems that you also need a KFX for Calibre plug in and I’m not sure if you end up with the MOBI file you want.

            As for the costs, I know what you mean. I buy all my e-books on gift certificate balances – its saves filling up my credit card statements with dozens of small items – and I seem to have put about £5,300 onto this over the last few years (and then there are all the non fiction paper books that went on the credit card). It’s a good thing that I’m not into paying trad publishers’ new e-book prices (unless it’s for a favourite author for my wife) and that my favoured genres are mostly reasonably priced; anything else goes on an eReaderIQ watch list.

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