Digital Rights Management (DRM) & Libraries

Digital rights management (DRM) technology controls how digital information resources, including media, can be accessed, copied, distributed, reformatted, or otherwise changed. These software and hardware controls are usually embedded in the work or device, and can be protection schemes as basic as password protection.

There are a variety of different types of DRM technologies used in an equally wide number of markets:

  • Proprietary ebook controls, i.e. Amazon ebooks are only readable on a Kindle device or application.
  • Video games requiring connection to an “authentication server” for each play session after the first point of sale, i.e. Electronic Arts’ Origin game software.
  • Smartphones “locked” out of running certain applications, operating systems, or on service providers, i.e. device-specific versions of Android OS on carrier-restricted phones.
  • DVD or Blu-Ray videos that prevent buyers from copying the video onto a portable media player, or even playing the video on a computer without proprietary software, i.e. Sony’s Blu-Ray videos remaining incompatible with the basic Windows Media Player.
  • Digital music files with access controls, i.e. iTunes songs that will only play when connected to the Apple server.
  • Digital files watermarked with the purchaser's names and email address, i.e. Harry Potter ebooks distributed by Pottermore.

Beyond affecting individual consumers, unbalanced DRM controls present some significant challenges to a library's ability to disseminate information to citizens:

  • “First sale” doctrine allows libraries to buy physical copies of copyrighted works and then distribute them to library users, but this legal protection may not extend to digital media, especially when digital resources are acquired via a license agreement. In addition, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) includes a provision that makes it a crime to circumvent or hack DRM except in very specific instances.
  • Enforcing a “pay-per-use” default model of dissemination as is contrary to the greater purpose of copyright law, which seeks to balance exclusive rights and protections for creators with encouraging future artistic and technological innovation
  • Preserving, archiving, and providing access to culturally and historically significant works is severely limited by DRM distribution systems that remove content at the end of a license term, or prevent copying content in new formats. Libraries and archives preserve and provide access to cultural heritage for multiple generations, but business models enforced by technology jeopardize long-term access to the knowledge products of our society
  • These restrictions effectively limit fair use and other user, library, or educational exceptions to copyright law that help balance the economic interests of creators and distributors with the public interest in encouraging innovation, the free flow of information, and new creativity.