Protest DRM at the Boston Public Library


On Saturday February 9th, at 13:00, I’m going to be joining free software and anti-DRM activists to protest the use of DRM by the Boston Public Library on parts of its electronic collection.

Those of us protesting are unhappy because the BPL has launched a new service powered by a company called OverDrive. The system gives BPL patrons access to books, music, and movies online — but only if they use a Microsoft DRM system.

There are lots of problems with the introduction of this system: it bars access to users of GNU/Linux and MacOS and creates a dependence on a single technology vendor for access. These are important issues, certainly. The worst problem, however, is much more fundamental.

By adopting a DRM system for library content, the BPL is giving OverDrive, copyright holders, and Microsoft the ability to decide what, when, and how its patrons can and cannot read, listen, and watch these parts of the BPL collection. They are giving these companies veto power over the BPL’s own ability to access this data — both now and in the future. Cryptographically, BPL is quite literally handing over the keys to their collection. In the process, they are not only providing a disservice to their patrons. They are providing a disservice to themselves.

The first-sale doctrine says that libraries can do essentially whatever they like with copies of books they purchase short of duplication, modification, or performance. Of course, copyright holders would prefer to charge a toll every time someone checks out a book. Public libraries were possible in spite of this desire because they were able to exploit power over the possession and control of their books in the interests of their patrons. With DRM, libraries will reduced to powerlessness.

Of course, times have changed. As media and the ways we interact with it is increasingly digital, libraries have changed and will need to change more. But if public libraries are to succeed at their fundamental mission of spreading knowledge and serving communities, this change can’t be at the expense of patrons’ ability to control their own technology and libraries’ ability to control their own collections.

I’ve supported my academic library, MIT Libraries, as they took a risk and stood up to DRM when other institutions did not. And they won.

BPL is the largest municipal library in the US and the third largest US library overall. It is the first library to be supported publicly, to be open to the public in the US, and to allow patrons to take home books to read and use them. BPL has an opportunity now to continue this history of leadership, of access, and of patron empowerment.

If BPL stands up against DRM and in favor of its patrons’ freedom and its own control of its technical destiny and collection, it may set an important precedent. If you’re in or near Boston, please join me in Copley Square on Saturday to help make this happen. If you’re not near Boston, please help put pressure on similar efforts in your own communities.

14 Replies to “Protest DRM at the Boston Public Library”

  1. Hi, Benjamin. Don Saklad passed on your post to me so I’d be aware of your visit to the BPL this Saturday. I’ve spoken with Don at length about the use of DRM in our subscription OverDrive service, but he may not have filled you in on our talks.

    Listen, we all know that DRM is annoying at best. But 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 what you’re asking us to do.

    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:

    <hr />

    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.

  2. It seems to me that the Library is offering DRM access to new content that would otherwise not be available in electronic form. It is not applying DRM to existing content and then forcing you to use that method.

    It’s important to note that Library’s have long been subject to “RM” (Rights Management) in terms of not being able to reproduce/modify the works it contains. It’s not surprising that digital works would also have similar rights management (DRM).

    In alliance with your protest, would you also suggest that the Library should contain no books that are not available in audio & braille formats to protect the rights of the disabled?

  3. I’m struggling with this one because libraries are not in the business of distributing media for permanent ownership.

    I’m against DRM because it prevents people from exercising the freedom to do what they want with the copies that they have purchased: people should be able to fully use the stuff that they own.

    On the other hand, when you take a book out from a library, you can’t do whatever you want with it because it’s not yours, and you have to return it by a certain date. Therefore, I am not certain that I am against libraries encrypting their downloads with DRM because these restrictions are similar to restrictions on book-lending. If the library did not encrypt with DRM, they would effectively be selling audiobooks for $0.

  4. I am a library school student and work for one of the nation’s largest public library systems, and I’ll tell you this: Don’t expect librarians to understand this issue.

    They so desperately want to be relevant in today’s tech-filled world, they will embrace with open arms any shiny new thing with a good salesman behind it. They’ll pat themselves on the back for giving the patrons what they think the patrons want and will not understand it when the public ignores this new thing. And if you flat out tell them you don’t like it, they will just get defensive. 

    To be fair, libraries don’t really own the Overdrive content. Basically, they spend a lot of money to give their patrons access to Overdrive’s properties. This may be better or worse than the way you have described it here.

    Overdrive is a dumb thing for libraries–if only because the DRM keeps it from working on IPods. So they spend all this money on audiobook access and it doesn’t even work on the device that patrons who would be interested in this would most likely own.

  5. I agree with Matt that often libraries take a stab in the dark to offer a new service only to find that no one is interested. We have not found that to be the case with OverDrive at the BPL, however. As I’ve stated, we’ve seen nearly 100,000 downloads in just over two years. Pretty good circulation for a small collection, I’d say.

    I also agree that it’s really unfortunate that OverDrive titles can’t be played on iPods. The fact of the matter is that no digital media lending service is available to libraries that does provide iPod-compatible content. Apple has its own DRM scheme called FairPlay and they aren’t licensing it to vendors like OverDrive or NetLibrary.

    Believe me, we all know that DRM stinks. I just don’t think that scrapping a successful, popular service will help anyone.

  6. Re: SAE, “winning” is semi-questionable. It’s still not a good package — lots of questionable practices. They did take off DRM, but only if you comply with other unpalatable restrictions. Not sure about MIT, but we decided to stay unsubscribed.

    The negotiations between libraries and vendors are always tricky, but it’s worse when you’ve got a group like SAE that provides a fair bit of unique content that big engineering schools, say, can’t do without. With popular e-books, on the other hand, there are several choices of vendors. I haven’t looked at BPL’s service so don’t know if they are providing something unique.

  7. To clarify what I said about SAE above, they do still apply DRM when you buy individual .pdfs from their website (only two printouts, can only save to one computer, they keep track of how much you open or try to print it back at the mothership).

    The deal they tried to cut with schools involved buying a set package of paper downloads at a higher cost and then they would give us the benefit of no DRM. This was as of a few months ago, don’t know if they’ve tried to renegotiate with anyone. We decided it was more cost-effective and more fair to just buy the cds and provide mediated assistance to our patrons, even though that is more inconvenient to everyone.

  8. Mako,
    I’m a Hampshire grad living in Boston, and I’d love to participate in an event like this. I’m sad to have missed it this time around, but definitely hit me up if there are more actions being done!

  9. Thanks for your letter Scot.

    Hopefully it is clear to you that ours is not an anti-BPL campaign. We are technology activists and deeply concerned about Digital Restrictions Management, which quite literally requires that every user distribute the keys to their computer to third-party companies. We have worked, successfully, to stem the application of DRM for music. You might also have read the recent news from Random House, Penguin, and Border’s announcing their intents to move away from DRM on digital audiobooks.  Random House even went so far as to say that the only titles that will remain under DRM are the ones going to OverDrive — which means that the BPL is now quite directly keeping DRM in business when publishers want it gone.

    What we are now asking you for is the elimination of DRM from the BPL collection and a formal declaration by the library system clearly stating opposition to DRM technologies. OverDrive’s software fundamentally shifts the library’s role from an organization that is involved in procuring works to be distributed as widely as possible, to an organization that is only “reselling” others’ DRMed media, without even having the rights to the works in its own collection.

    Though at first glance having digital materials “expire” after some time might seem an extension of the way libraries have always worked, expiring ebooks are fundamentally different than traditional loaned books. The reason for limited checkout time of printed books is scarcity — if one patron has a book, another patron can’t. This isn’t the case with digital materials. Any number of patrons could have copies of the same digital book, and yet they are being artificially made even more scarce than the paper versions. Electronic media is an opportunity for libraries to distribute material more widely. This is an opportunity that DRM subverts and defeats. DRM is about much more than the inconvenience you acknowledge — to buy into it is to allow a fundamental warrant for the library’s existence to be removed.

    You say that you, “offer content that would not be available to anyone in digital format otherwise because publishers feel comfortable with DRM.” That’s simply not true. You offer texts and recordings on OverDrive that are in the public domain (e.g., Alice in Wonderland). We heard for years that mainstream music could never be distributed and sold without DRM. Luckily, consumers, artists, and activists didn’t listen. Today almost every major record label offers DRM-free downloads. 

    To make this argument is also to deny the power of the library as a leader. The BPL can play an important example by standing up to DRM on behalf of its patrons, on behalf of itself, and on behalf of other libraries. MIT Libraries canceled a subscription to a journal last year (SAE) because of the imposition of DRM. You can bet that not all patrons were happy about it. Ultimately, the action resulted in a much better licensing agreement without a DRM requirement not just for MIT Libraries but for all academic institutions. Most libraries don’t have either the size or the prestige to have this type of leverage. The Boston Public Library does.

    Hundreds of years ago, libraries went all the way to courts to argue for the permission to distributed copyright books. They stood up for their patrons and their own role and they won for all of us. Now is an excellent time for the BPL to take the lead in the modern version of that argument. Momentum is quite clearly on the side of eliminating DRM, and the BPL should take this moment to position itself on the prevailing side.

    Perhaps you can’t immediately end your contract with OverDrive this afternoon, but there are steps that can be taken immediately. You can ask them to remove the DRM from the public domain books and from books by publishers who have stated their opposition to DRM. You can put more energy and attention toward guiding your customers to non-DRM books, including those books that are in the public domain, than you do in guiding tham toward OverDrive books. And you can warn patrons of the dangers of DRM in an honest and clear fashion, so that they understand the full repercussions of DRM on ebooks. This would be a small step, but, I suspect, very good. It would send a clear message that the publishers, and other libraries, would notice.

    For our part, will be continuing our campaign against this form of DRM. We will be targeting OverDrive directly, and all of OverDrive’s suppliers. In this way we hope to make it easier for you to change. We will publicize any moves you make away from DRM to the thousands of people who follow and support our campaign, and will gladly provide any assitance we can to your efforts.

  10. What’s been happening with respect to our Boston Public Library?… besides the appointment of the new head of our library Amy Ryan.

  11. Cambridge Public Library

    9/24/09 – We are pleased to announce that on October 14th Minuteman will be going live with a new digital audiobook download service from
    OverDrive. With the OverDrive service, patrons will be able to download audiobooks and ebooks to their computers and portable devices. T
    hey will be able to browse a website featuring Minuteman’s collection of digital resources and check out titles, or place requests for ti
    tles currently “checked out”.

  12. Cambridge Public Library

    9/24/09 – We are pleased to announce that on October 14th Minuteman will be going live with a new digital audiobook download service from OverDrive. With the OverDrive service, patrons will be able to download audiobooks and ebooks to their computers and portable devices. They will be able to browse a website featuring Minuteman’s collection of digital resources and check out titles, or place requests for titles currently “checked out”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *