Digital Rights Management

How libraries deal with publisher restrictions

March 2, 2020

Since the beginning of digital rights management (DRM) for ebooks, library users have expressed frustration with reading and navigating digital files. Many have been vocal about how DRM has challenged their ability to access information online, pointing to the:

  • lack of interoperability and standards among dedicated ebook vendors (because of proprietary DRM technologies)
  • confusion as to what users can and cannot do with digital files
  • inability to use ebooks effectively for research, as limits are placed on activities such as copying and printing
  • absence of any guarantee of access to content in perpetuity

For these and other reasons, users are dissatisfied with how publishers and content providers are making ebooks available.

Public and academic librarians are also vocal in their concerns. Because of their challenging roles as go-betweens, librarians must figure out how to meet patron demands while complying with publisher restrictions. Some key concerns:

  • DRM systems are not always affordable.
  • Control often remains in the hands of content suppliers, who track activities to ensure the library regularly renews its license .
  • The contract process is complex, as libraries sometimes need to negotiate rights for each publisher, in some cases on a title-by-title basis.
  • User experience is cumbersome—as more ebooks are coated with DRM, the more difficult they are to use.

Educate users on how to discover freely available research materials in open access repositories.

Led in part by the open access movement and libraries’ willingness to fund it, academic publishers are starting to pay attention to end-user feedback by embracing the idea of DRM-free content. Although most scholarly ebooks continue to be distributed to libraries with DRM encryption, publishers such as Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, SAGE, Springer Nature/Palgrave Macmillan, Elsevier, and Wiley offer DRM-free titles. Even aggregators like EBSCO, ProQuest, JSTOR, and Project MUSE now provide DRM-free titles on their platforms, which offer access to large amounts of content by many publishers.

In public libraries, mainstream publishers have gone the opposite direction, imposing more restrictions. Major trade publishers such as Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, and Macmillan use DRM to enforce loan caps: After a library has loaned a title 52 times within a two-year period, it cannot loan that title until it renews its license with the publisher.

Some publishers are placing ebook embargoes on libraries, which gets in the way of equitable access to information. Effective November 1, 2019, Macmillan imposed a restriction on library lending across all its imprints. Libraries offering digital access to new Macmillan titles can buy perpetual access to only a single copy within the first eight weeks of its release. After that, libraries can buy as many copies of the title as they want, but those copies are subject to the two-year, 52-loan cap.

Although faced with these challenges, libraries can exert significant influence on the future of DRM. Some recommendations:

  • Protect privacy vehemently.
  • Educate users on how to discover freely available research materials in open access repositories.
  • Support open access actively. By providing financial support for open access initiatives, libraries can make more open content available and accelerate the sharing and advancement of knowledge and science.

Perhaps the most logical way to proceed is to take cues from lessons learned thus far—lessons that point to less DRM and more user flexibility as desired outcomes.

Adapted from “Digital Rights Management and Books,” Library Technology Reports vol. 56, no. 1 (Jan. 2020).



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