The British Library: Mission Impossible; I still need information

Dictated into Arcturus

There was a very well known television programme, Mission: Impossible ( which normally started with the secret agent listening to a tape recorder and finished with the words “this tape will self destruct in 5 seconds” after which smoke would come out of the tape recorder. The modern analogy of this is the digital rights management (DRM) ( ) practised by the British Library (BL).

Two days ago I asked if people could help by providing accurate information and I have been disappointed by the result. I appreciate that there is no requirement for anybody to help me in this mission but I have only asked for factual information, not for people to put their heads above the parapet.

So far – mainly through my own researching – I have found out that the BL imposes DRM through proprietary software. I believe, though I have no evidence, that by its nature this software severely restricts the type of information and the type of use that is transmitted. For example it is predicated to the use of printing on paper rather than using the power of the digital media. From the twittersphere I get confirmation that the DRM exists and is a problem, and that many librarians probably do not know about it. Having read the BL’s material on DRM it appears that documents propagated through this medium can only be read once. They can be forwarded so long as the forwarder does not read them and they can be saved on disk. I do not know whether they can only be saved on disk before this single act of reading and I intend to find this out.

DRM, which the Free Software Foundation suggests should be called Digital Restrictions Management, is a major threat to freedom. Its sole purpose is to restrict access to materials or to restrict their use. The major beneficiaries of DRM are those who wish to collect revenue or wish to restrict the flow of information, for example for political purposes. The immediate message of DRM is that the recipient of the information is not a responsible agent. It assumes that they intend to break rules and regulations and that they are so committed to this breach that technical methods must be used rather than normal human communication.

My particular case of inter library loans refers almost exclusively to employed staff and in research and learning organisations. When a loan is made it is known who the recipient is, almost always an academic or researcher. I would have hoped that by default this person was trusted to behave responsibly; the use of DRM implies that their natural behaviour is to steal and corrupt the trust. I cannot believe that there has been any significant breach of ILLs at any time. The material is valueless in monetary terms and if there was an attempt to “steal” material and repurpose it it would be immediately clear who was doing it and they could be brought to book.

The use of DRM on academic material transmitted by the BL to UK academics is an implicit statement that they cannot be trusted.

I shall be asking the BL what the motivation for the DRM policy is. To help clarify my questions I will speculate here and hope for feedback:

  • The first motivation is cost recovery. The BL is tasked with recovering costs, just as was the Ordnance Survey. In that case Rufus Pollock of the Open Knowledge Foundation showed this to be a false economy for the country – the money brought in was far less than the opportunity and other costs to the wider economy. I would expect this to be the case here. I cannot believe that DRM’ing BL material brings in more money; it also costs money to enforce (and I’ll be asking that). And it must surely reduce the dissemination of material which is, after all, a (if not the) major purpose of the BL.
  • The second is copyright. Copyright does not work in the digital age – there are too many major problems. It is probably the most important barrier to effective scholarship. There are two main approaches. One is to push for relaxation of copyright, both in practice and in the law and to reap the benefits of increased communication. There will be problems, and maybe law cases, but they will be an acceptable price. The other, which the BL pursues, is to assume that where there is the slightest uncertainty that copyright must be invoked (and the reader must be charged, even for free material); and this necessarily restricts the flow of information.

The problem is not just that the BL imposes these practices, but that they act as implicit and explicit guidelines to academic librarians. Academic librarians are paralyzed by copyright – there is always the risk that a 60-year dead author would rise from its grave and demand monetary and legal recompense for the free dissemination of their scientific writings. So academic librarians are often even worse than the BL. “Deep throat” informs me of bizarre restrictions which I suspect were added by overeager librarians keen to make sure nothing can possibly go wrong.

So I repeat my request for information about ILL and the BL (and local practices). I shan’t publish names if you don’t want. But if I can’t even get correct factual information then I am disappointed and disillusioned. By acquiescing to DRM for academic materials, you are bringing either 1984 or Fahrenheit451 to our future society.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The British Library: Mission Impossible; I still need information

  1. Stuart Bentley says:

    Whilst I don’t disagree with the spirit of what you’re saying, I think there are a few faulty premises in your post.
    The reason academic librarians are paralyzed by copyright is that it’s the law, and the librarian is often responsible for managing the institution’s licence for copying (you can read standard licences for education at because it sits nicely administratively with the place where all the materials are kept. You can find the Act of Parliament at and if you read the sections on fair dealing and what librarians and education are allowed to do – including regarding inter library loan -, you will see that the restrictions aren’t imposed by librarians but by Government. Failure to comply can result in the rescinding of licences and large fines against the institution and the person named as the institution’s copyright officer is likely to be fired. Which does not help anyone’s agenda.
    Similarly, my understanding is that the BL’s hands are similarly tied by the licences granted them by the publishers, who are the people who make the money in the scenario and so have the vested interest in keeping things under a tight leash. However, they will be better placed to respond on that.
    The law is outdated by any means and the digital economy bill is going to take things in a worse direction. What is required is academics to come together with librarians and lobby for change, rather than demonising them.

    • pm286 says:

      I fully agree the law shackles libraries. But it does not say they MUST implement DRM. That is what I am following

Leave a Reply

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