More insight into DRM at the BL (Bill McCoy, ex-Adobe)

Typed on a slightly dodgy keyboard into Arcturus

I have had an excellent, long and thoughtful reply from Bill McCoy. I quoted from his blog at Adobe ( ), where he highlighted the shortcomings of some Adobe products. I thought this was brave and applaud it – it is rare to see employees being honest – in public – when sales are at stake.

He’s no longer with Adobe and he has written a useful account of the way that scholarly publications should be managed – in the browser, not at the server. I like his analysis. I am not against access control per se, and it works well in most cases – certainly far better than DRM.

The last paragraph is very useful and shows the difficult path that institutions such as the BL have to tread. I truly don’t know what flexibility of action they have but I still intend to ask.

I am, however, concerned about the apparent lack of interest in this area from UK research librarians. OK, I’m not a Librarian but I have been asked to server on a BL advisory board, I have been asked to comment in detail to the BL on copyright, and I have today received an invitation to speak at a meeting on Library matters in November – more later. So there has been useful contribution to this discussion from several sections – everyone agrees that the current DRM is awful – but nothing from librarians. This has been going on since 2005/6 – the CEO of the BL, dame Lynne Brindley highlighted the problems – but I can find no trace on the net of concern within university libraries.

If you don’t alert us to problems, we can’t engage in whatever is the appropriate way.



Bill McCoy says:

May 12, 2010 at 3:15 pm  (Edit)

As you may have noticed from the corporate blog, I’ve left Adobe since making that post. I will note that, 7 months later, no such “next major release” of Adobe Digital Editions has as yet taken place.
So, arguably, the commitment I made at that time has not been violated.

But to me this points out another objective issue with reliance on a de facto standard DRM scheme proprietary to and controlled by a single corporation: lack of choice. With no alternative PC/Mac solution for reading Adobe-DRM-protected eBooks, we are all hostage to Adobe’s schedule releases of its software, and more to the point, Adobe’s overall corporate priorities and resulting resource allocation decisions.

Personally, I’ve become convinced that the browser is the right platform for digital document distribution, with open standards (HTML5) now enabling capabilities such as offline access and higher-quality typography. In a browser-centric model “heavyweight” DRM be replaced with user authentication mechanisms that we are already accustomed to using.

The browser market is increasingly competitive with 5 significant players having market share (IE, Firefox, Safari, Chrome, and Opera), with 3 of these built on open source rendering engines (Webkit & Gecko). And Webkit is fast becoming the standard browser engine on mobile devices. To me this represents a very healthy foundation upon which to build a digital publishing ecosystem, a foundation that will ensure choice for publishers, distributors, and consumers: choice at the browser level, and choice of distribution solutions that build on the browser and open Web Standards.

I do empathize with content distributors, such as British Library, who have a tough row to hoe (as we say over here). By and large, distributors do not want DRM any more than end users do, and recognize that more times than not, DRM is counter-productive. I have found them in general to be quite concerned about accessibility. But distributors must honor commercial agreement with the underlying copyright holders, which puts them in a difficult position. I trust that the emergence of browser-based distribution solutions for digital publications, built on open standards, will give content distributors more options in the near future.

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