Why can’t we teach Peter Murray-Rust about DRM?

Typed/scraped into Arcturus while waiting for Eclipse job to complete

I have been doodling round the DRM + BL theme and suddenly found Bethan’s information professional blog . From the About:

I’m a librarian, working for Library and Archival Services at Mimas (otherwise known as Copac and the Archives Hub). I started library work in 2006 as a Graduate Trainee at the John Rylands Library at the University of Manchester, and then went on to do an MA in Library and Information Management at MMU

[I’ve been invited to speak at at the John Rylands Library later this year…]

Anyway she has written a balanced and thoughtful piece


[The post doesn’t seem to carry a licence so I’ll assume she would like having it republished without permission (as I do for mine). Bethan, if this is the case, suggest you put CC-BY http://freedomdefined.org/Licenses/CC-BY-2.5 ) on it.] I quote it in full, and don’t need to comment. This is the sort of thing I had hoped for more of.

Why can’t we teach Peter Murray-Rust about DRM?

May 11, 2010 in general ramblings | Tags: DRM, ILL, user ed

Yes, I know this is a deliberately provocative title, and I am not implying that Prof Murray-Rust needs teaching more than most, nor that he is particularly difficult to teach.

But, as his blog posts show (start here and read on), here is a prominent academic, who is well-known in the library world, who doesn’t understand why – or indeed how or when – the BL have DRM (digital rights management) on their electronic inter-library loans. (please note: I’m not going to discuss here whether they should have or not – merely that they do).

I understand why, although I couldn’t tell you when I learned. I’ve never worked ILL – is it some kind of librarianly osmosis? I’m sure you, as librarians and info profs, understand too (and if you don’t, go read Steph Taylor’s (@CriticalSteph) response on PMR’s blog).

So here is an issue which librarians understand, and which fundamentally affects the relationship of our users – arguably of our most sophisticated users – to the library. As PMR’s blog (and comments) show, it’s an issue which very negatively effects that relationship. It’s seen as a barrier to scholarship – PMR says ‘I believe that these represent a serious reduction in academic freedom‘.

If this is issue is so vital, why don’t they know why we are doing it? Prof Murray-Rust says ‘The BL’s responses are often masterly Sir Humphreydoms that say nothing‘, and he asks for professional advice from librarians about how to interpret the restrictions.

Why does he need this? I appreciate the need to have the legal disclaimers in place, but our primary role, as information professionals, is to get information to our users. We have obviously failed here. Why is there not a simple, accessible guide to DRM on ILL articles – in fact, to the role of copyright in ILLs as a whole?

The Cambridge University Library website inter-library loans page makes no mention of DRM – but that may be because it makes no mention of the fact that you can obtain journal articles electronically, through SED (secure electronic delivery). Surely Cambridge provides this service? Indeed, why else would PMR be questioning it? Yet no mention – that I could find. I’d be very happy to be proved wrong!

I’m not singling out Cambridge for condemnation here – it merely happens to be Prof Murray-Rust’s institution. Let’s look at some others, shall we? Manchester? No mention. Oxford and Sheffield? Some mention – they at least acknowledge the existence of SED. Edinburgh? Getting better – advice about the service, and a mention of why you can only print one copy. ‘Copyright restrictions’ is a pretty bare-bones explanation, but at least it’s a start.

So there is some information out there – but surely you’re not suggesting that this is providing an acceptable service to users? That to find information on a service you provide they have to find information on that service as provided by other libraries, and extrapolate from there?

(This is just a whirlwind tour of a few libraries that sprung to mind – if you know of a particularly good example of how libraries are communicating these restrictions, please let me know!)

So, on to the BL. After a bit of digging, I found the SED FAQ – it’s certainly not in a prominent or easily accessible place. And yes, it answers the technical questions. But nowhere is there a mention of the ‘why’. And without the ‘why’, it appears that we are restricting access to information for our own fun and amusement.

DRM on articles may or may not be deliberate barrier to scholarship, but not providing easy access to (in effect, withholding) all of the information users need to make the best choice about how to access those article, and how to make best use of them once they have obtained them, is. If we have to live with DRM, we have to learn how to make sure users get the most out of it – and that they understand why it is there. If we don’t, we’re failing in one of our fundamental trusts: to make the information our users need available to them – even if they don’t know they need it.

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7 Responses to Why can’t we teach Peter Murray-Rust about DRM?

  1. Henry Rzepa says:

    To quote the above our primary role, as information professionals, is to get information to our users. We have obviously failed here. Well, that also seems true of Imperial College (not mentioned in the above post). I contacted our head librarian, and asked her whether the library here had solicited any feedback on DRM from users, and perchance fed it back to the BL. The answer was a straightforward no.
    Let me quote Ted Nelson: Everything is deeply intertwingled. In an important sense there are no subjects at all; there is only all knowledge, since the cross-connections among the myriad topics of this world simply cannot be divided up neatly. DRM on the face of it, by putting up digital barriers across that artificial boundary called the document, is acting directly against the principle espoused by Nelson, namely the ability of a scientist to intertwingle knowledge.

  2. Henry Rzepa says:

    Another thought strikes, that the moniker SED, standing for secure electronic delivery is a contender for a doublespeak nomination. The term secure does not relate to the mode of delivery, but I infer it to mean that the interests of the copyright holder have been secured. It use in this context sounds however as if it is reassuring the recipient in some sense (I am only a potential recipient, because I have not actually signed up to receive one of these secure documents, since I cannot bring myself to accept the terms and conditions!) although I cannot work out exactly what benefit is being secured.

  3. Henry Rzepa says:

    Yet another question, which perhaps the BL or a librarian might enlighten me on. Currently, our library spends a lot of money (£millions per year) on journal subscriptions. But interesting, a few quite new journals are not covered, and many journals have quite limited backnumbers. If I acquire e.g. a PDF article under this subscription, it (at least for now!) comes with no DRM. The article can be re-used in many ways. For example, it can be dropped into Mendeley, a software system that strives to add value to the document by extracting meta-data, indexing it, and much more. With some PDF documents, interactive 3D objects are included that can be manipulated.
    Get the same document from the DL and it seems it comes with DRM that effectively limits it to a single print within 14 days. I doubt that the publishers are different, it is simply a different intermediary that is providing the document.
    Since the above makes no sense, it would be tempting to conclude that in fact the BL is ahead on this, and that the DRM system will be eventually introduced to all academic library subscriptions as well. Please please can someone reassure me that it is not the plan?

  4. Richard says:

    I strongly doubt that’s the case Henry – my impression is that the DRM is just there for the historic/copyright/whatever issues around ILL. Publishers have no interest – as far as I’ve seen – in putting this stuff on published PDFs or asking subscribing libraries to do so.
    There can be unintended consequences of good intentions though – a few years ago we were persuaded to lock our published PDFs (while still allowing printing, copy & paste), that it was something a reputable publisher should do to preserve the original published version. When we did it this actually caused much more difficulty to everyone – other online customers, students who needed to put the PDFs into their thesis, ourselves – so we quietly dropped it.

  5. Bethan says:

    Hi Peter,
    Thanks for picking up on this blog, and yes, happy to have it reprinted. I have now added a Creative Commons ‘By’ licence to my blog – thanks for pointing this out.
    I don’t think I’m the only librarian who thinks this is worth talking about – but I do think that the problem might be that we are talking about it where no-one else can hear, and discussing it among ourselves, rather than with our users. It’s certainly a point that I will raise with colleagues and contacts.
    Henry – as far as I am aware, Richard is correct. It is a specific issue of inter-library loans – ie providing the material to someone who is not an owner/licensor of it – that requires these restrictions.

    • pm286 says:

      You are right – librarians talk to themselves and I know they do. But it doesn’t get out.
      Suppose most librarians thought it was wrong to DRM ILLs. (I’m assuming that they don’t actually think about it at present). But if they did they could:
      * sign a petition (easy on the web)
      * write a letter to the THES
      * write to their MP (I shall)
      * create a white paper like the ALA one.
      None of these actions is illegal. None are unprofessional. All are worth while.

  6. Peter, I agree with you. I think many librarians – myself included – are often wary about taking their professional engagement and opinions outside the profession. This may be due, in some part, to a certain self-deprecation about the profession: there’s a movement in libraries and information provision which says that the user doesn’t care about what we do or where the information comes from, they just care about getting the information they need. For a lot of users I think this is essentially correct. But we shouldn’t take this to mean that we shouldn’t engage with those users who are interested, and we certainly shouldn’t assume that it means that no-one outside the profession cares about what we do. When we face issues – as we frequently do – that affect other groups, we should use our expertise to be advocates. As you suggest, there are a number of methods by which we can do this.
    There is no point in us complaining of powerlessness and saying that no-one listens to librarians/information professionals unless we are actually talking to them.
    (I’m hoping that my profession will forgive me for these sweeping generalisations, especially as I have included myself among the number that needs to improve. For a number of outstanding examples of what librarians should be doing, see the Library Journals Movers and Shakers (http://stage.libraryjournal.com/MS2010), especially the advocates.)

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