Just call it my Babel wish…

I spent an hour with a patron the other day trying to figure out why, suddenly, her MP3 player refused to let her listen to audiobooks from one of our vendors. It worked before… and now, it wouldn’t.

She just wanted to lend it to her students, and let them listen. It turns out that the software installed on her player is a huge problem for nearly everyone, and she would have to reformat the player to even attempt to get it to work.

Digital Rights Management, in its current form(s), effectively prevents libraries from delivering the information people want and need. DRM controls how a digital copies of audiobooks, songs, and e-books are decoded by the consumer, and is seen as essential to preserving the rights of creators and distributors. While DRM prevents people from easily copying and distributing these works, it also prevents them from easily consuming them. The industry seems unwilling to agree on a single standard that would work on any device, instead choosing to elaborately encode digital files with competing technology.

And that’s where libraries come in. We are dedicated to bringing patrons the media they want and need, but now find ourselves at a crossroads: there are stories and information out there that are impossible for us to provide to our patrons because of DRM. The perfect example is the novella Ur by Stephen King. Since this story is only available on the Kindle reader from Amazon, we cannot purchase a copy to lend out. Some interpret the Kindle terms of service to mean that you cannot lend the actual device to another person to read the books, which is pretty draconian, but it is certainly well understood that it is a violation of their terms of service to transfer the purchase to another device – in other words, we couldn’t even buy a digital copy of the story to lend out to patrons on their own devices! That’s as ridiculous as telling someone that they are only allowed to read in certain rooms of their house, but it’s roughly the equivalent.

If we come back to my poor patron who could not wrestle her MP3 player’s software into submission, we can also see how DRM can ruin the audiobook experience as well. If you’ve never attempted to borrow a downloadable audiobook from a library, the pitfalls are many: computer issues, device issues, and software issues – oh my!

First, our library blocks downloading at patron computers. That means that when we are attempting to help a patron with their audiobook, we are typically coaching them over the phone or the internet. The process is especially challenging because the patrons may not be computer savvy in the first place, and may need help with basic tasks that are totally foreign to them. Then you have to determine if their cell phone, MP3 player, or other device is compatible with your vendor – we use NetLibrary/Recorded Books and Overdrive between the audiobooks we’ve bought and the ones we get through our State Library. Even if their device is listed as compatible, they may have some sort of strange software pre-installed by the manufacturer that cripples the process. Finally, there is usually some sort of download involved to the end user’s computer in order to translate the DRM coding on the receiving end – and that may not work perfectly and need additional troubleshooting.

While DRM is a component of digital files that can potentially protect copyright and ensure that authors aren’t missing out on hard-earned revenue, the industry has failed in its execution (especially where libraries are concerned). When I hand a(n) (audio)book to a patron, I don’t tell them that they can only read it in their dining room or in the bathtub. They can take it to the beach, listen on their commute, or read in bed for all I care. Using DRM to restrict digital files to certain devices or certain software is the 21st century equivalent of deciding the medieval monks got it right by chaining books to the shelves so nobody would make off with them!

While in the past there might have been merit in standing back and letting the industry develop a standard, as in the VHS vs. Betamax format war of the late 1970s, I don’t think today’s libraries have this luxury. Our patrons are depending on us to deliver information to them that works no matter which device they have purchased, not to sit around waiting to see what sort of highly restricted, totally proprietary system that various publishing industries will invent. It’s not out of the question to imagine Rhapsody and the Sony Reader e-inking an exclusive deal with one set of publishers/record companies, while another set decides to provide content only to Amazon Kindles and iTunes. How would we provide access then?

The future of publishing is content that is device agnostic. We need a standard that allows for both ease in downloading and copy protection. And libraries could make this happen sooner than you think.

If publishers want to know what’s in it for them, I can tell you right now that it’s spelled SALES. Adopt a common currency for distributing media files, make it easy for people to use them, and the money will certainly follow. Libraries are crazy about downloadables anyway because they eliminate the possibility of damage or inevitability of replacement that you get with physical copies of media. (Consumers like all that too, by the way.)

The American Library Association estimates that there are around 123,129 libraries in the United States alone. If each library were to donate just $5 to a common fund, we could start a competition much like the X Prize Foundation. That’s a pot of over $600,000 as a prize for developing the best universal DRM system ready for immediate and cost-effective adoption by the publishing industry. I’m willing to throw in the first Lincoln! I’ve been calling it my private Babel Wish, but I’m open to better suggestions now that I’ve gone public.

We have a professional obligation to collaborate in ways that expand access to knowledge. This would be one powerful way to do it. Are you in?

Uglies free online!


One of the most popular series for teens is a limited-time free download in .pdf format! Of course, they’re promoting Westerfeld’s newest book, Leviathan, but who can complain about that? As more and more publishers make their works available in online forms, I can see more and more ways that you could leverage this free/cheap material for classroom use. Of course, the best aspect of the online text is its infinity – instead of having to police limited numbers of physical copies and tell students to hustle and read so others can have access too, every student could log in and read online, or download to their personal device– no waiting.

On a related note, education stands to gain the most from asking publishers to give up on DRM and concentrate on better ways to maximize revenue.

The New Ownership

Today I read two very interesting items:

1) CC Learn reports that

the University of Michigan Library has adopted CC licensing for all of its own content. Any work that is produced by the library itself, and to which the University of Michigan holds the copyrights, will be released under the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial license (CC BY-NC).

2) Scott McLeod is blogging on his attempt to convince ISTE that they should ask their conference presenters to apply a CC license to their presentations for the benefit of the larger K-12 .edu community.

It really seems that a larger awareness of Creative Commons, at least among the .edu technorati, is brewing.  Instead of trying to protect and hide intellectual work behind the total wall of traditional copyright, the new conversation looks like it will revolve around how others should be permitted to use that intellectual work.  

This is a significant shift in the traditional ownership concept.  While U of M is purposefully moving forward in a unified direction with their CC licensing, the other side of the coin is seen in the vigorous discussion among the ISTE folks.  I also believe that this is shedding light on the changing nature of conferences in general.
While meeting in person is incredibly powerful and energizing, technology is making it more and more possible to participate in conferences (while not actually attending).  And the possibility of this is awesome, as it promises to break down distance and other barriers to learning.  However, not all conferences might be as open-minded as ISTE.  You want to get a good return on your investment when putting on a conference, and I can see other organizations afraid to even consider asking presenters to release their intellectual work freely.  To some, this may be seen as devaluing the conference experience and letting people “get all the benefits of attending for free!”  
Dedicated conference-goers know that’s not the case.  Attending in person has a power that few other experiences can match.  However, restricting ideas to small groups of only a few does nothing to encourage the free flow of innovation.  If we really want to effect change within our professions, we have to think about throwing the doors wide open to see what happens.  
…and, for a whole other spin on this same topic, check out Will Richardson’s post on Larry Lessig’s new book, Remix.  

Copyrights (& wrongs)


It’s been a busy two months since my last post… besides ALA and some much-enjoyed vacation time, everything seems to have piled up! Off to the right you will see myself and Cory Doctorow, happy to meet briefly at a Tor event in Anaheim. I told him how rad we all found his new YA novel, Little Brother, and he was glad to hear it.

When I got home, I got my new issue of Knowledge Quest in the mail and read with interest the article called “Copyright and Portfolios” by Rebecca Butler. I found the ethical questions of the subject fascinating. It concerns electronic portfolios of graduating seniors where the students have used copyrighted materials such as music and film clips: fair use or infringement? Butler concurs that yes, it’s fair use as long as the students were using said clips for public school curriculum and used them to “realize their specific learning objectives.” She cites some sources (this was the only online one, sorry) and goes on to say that such “class-generated portfolios” can be used to demonstrate expertise in applications for jobs or higher ed. Butler adds that you should inform students that the portfolios should not be used for profit (“[don’t] sell any of the pieces […] or use them in a paid presentation.”)

I was worried after reading this, because a quick scan of the article seems reassuring… if your students have “added entire popular songs to their projects, as well as large clips from movie CDs, DVDs, and videos” then maybe everything is just a-ok and kosher. It takes a close reading of this brief article and a little deep thought to conclude that A) you might need to do more research into fair use before you let students create portfolios with such egregious “sampling” (the last time I checked using a work in its entirety is not sampling) and B) you’ll need to figure out how to break it to your students that a more-than-passing understanding of copyright may be the most important “technological skill” thy could have in the 21st century.

While I think it’s imperative that students (and citizens) have the right to fair use of copyrighted intellectual work (especially in the cases of criticism and parody), I believe that it may be encouraging intellectual laziness to reach for the latest Coldplay song and pop it in as the musical backdrop to a PowerPoint report. Sure, it’s popular culture; sure, it’s handy; sure, it’s easier in the short run than searching for music where the creators have given explicit permission for its use. I maintain that in the long run, using apparatuses such as Creative Commons can serve to build students’ appreciation and understanding of copyright so that they may gradually build up to the use of commercially copyrighted works with full knowledge of the risks and benefits. By making the due consideration of copyright and fair use integral to the construction of such electronic portfolios, we can equip students with skills that they can put to good use in the workplace and/or academia.

Cited:

Rebecca P. Butler. (2008). Copyright and Portfolios. Knowledge Quest, 36(5), 74.

Creative Commons and Content

Tonight I think I hit a tipping point: I decided I’d rather watch a TED talk online than channel surf after class… that’s a huge content choice that indicates, for the first time, that television and streaming video are equal choices in my world. *applause for the 21st century girl*

And this is what I watched:

I am going to recommend this to everyone when I start giving Creative Commons workshops (already have one group of librarians interested, woot woot!). It’s too long to share during a session since we usually have such a short time together, but it will be good “homework.”

What struck me as I watched it was the connection between the message we send to students and the standards we then hold them to… lots of educators (and I include myself here) say to students “oh, we can use (this video, this article, this picture, this music) and it doesn’t matter, we’re not making any money, it’s for SCHOOL.” And I’m afraid all they’re hearing is the sound of the teacher in Charlie Brown (wah wuh wah wuuuh wanh) and “it doesn’t matter.” The rogue librarians or teachers who emphasize the importance of copyright are treated as pariahs who are just totally out of touch.

Then when it comes time to create a works cited page for their term papers, we wonder how they became such flagrant plagiarists. Oh, the morality!!!

Creative Commons gives us a wonderful parallel road to travel and an awesome model to emulate. The most common license I see used is the “non-commercial/attribution” which, in a sense, is the one we have been presuming exists in our classrooms and libraries all along. And what a wonderful thing for students to hear over and over: “We’re not making any money here, and we just need to give credit where credit’s due.”

Now that’s a term paper I can’t wait to read ;)