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?

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