April 20, 2024

Retail DRM Is an Apple. Library DRM Is an Orange.

(This story has been updated to include a comment from Tor & Forge Books)

The decision on Tuesday by Tom Doherty Associates, publishers of Tor, Forge, Orb, Starscape, and Tor Teen imprints, to make its entire list of ebooks available DRM-free by early July 2012, caused a tremendous amount of discussion in publishing circles with little reference to the library market.

From a librarian perspective, such news is secondary to the ongoing battle to convince publishers such as Macmillan, which is the parent of Tom Doherty Associates, to make even DRM’d content available to the library channel.  Something Macmillan has steadfastly refused to do. Talking about DRM-free books, then, is a bit like “focusing on the new skylight you want when you haven’t yet built the walls to support the roof,” as one prominent librarian put it.

Even though the decision could possibly signal a lessening of fear among some publishers, DRM will remain an integral part of the library lending workflow for the foreseeable future. Whatever rethinking is going on among publishers, and that in itself could be a positive, it still remains that what a publisher decides to do with DRM on the retail side does not necessarily correlate to anything they will do with DRM on the library side.

“For Tor, it will undoubtedly be the same thing as O’Reilly does: no DRM for retail, DRM for library lending,” said Bill Rosenblatt, an expert on content protection technologies and the founder of New York-based GiantSteps Media Technology Strategies. “It would make no sense for publishers to abandon DRM for library e-lending just because they don’t like it for retail. The two scenarios are apples and oranges.”

“I could cite other examples of this, such as music downloads being DRM-free but DRM still being used on certain aspects of music subscription services, not to mention audiobooks in library lending scenarios,” Rosenblatt said.

Patty Garcia, the director of publicity for Tor & Forge Books, confirmed what Rosenblatt said.

“This does not affect our library policy in any way; this only affects e-books sold through retail channels and our library position of not lending e-books is unchanged. Tor’s library policy is indeed governed by the Macmillan policy,” Garcia said.

Rosenblatt has blogged about the issue and he will present a panel on June 5 called “The Landscape of Content Protection Technology” for the Digital Book 2012 program at BEA (the program is held in partnership with the International Digital Publishing Forum). The presentation will, among other things, look at potential lending workflows.

“I believe that major trade publishers will definitely keep insisting on DRM for libraries, and that the situation can only get worse—more restrictive—for libraries vis-à-vis the Big 6,” Rosenblatt said.

A number of publishers, such as Osprey Publishing (parent of Angry Robot), F+W Media, and O’Reilly Media, make books available without DRM, but this does not translate to the library channel, which relies on DRM as the mechanism to control one of its quintessential functions – the loan—as well as to impose the one-book, one-user lending model.

“I hate to say it but one could argue that in a way if DRM goes away it’s bad news for libraries, at least as long as ebook downloads are still expected,” said Bill McCoy, the executive director of IDPF, the trade and standards organization that develops and maintains the EPUB standard.  “After all even putatively anti-DRM folks, like O’Reilly, don’t want libraries to loan books to patrons who will never have to delete them, and so they are using DRM with library loans.”

“If all DRM infrastructure gets abandoned then that’s one more reason for publishers to resist enabling libraries,” McCoy continued. “Cloud-based reading will be an alternative but at the moment readers want and expect to have content downloaded for offline consumption.”

Even if a publisher makes content available without DRM, it gets added along the way. In the case of Angry Robot, for example, ebooks are available DRM-free on the publisher’s website but when they are sold via retailers (Random House is the distributor), the retailers add DRM according to their standard policy. When a publisher makes titles available for library lending, it is most often through OverDrive which uses the Adobe Content Server to add DRM according to the publishers’ licensing requirements. Even the smaller group of titles in the OverDrive collection that allow multiple users simultaneous access still have DRM attached to manage authentication and expirations.

“Without that [DRM] capability, libraries would have to find an entirely different strategy for dealing with digital works,” Rosenblatt said. “Right now what we have is what library technologist Eric Hellman calls the ‘pretend it’s print’ model. Libraries would have to move to some kind of entirely different model — or abandon e-lending entirely — if they didn’t use DRM to enforce lending periods.”

Hellman himself, who is preparing to officially launch his unglue.it project on May 17, saw some promise in the news for libraries.

“The biggest upside is that dropping DRM means that publishers are starting to get over fear. It also could provide a sharper differentiation between the product a consumer can get through a sales channel and the product they can get from a library,” Hellman said.

“In addition, if libraries can get DRM-free ebooks, there are many ‘non-consumptive’ uses they could exploit. For example, think about indexing and preservation; lending is not the only thing that libraries do.”

Michael Kelley About Michael Kelley

Michael Kelley is the former Editor-in-Chief, Library Journal.


  1. Reading between the lines a bit, it seems as though publishers now consider libraries to be the competition and have fired the opening shot in a kind of price war. They want to be the ones doing the lending, and for that to happen libraries have to be locked out.

    • It could be said that all the apparent fear of publishers is a smokescreen. In fact. they might view the rise of ebooks as an opportunity rather than a threat. This is their chance to put libraries out of business altogether, and I imagine that behind closed doors they are dancing with glee.

  2. Publishers may not specifically want to put libraries out of business, but may also not mind if that happens. Like many, publishers may well have a very restricted idea about what a library is. Library leaders need to be sure they remain connected with and relevant to their communities. I say this not because libraries should survive at all costs, but because where a library is serving the needs of its community, then it must survive at all costs.