Why Libraries Are Taking a Page from Publishers and Using DRM to Lend Digital Books

Posted by Sanford Bingham on Sep 24, 2020 1:30:08 PM

Like many public-facing institutions, and perhaps more than most, the world’s libraries have been deeply impacted by COVID-19. Most have shut their doors to patrons and only some have developed protocols to safely manage the loan and return of physical books. 


Not surprisingly, demand for eBooks has soared during the pandemic, with researchers, students and other patrons stuck at home.


While publishers have made efforts to increase the supply of eBooks to libraries and/or to temporarily loosen the licensing restrictions governing eBook lending (which are controversial, to say the least), libraries have been unable to keep up with demand for eBook lending. This will only get worse with time -- publishers are raising the cost and limiting the number of copies of eBooks licensed to libraries, because they perceive library distribution of eBooks to have a negative impact on their sales and profits. No matter how the pandemic unfolds, it is clear that libraries will need to solve the problem of eBook lending in order to stay relevant and serve their stakeholders. Implementing effective rights management will be key to keeping costs down and preventing legal challenges from publishers.

The Solution: Controlled Digital Lending (+ DRM)

Even before the lockdowns, libraries had been evaluating approaches to distributing digital versions of books created from printed copies in their collections. The most complete formulation of this concept, known as Controlled Digital Lending (CDL), is presented as a legal argument stating that current copyright law permits a library to digitize a book and then to lend the digital copy as if it were the physical book. That is, the library must never loan more copies of the digital book than it has copies of the paper book. The validity of this legal theory has not been tested (it will be discussed in the upcoming trial of Hachette Book Group v. Internet Archive, but the CDL concept itself is not on trial and any judgement arising from the case is likely to be clouded by the fact that the Internet Archive is not a library and was not, in fact, doing CDL). But there is no doubt that if CDL is legal, that legality depends entirely upon the ability of the library to control the digital copies. As a practical matter, CDL is an implementation of DRM.


Specifically, a CDL operation requires at least two types of restriction: the system must control the number of users who may access the content at the same time (concurrent usage limitation) and it must control the duration of every user’s access (expiration). The second control must also be imposed in a strict fashion, i.e. it is not sufficient that the user not be allowed to re-open the document after expiration but rather the document must be forcibly closed at the end of the loan period. A CDL system must be able to ensure that there is only a single copy open at any given time.


In practice a CDL system also needs to ensure that users are properly identified - as patrons of the library, or members of the appropriate academic community, or perhaps students enrolled in a particular course – and where possible this identity should be obtained from the user’s prior login to the library portal, via SAML or another single-sign-on (SSO) system. The usability, and also accessibility, of the system must also be maximized as library staff are not normally tasked with end-user technical support. 


In short, the reference design of a basic workable CDL system, e.g. one to handle Course Reserve materials, requires the ability to deliver a fully DRM’d document into any browser, without requiring any installation or configuration, and to exert absolute control over concurrency and expiration. A full CDL system, operating at scale, also requires the ability to perform real-time encryption of documents stored in an unencrypted repository, managing unique user/document identity across the distributed collection. 

University Libraries Are Leading the Way

The good news for libraries is that DRM technology has evolved over the past 20 years to address these same scenarios in commercial publishing and corporate document management. Rights management controls that would have necessitated heavy-handed usage limitations and special software installations a decade ago, are now possible with minimal user friction in standard web browser environments. Several large university libraries and technology vendors are currently piloting CDL systems using readily available DRM solutions, including FileOpen’s, to meet the urgent need of enrolled students to access course materials remotely. 


bora-UCSC-McHenryLibrary-03.1543531072.3009CDL represents an opportunity for libraries to fulfill and even expand upon their missions to be essential drivers of equitable and lifelong learning in their communities. CDL enables instant access to materials even when the library building is closed and provides access to disabled patrons or those without the ability to travel to the library, among other benefits. None of us can predict when or even whether lending of physical books will again be possible as it was before, but it is difficult to imagine a future in which digital distribution does not play an increasing role or to imagine a digital distribution system more efficient and empowering for libraries than CDL. 


Stay tuned for more announcements regarding FileOpen’s support for CDL and libraries, and contact us for a demonstration of a live CDL system we’re working on with a major university.

Topics: FileOpen DRM advice CDL Libraries