DRM and You

DRM and You

I've bemoaned the existence and use of digital rights management, or DRM as it's more commonly known, in previous Librarypoint articles, but I'm not certain that I've gone point-by-point over what it means for you, the library user, and us, the consumers.  DRM is a means by which music, videos, eBooks, documents, software, and just about anything else digital are restricted from being copied, transferred, or used on unapproved hardware.  The American Library Association's Digital Content Working Group has recently put out a wonderful tip sheet regarding DRM that I can’t recommend more enthusiastically.   It goes over what DRM is, some of its consequences and legal ramifications, and what you can do to help work against it.  Reading through it is one of the best ways to arm yourself as a digital consumer against some of the more consumer-unfriendly tactics of today’s content providers. 

As the sheet points out, DRM is the technological enforcer of license agreements, most of which, in my opinion, are overly-protective. If there’s one thing that content providers should have learned by now it's that DRM simply does not work.  There is no amount of public indoctrination and no number of lawsuits resulting in obscene payouts to Big Content that will stop people from breaking the locks off from their legitimately-purchased media.  There will always be content pirates, but in the meantime we lawful purchasers are being punished by a protection scheme that has no hope of ever working.

So, how does DRM affect you as a patron of the Central Rappahannock Regional Library?

With the exception of the public domain eBooks that OverDrive provides access to, all eBooks offered at the CRRL (and pretty much every other public and university library, by the way) are DRM-protected.  This means that:

  • eBooks are only “active” for a limited period of time and automatically expire with no action on the patron’s part;
  • Only eBooks from OverDrive are compatible with Amazon Kindles, as Amazon has not worked out an agreement with any other library eBook providers, so Kindle users are missing out on the tens of thousands of quality eBook titles available through EBSCOhost;
  • Library eBooks checked out in the Kindle format cannot then be transferred to devices using the Adobe ePub or PDF formats until the check-out period for the Kindle book has ended; the reverse is also true;
  • Certain Kindle library eBooks must be downloaded and transferred via USB rather than Wi-Fi according to restrictions set in place by publishers to deliberately make the process more difficult for library patrons;
  • Amazon has a complete record of the library eBooks Kindle users check out in addition to the eBooks purchased from them. 

eAudio Books
NOBODY gets off easy here:

  • Apple iPod/iPad/iPhone users have a difficult time of transferring eAudio books because most of these books are protected using a DRM scheme that is specific to Microsoft Windows; Apple DRM is not enabled because Apple does not license its ““FairPlay”” DRM technology to third parties (yes, Fairplay gets two sets of quotations, so absurd is its name);
  • Android users have a difficult time because not all Android phones and tablets are configured to play content protected by Windows DRM;
  • Windows DRM-compatible devices have a hard time because there are just so darn many of them running on so many different operating systems and software setups that it is almost impossible for the library eaudio book lenders to make their systems compatible with them all.


  • Many DVDs are hobbled with FBI warnings and previews that cannot be skipped;
  • Both purchasers and library users miss out on a plethora of DVD titles because of region restrictions; for instance, DVDs manufactured for sale in the UK are not compatible with DVD players in the United States and vice-versa. 

So that’s a quick and dirty list of junk library users have to put up with thanks to DRM.  As general consumers, we are limited in far worse manners.  Here we go!


  • You’ve probably figured this out by now, but eBooks purchased from Amazon cannot be read on the Barnes and Noble Nook, or any other non-Kindle device; the same is true for books purchased from B & N and iTunes;
  • eBooks cannot be loaned to friends without publisher consent.  This was especially annoying when I wanted to let my wife read the copy of John Scalzi's Red Shirts that I had purchased for my Kindle, but because Macmillan didn’t see fit for me to share the book file on a short-term basis, I had to lend her my entire Kindle, which, you know, has all my other eBooks on it;
  • eBooks may not be resold, trampling the First-Sale Doctrine.

eAudio Books

  • eAudio books purchased from Audible.com (an Amazon.com property, by the way) can only be loaded onto two devices at a time; in order to reset your device activations you must call Audible and ask them to do it for you; 
  • Forget about sharing them; if they’re not paired with your account, they’re just useless lumps of megabytes.


  • Though I have read that there are provisions in US copyright law allowing for one digital backup of the DVDs you have legally purchased, the process for doing this isn’t exactly broadcast by DVD publishers, and I certainly wouldn’t make it public knowledge that you were doing it; 
  • Early adopters of Blu-Ray may find that newer discs will not play in their machines because the DRM scheme has since been updated; most of these players can be updated over the Internet, but I wonder how many people figured out how to do that versus those who threw up their hands and threw out their players?  Hmm.

Streaming Video

  • Similar to how eBooks work, videos purchased from Amazon cannot be played on Apple devices and vice-versa.  The only TRULY universal media device is a PC or a Mac setup with your living room TV and a wireless keyboard – most people don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on this mess; 
  • While Apple these days will allow you to re-download most movies and TV shows purchased from them, Amazon will only let you download videos twice; you can stream them endlessly, but thanks to ISP-enforced bandwidth caps, this isn’t a viable solution for many of us; 
  • No online service will let you burn the videos you purchase to DVD.  


  • This is one area in which we have won.  Digital music files purchased from online retailers like iTunes and Amazon are completely DRM-free and can be played on any device you like.  It’s not necessarily easy to do this, especially if you’re an iTunes purchaser, but it’s possible and completely legal.

Computer Software

  • Almost all brand-name software is locked down with a limited number of activations.  For instance, if you purchase a regular copy of Microsoft Office 2010 and you own four PCs, sorry, but you’ll have to purchase TWO copies as each is only licensed for three PCs; 
  • Individual Windows OS licenses are paired to a single PC.  I’ve noticed you can sometimes get around this, but you’re not supposed to; 
  • Let’s say you’ve run out of activations for your software, but your computer died and you want to reinstall the software on a newly purchased PC – you’ll have to throw yourself on the mercy of the software’s tech support phoneline; 
  • Because of activation limitations, it is nearly impossible to resell modern software.

Video Games

  • Most games purchased on PCs are sold through an online retailer called Steam, which irrevocably pairs your purchased game with your Steam account.  Steam is not alone in this way of doing things – there’s also Games for Windows Live and Electronic Art’s Origin store;
  • More and more games are requiring an always-on Internet connection in order to play.  Fans of the staggeringly popular game Diablo III are all-too-familiar with this – if their Internet connections blink out even for a second, they’re booted from their single-player games which shouldn’t require any sort of Internet connection.  I don’t know about you, but my cable Internet connection likes to drop every few hours just to harass me while I’m streaming an episode of Doctor Who.  Bad, bad cable modem!

This is the short list.  Go search Google for DRM to see just how active a subject this is.  Oh, by the way, all of these licensing technologies rely on servers to authenticate, and, trust me, those servers won’t stay active forever.  Amazon may be the alpha dog in the eBook world right now, but things change and one day all those Kindle books we’ve purchased are going to be inert piles of ones and zeroes.

So read the American Library Association’s DRM Tip sheet, get better-informed, and make a point of, whenever possible, buying DRM-free. 

And, back up your files!