DRM or how to get eternal copyright – What it means to Libraries, Universities and Public Domain

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You can do everything you want with this post, but you have to attribute it. This post was written by Paula Simões as a trade gift to Paulo Nuin from from http://blindscientist.genedrift.org/.

Digital Rights Management (DRM) is the name that it is used to describe certain kind of technologies that prevent or restrict the use of a digital object. Even if you have never heard of Digital Rights Management, you may have already saw it in practice or, most probably, you have some digital objects with DRM.

DRM is also known as anti-copy technology and one of its basic functions is to prevent copy, but it can take other forms like to restrict the number of times you can see/play/listen to a digital object.

Any digital object can have DRM: DVD, CD, eBooks, AudioBooks, Computer Games, Software. These digital objects have DRM if:

– you can not copy it without the help of an external computer program;

– you can only access them (play them) a limited number of times;

– you can only install them in certain devices, chosen by the seller;

– etc.

When you read about themes like DRM and Copyright you should be aware about the names. Usually, companies that defend DRM, extension of copyright or more restrictive laws to enforce it, tend to name things in a more positive way. If you think about the name “Digital Rights Management”, you will find it absurd. DRM are technologies. Technology can not manage rights. Rights (digital or not) are only managed by the law.

DRM is not about rights at all. It is not about your (citizen) rights, because the main goal of DRM is to take away some of your rights, supposedly to protect authors’ rights. But it is not about authors’ rights either because authors’ works are already protected by copyright law. They don’t need DRM to be protected.

Furthermore, technically, DRM does not work. It is a matter of time until someone breaks a new form of DRM. If you are not convinced about this item, you can make an experiment: choose a number of digital objects (films, music albums, computer games) that were published with DRM. Then go to Google (You don’t need to go to The Pirate Bay) and search for those digital objects. See how many you can find. That number will tell you that DRM does not work. Please, do not download the files (which can be illegal in your country), just search for them.

Because DRM is breakable, soon rights’ owners asked Governments for a law to prohibit the break of DRM. Even for legal purposes! There is no exceptions.

1st Surprise: DRM law to enforce copyright law

According to proponents of DRM, these technological solutions were developed to prevent illegal copying. Because DRM are easily breakable, soon their proponents asked for a law to prohibit the break of DRM.
But this does not make any sense. Why would a person, who does not comply with the copyright law, respect a DRM law? So, what are the reasons for copyright holders to ask for a DRM law? We will return to this later on.

2nd Surprise: Companies that use DRM say DRM is bad

It is not uncommon to see companies that use DRM saying that DRM is bad or that DRM was a mistake. In spite of this, companies still use these anti-copy technologies.

In 2007, Steve Jobs from Apple said DRM was bad, but Apple was being forced by rights owners to use it in iTunes Store. In 2009, a publisher and a writer (the rights owners) asked Apple to sell their audiobook without DRM at iTunes Store. Apple refused.

Except now there was a new problem: Apple refused to allow DRM-free audiobooks in the Apple Store—yes, the same Apple that claims to hate DRM. – In Cory Doctorow With a Little Help: Can You Hear Me Now?

So, if DRM is bad why are resellers still using it? Another question to postpone in this post.


Until now we were talking about problems of DRM to citizens today. These problems, in practice, are mostly educational and ethical. In fact, DRM law says to people that if they comply with the law, they will be punished: if I buy a CD, I can put the music in my computer or my mp3 player, but if the CD I bought has DRM, I can’t (in a legal way, technically it is possible to do it).

XKCD explains this very well:

Because it is technically possible to break DRM, these anti-copy technologies do not configure a big problem to users, in their day-to-day practices. People just break DRM. Even those people who comply with copyright law break DRM, because they think they have a moral right to do it, since they paid for the digital object.

Now, let’s not think about people, let’s think about Libraries.


First, remember that breaking DRM is not allowed, even for legal purposes, then think about libraries’ work and goals, and finally think about the fact that libraries are acquiring more and more digital objects. In 2008, the Section 108 Group Report, sponsored by the Library of Congress acknowledged that,

The use of DRM systems and TPMs to protect against unauthorized uses may prevent libraries and archives from preserving culturally important works or increase the costs and difficulty of doing so. – In The Section 10 Study Group Report, March 2008 [PDF], Sponsored by Library of Congress

In 2006, the British Library started to realize the “real, technical threat” of DRM to its functions and how DRM restricts the rights that libraries already have:

As the Library prepares for legal deposit of digital items we are discovering that DRMs can pose a real, technical threat to our ability to conserve and give access to the nation’s creative output now and in the future. Contracts can also prevent users’ legitimate access to databases. In fact, twenty eight out of thirty licences offered to the British Library and selected randomly were found to be more restrictive than rights that currently exist within copyright law. It is of concern that, unchecked, this trend will drastically undermine public access, thus significantly undermining the strength and vitality of our creative and education sectors. In INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY: A BALANCE The British Library Manifesto [PDF | 43kb]

Now, forget libraries, let’s think about universities and other educational institutions

==Universities and other educational institutions==

Although copyright laws are different from country to country, usually there are some exceptions in common. One of them is the right to use copyrighted materials to teach.

I remember some classes where our teacher took a movie, show it to entire class and after, we discuss it. I remember also that our teacher recommended another movie to us to see, but that he couldn’t show it in class because we had a limited number of class hours and we needed to move on to other subjects.

Today, classes can have no walls, most universities are doing blended-learning and e-learning, through Learning Management Systems (like Moodle). Today a class can be a website that students and teachers access with a unique login and a password. So, instead of taking the film to the class (in the case of b-learning), the teacher can put it online and then the students can discuss it in the forums.

The big problem is that if the DVD of the film has DRM, although it is technically possible (and very easy) to put it in a computer and then to the web, it would be illegal to do it, not because the teacher can not use copyrighted materials to teach, but because there is no way of doing the described without breaking the DRM, which is illegal, even for legal purposes.

With the DRM law, libraries and educational institutions can easily be sued by the rights holders for doing what they have done legally for years.

Public Domain

Usually, people think about copyright as the rule, but this is not true. Although copyright laws are different from country to country, they have in common the fact they are limited in time. Copyright is a limited time exception given to authors. You can see this in the title of what is considered to be the first fully fledged copyright law (United Kingdom):

An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors or purchasers of such Copies, during the Times therein mentioned” – Statute of Anne (bold is mine)

And you can see this on “The Constitutional Provision Respecting Copyright” (United States):

“The Congress shall have Power … To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Tımes to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”United States Constitution, Article I, Section 8 (bold is mine)

In Portugal, and in most of European countries, we say that a work falls into Public Domain 70 years after the author’s death. This means that, from this point on, the work is free from a monopoly or control from any person or company.

But why is this so important? Why should we care about Public Domain?

James Boyle, in his book “Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind” offers an answer:

Because the public domain is the basis for our art, our science, and our self-understanding. It is the raw material from which we make new inventions and create new cultural works. p. 39

The recently “The Europeana Public Domain Charter” focus the importance of Public Domain, too:

The Public Domain is the raw material from which we make new knowledge and create new cultural works. Having a healthy and thriving Public Domain is essential to the social and economic well-being of our societies. Much of the world’s knowledge – Diderot’s Encyclopédie, the paintings of Leonardo, Newton’s Laws of Motion – is in the Public Domain. Society constantly re-uses, reinterprets and reproduces material in the Public Domain and by doing so develops new ideas and creates new work. New theories, inventions, cultural works and the like are indebted to the knowledge and creativity of previous centuries. – p. 3 (bold is mine)

So, if a work (book, film, music, etc) is in Public Domain, you can:

– copy it;

– share it;

– publish it;

– remix it;

– make a new work based on it;

– (you name it…)

And you don’t need to pay or ask for permission to do any of these, you just have to attribute it.

Now think about digital born works with DRM, in Public Domain. People will be able to do all the above, but at the same time they would not be allowed to break the DRM.

And now we are getting there and we are ready to answer the questions we postponed before, because there is no way of copy, share, publish, remix, etc, a digital DRM’ed file without breaking the DRM.

If a work is published in a digital form and always with DRM, in practice, it will never fall into Public Domain and companies who inserted the DRM will have an eternal control and monopoly over that work. And companies last longer than human beings.


In our lives, we – citizens, libraries, universities, etc, – all do lots of things just because there are exceptions and fair-use to copyright. In what concerns “born digital objects”, DRM law takes away these exceptions and fair-use. It doesn’t matter if you are using a work for your scientific research or if you are using a work to teach your students, it doesn’t matter if your goal is legal: you can’t break the DRM.

The most astonishing thing about DRM law is that it denies the principle behind copyright law: to rule an equilibrium between author’s rights and citizens’ rights and access to cultural heritage and knowledge.

Do you really want to live in a world which copyright law has no exceptions? Do you really want to live in a world without Public Domain?

You can do something about it: http://www.defectivebydesign.org/


2 thoughts on “DRM or how to get eternal copyright – What it means to Libraries, Universities and Public Domain

  1. Pingback: ebook: “gato por lebre”? « paula simoes' blog

  2. Pingback: DRM: debate hoje em Lisboa | paula simoes' blog

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