Frustrated by DRM and Libraries

I am a frustrated user of e-books and audiobooks. I have an iPod so I can listen to audiobooks. I did check out one using the downloadable audio at my library but I had to free up a good bit of space because when the audiobook transferred to iTunes, it almost doubled in size. At this point, I chose to just transfer half of the book at a time. This was mostly easy but a huge pain.

Next, I thought that I would go old school and check out a CD and then import it into iTunes. This was better because when itunes reated the AAc version it was smaller and I could put most of the book on my iPod.

After this ordeal, I saw a great post/rant on DRM (digital rights management) from the Librarian in Black. She hit the nail on the head about some of the frustration I was feeling. Here is her thoughts on DRM:

I Am a Frustrated eBook (non)user!

I strongly feel that eBooks & eAudioBooks are only used on the margins of our library communities. Not because people don’t have the technology–they do. And not because they don’t want eBooks–they do. But because using library eBooks is such a horrible pain, sometimes impossible, due to the restrictions that DRM places on us (which affects the subsequent issues of licensing & copyright).

The publishers need to realize that DRM doesn’t stop the real pirates. All it does is frustrate normal folks trying to read an eBook on their Blackberry. What it ultimately does is prevent people from accessing the very content that the publishers are trying so hard to promote! Why? When will they wake up and realize that these issues prevent normal readers from reading their authors’ content? How many people need to make this argument, how many frustrated customers do they need as proof?

I chime in as a frustrated customer.

I recently purchased an Android HTC Eris smart phone. I have a Mac at home, and a PC at work. This means that I have three separate “groupings” of library eBook content that I can access, depending on what device I’m using at the time. My library subscribes to several eBook collections: Overdrive, MyiLibrary, NetLibrary, TumbleBooks, Safari Tech Books, and Learning Express eBooks. What I can access on each depends heavily on my device. Why? Digital Rights Management.

I have tried downloading our several downloadable collections onto my Android phone. According to the documentation on these vendors’ websites, I should be able to do so.

Let’s take Overdrive as our test case. I don’t mean to pick on Overdrive, but it representative of what I experience with all library eBook providers.

I begin by happily installing the Overdrive Media Console onto my PC and my Mac (for home & work eBook use). I download the Overdrive app onto my Android phone, which I am encouraged to do on our library’s Overdrive site.

But then I see after the fact on the Overdrive website that because I am using Android, I can only access MP3 audio books on my device, which GREATLY reduces my selection. WAV audio books (the bulk of our collection), music, and video are completely off the table unfortunately and I cannot access them. Worse yet, I cannot access any of the text eBooks. No PDF access whatsoever. By the by, I had to hunt for this information on the Overdrive website–nothing came up on my Android download warning me about the limited access.

Nevertheless, as the Digital Futures Manager for a large public library, I persist. I feel guilty–if I can’t figure it out, who could, right? So, I find a relatively old semi-classic MP3 audio book in our collection that I can try downloading. I download it to my work PC (not even wanting to get into the whole Mac issue at home). It downloads successfully. Then I try transferring it to my Android. I get error message after error message. Troubleshooting tips included checking that I had the console on my phone (check) and that I had plenty of SD card space for the MP3 file (check). I tried transferring the whole thing, then just the first part, then a whole different book. No luck.

I asked Overdrive for help, and was told “Yeah, sometimes that happens and we don’t know why. It seems to happen a lot with Android.”

So I am left having wasted about an hour and a half trying to get a book I didn’t even like or want onto my phone, and have nothing to show for it. And you know what? I have the same experience with almost every eBook platform we have. It’s all bad.

Imagine that this experience just happened to a library customer. Do you think they would even ask for help from you, or just give up? I wager that about 2/3 just give up right there (or before that point) and never try library eBooks again. Maybe 1/3 ask for help, and I’m thinking the half of that group eventually gets tired, fed up, and gives up too. maybe half of that group actually gets an adequate answer so that they want to return to the collection and keep using it for a grand total of 1/6 of our potential users being successful. That is not a good success rate.

It makes me wonder: How many of our library customers have tried eBooks once, failed, and given up…never to try again?

I feel guilty writing this. I feel embarrassed. eBooks are in my area of management for my library, and I can’t figure out how to get them onto my own smart phone! Why was my entire experience frustrating? DRM. The hurdles, apps, restrictions, and differences in devices wouldn’t exist if there was no DRM.

Beyond that, what I could get theoretically wasn’t even what I wanted! The good books are WAVs which don’t work on my device! Why? DRM.

It’s high time that a group of librarians banded together, really hard and really fast, and demanded from the publishers that they recognize our right to treat an eBook title like a print book title. We should be able to loan it out to as many users, one after another, as we want. Those users should be able to read any of our books, no matter their preferences for reading environments (in this case, devices). And those users should be able to print a page if they need to, or excerpt an audio clip for a report they’re giving. But of course not–most eBooks and eAudioBooks do not allow these meager things. They’re locked down and locked up.

I would like to see ALA gather a group to work on digital content issues — to work with the publishers and with the vendors to find solutions that work not only for the publishers and vendors, but for libraries as well. We all know we’re unhappy with the status quo but so far we’ve done nothing about it. We’re not boycotting inflexible publishers. We’re not boycotting vendors who create operating-system-specific platforms (e.g. that don’t work with Macs or iPods). We’re not boycotting vendors with horrible systems (again, not picking on Overdrive–they’re all pretty hard to use).

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