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DMR: The Challenge of the Decade

Is there such a thing as digital rights management? Maybe; but maybe not.

A few short years ago, the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP;, with which I am affiliated, held a regional conference in Ann Arbor, MI. Ordinarily, I don’t attend our regional conferences, so it was a delight for me to be able to join in the audience. One of the presenters was a University of Michigan executive with important roles in the library, and in information technology policy. His presentation was so lively that we moved it down the hall for additional discussions when the allotted time was over.

The presenter had bemoaned the then-new trend of students using Internet sources for their work, combined with their lack of desire to actually consult the physical materials in the library itself. I shared with him my own observations that the same was true (even then) of higher education professionals. It was clear that instructors would also use an Internet resource over a physical resource from the library, even if they might get better information from the physical source. Then I suggested that maybe we should pay attention to the users’ preferences and put more and more of our information onto the Internet. “Why not face the future,” I said, “and just put the whole library online? It’s what they want.” The presenter was outraged to the point where I felt it would not be polite for me to continue that line of discussion. “That’s not what libraries are about!” he snapped, and added, “That won’t happen unless it’s over my dead body.”

Well, he’s a nice guy and I sure hope his health is good, because late in 2004, the University of Michigan announced a deal with Google that will digitize the complete holdings of the University of Michigan Library—more than seven million volumes—over the next six years. According to press reports, the digitizing will be done at no cost to the university. Google will digitize the volumes in such a way that their entire text contents will be searchable and can be delivered online, and Google itself will provide a pathway for users to gain complete access to the text of all volumes that are out of copyright. For those books still under copyright, Google will provide enough information, including some short quotes and a full citation, so that users can determine whether the book in question has useful content, and at which libraries it might be found. (You can see more about Google’s perspective on this project at

Endless Future Possibilities —and Complications

Yet what will the university do with the complete set of digitized volumes that it gets out of the deal? About the project, UM President Mary Sue Coleman said: “This project signals an era when the printed record of civilization is accessible to every person in the world with Internet access. It is an initiative with tremendous impact today and endless future possibilities.” (Read the University of Michigan press release.)

Boy, that sounds good, I thought, but I immediately knew that it was going to be a lot more complicated than that. It would be nice if we all could just agree to do as fair use proponent Joseph McDonald suggested: “Take not from others to such an extent and in such a manner that you would be resentful if they so took from you.” (9 Bull. Copyright Society 466, 1962)

But of course, it won’t be that easy. So I called around the university and talked to John Wilkin, associate university librarian, Library Information Technology and Technical and Access Services. As soon as I introduced myself, Wilkin asked me to tell him how I define “digital rights management” (DRM). I explained that, to me, digital rights management referred to every aspect of knowing what the rights to specific digital content were, who holds the rights and under what circumstances, how unauthorized people can be prevented from using the content, how the content can be served up to authorized individuals, and so forth. Since I am not a yahoo who thinks that DRM only refers to the various ways manufacturers use proprietary software tools to “block and lock” access to digital content, Wilkin decided I was worth speaking with.

He says that it will be about one to one-and-a-half years before the university actually has digitized content back from Google in quantities sufficient to start serving it up. And he admits that there are plenty of intellectual property issues to address. As President Coleman said at the end of her statement, it is an initiative with tremendous impact today and endless future possibilities. Wilkin believes that the university has begun to get a handle on some of the “tremendous impact today,” but admits that the “endless future possibilities” part is going to present an ongoing, exciting, and sometimes frustrating set of issues.

A Different DRM

Looking into the near- to midterm future, Wilkin suggests creating a different DRM—a “digital rights matrix”—that can clarify to a human or electronic gatekeeper, precisely who has which sets of rights with regard to access and use of the digital materials the university will offer. And, yes, it will be complicated and ever-changing. Harvard University (MA) is at least initially avoiding many of those challenges by only having its copyright-free collection of 18th century works digitized. As a Michigan alum, I would like to point out that Michigan was not afraid to take a lead in developing ways to handle the challenge of managing the digital rights. But those of us in this field know that “difficult and ever-changing” is part of life. The individuals at the University of Michigan who operate this new project are among those whom author and consultant Don Norris et al. wrote about in Transforming eKnowledge: A Revolution in the Sharing of Knowledge (SCUP, 2003):

After digitizing [come] new forms, processes, and practices for learning and knowledge management. The early forms of new practices are being invented, but they need unifying and guiding principles.

. . . [I]ndividual practitioners typically are the ones who see that merely digitizing existing practices d'es not reap the expected dividends. Organizational routines, principles, and practices have substantial inertia. Changes are typically originated by individuals—change-agents who are experienced practitioners, whose insights into practice enable them to understand how successful examples of innovation can be used to change the organization.

Note that Norris is speaking not only of the IT professionals involved, or even just about the librarians and IT professionals involved. Anticipating the kinds of challenges involved in managing the rights to seven million digitized books with the varied demands (for access, copying, clustering, reformatting, repurposing, and a whole lot more) that will come from staff, faculty, students, alums, and many sectors of the general public, calls for planning processes that cast a wide net across departments and disciplines.

Is There a Future for Fair Use?

We’ll all have to keep in mind that the DRM we want is not the “management of digital rights,” but rather the “digital management of rights.” We’ll have to be careful not to lose sight of the human perspective and not to burden the digitized content of printed media with technological gunk that breaks down and becomes useless to users, or that might make the digital versions unreadable by slightly more advanced technologies. And we need to keep in mind that “fair use”—that part of the US copyright laws that means a lot to higher education—is amorphous, subtle, complicated, and not amenable to being fairly written into any software codes for the protection of copyright. That could mean that fair use g'es by the wayside. It’s heartening to me to know that an institution like the University of Michigan is taking the leading edge on this project, because if any organization contains the resources and expertise to make it happen right, UM d'es. (For a great presentation, take a look at Thinking about Digital Rights Management, by Claire Stewart, head of Digital Media Services at Northwestern University (IL).

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