The Long Arm of the Law: DRM and me

| June 25, 2010

My mother and I went upstate this past weekend to visit my family.  Because the train ride is quite long, I had found a few articles from Wilson’s Library, Literature & Information Full Text database and had sent them to my free Kindle conversion e-mail account so that I wouldn’t have to carry paper, as I have done many of times.  As a student, and now as an intern at EdLab, the lovely people at Columbia University’s Libraries, and Pratt Institute Library have provided me with access to this database containing online access to journals that are relevant to my field.  Many other journals are provided by publishers such as Emerald.  I am able to read and cite articles from the journals within these databases because I am using them for academic purposes, citing them in papers, using them for research to support my work at EdLab, which I think qualifies me as “Fair Use” under copyright law.  Confident in this, I was 100% shocked to find that articles had disappeared off of my Kindle after I had turned on the wireless to update my NY Times subscription.  Not just the most recent article, but a whole bunch going back at least two semesters into my downloads.  It’s possible that things got reorganized.  The Kindle is a far from perfect machine, and my articles have reorganized themselves before, but it got me thinking.

Now, Columbia and Pratt aren’t “buying” these journals, even though they are paying for them, in fact, they are paying for me (and everyone else) to have access to them.  As we know, all of this online access is “licensed”, not owned.  These licensing agreements are complex at best, and only related to copyright, but certainly not the same thing.  In my opinion, DRM is still attempting to replicate the paper based model by creating limitations that force a digital object (who’s perks are it’s lack of limitations) to act like it is still printed and bound, so they can charge accordingly.  Publishing is working on this (more on that later), but for right now, we are in a severely awkward position where we’re in between models, and people’s patience is running thin.

Basically, regardless of the rights afforded to me by my academic affiliation, there are things I can’t do with a digital copy of an article, which seems ok to me.  What’s weird, is that I CAN get the article in PDF form, attach it to an e-mail, and send it to a hundred people in three seconds (the reason for the DRM), but there’s a chance it will get yoinked off my kindle, who’s file type is proprietary, and even if I passed it around the subway platform, I wouldn’t reach nearly as many people.  Not all DRMs are alike, I’m aware of that.  But I don’t think forcing a square peg into a round hole is the right answer to our problems here.  It’s not even square, nor really a peg, it’s like stuffing a cup of jello through a round hole, it fits and everything, but it’s REALLY not helping with the consumption of the Jello.