DRM On My Mind

A few weeks ago, two pieces of news reminded me of the precarious nature of electronic resources and the future of libraries.

First, on September 28th, Inside Higher Ed published a story about how Wiley, one of the largest academic publishing companies, withdrew access to more than 1,300 eBooks from one of their ProQuest subscription packages for the Washington Research Libraries Consortium. This was reportedly shocking news to administrators, faculty, and librarians, giving little to no time to prepare before the start of the academic year. Wiley claims that they informed ProQuest in June of the new upcoming changes to give their users time to plan for the semester, but schools claim that they only heard of the change in late August.

Then, a day later on September 29th, Google announced the unexpected news that their cloud-gaming service, Stadia, would be shutting down in January of 2023, after only two years since they launched. While Google promised that it would refund its users who had bought games on the platform, hundreds of thousands of users will have their data and games deleted once the platform shuts down. This was surprising news to both users and employees–there are even some reports that the Stadia team was working on new developments for the platform even the day of, only to learn of the news almost an hour before the official announcement.

These reports reminded me of conversations that I had with other librarians at this past AALL conference in Denver, regarding the shift toward the electronic preservation of materials. Before this, I was a big believer in the benefits of electronic resources and, perhaps naively, thought that so long as something existed in multiple databases, it’s as good as preserved. But one of my colleagues reminded me that right now, we’re relying on the presumption that these companies will continue to operate and that they won’t end service or astronomically raise prices.

To be honest, I’m still a believer in the importance and usefulness of digital materials, particularly for accessibility purposes. But it’s undeniable that one of its main weaknesses is the instability of the medium. And I’m unsure if it’s sustainable for libraries to continue their reliance on private companies to maintain access to these essential legal primary and secondary sources. Perhaps the status quo is fine for now, but for how long?

I anticipate that this will continue to be an issue–when libraries buy subscriptions to electronic materials, how reliable are the companies that supply access to those resources? Will they continue to exist in the next five years? Ten years? And if libraries can’t be assured of their continued existence, how can we pragmatically plan collection development or how to best utilize the physical space of our libraries?

I don’t know how to offer any real solutions, as this issue seems larger than just between libraries and publishing companies. Digital Rights Management has been on the minds of librarians since at least the early 2000s, and it isn’t going anywhere. But as our reliance on electronic resources increases and our bargaining power decreases, I wonder if we’ll ever find a sustainable solution before it’s too late.

Editor’s Note: This posting is republished with permission of the author with first publication on RIPS Law Librarian Blog.

Posted in: Copyright, KM, Law Librarians, Libraries & Librarians, Library Software & Technology, Publishing & Publishers (Legal), Technology Trends