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No need to burn books you can't read - DRM and public libraries

I have just opened and defused an email positively crackling with anger, frustration and hurt. It was followed at speed with eight more, by way of illustration.
rupert-goodwins.jpg

I have just opened and defused an email positively crackling with anger, frustration and hurt. It was followed at speed with eight more, by way of illustration. Having read them all, I second every emotion.

My correspondent is a researcher, who regularly deals with academic papers and journals. They have great experience in this matter – indeed, have published much themselves – and use a wide variety of sources. They do not work for a commercial organisation: the work they do is for the public good.

One of the sources is – or was – the British Library Document Supply Services, who deliver scans of documents over email. These cost a lot of money (despite, in the case of academic journals, usually being produced with public money and the actual authors, as far as I'm aware, not seeing a penny) and are DRM'd to the hilt.

Until recently, these documents could be read in Adobe Reader 6 or 7. No longer. Adobe is withdrawing support from these, and so the BL is insisting that its customers move to Adobe Digital Editions. My researcher received a worrying email promising "Enhancements to our Encryption Software". You'll note how the BL see the delivery mechanism – it's an encryption channel first, an actual service to the user... well, let's see.

Among the great advantages that the BL promises from this 'enhancement' is "More robust document security". It's certainly secure against people who use Linux, as ADE only works on Windows or Mac.

My correspondent, although a Windows user, has never been unduly worried about document security. She takes care of that by making a few copies around the place using a USB key.

No more. To "greatly enhance your reading experience" by "adding the ability to transfer your documents to wherever you want to read them" and "preserving your valuable documents by backing them up on one computer and restoring them on another", the software says, "you must reactivate using your Microsoft Live ID or Adobe ID".

Not that this is in any way optional, even you don't want to greatly enhance your reading experience in this way, you need to create one of those IDs. Grinding their teeth, my correspondent went to open the document (thirty pages of an academic journal, costing around a pound a page) and was greeted by the Adobe DRM Activator. Which said "Welcome. Please tell us a little about yourself."

So they had to fill in name and email address – to "Discover the world of digital media!" -- and then cope with a long and entirely horrible automated email from Microsoft demanding, in tones of a bureaucratic robot, that they confirm their Live ID request – oh, and check out the Privacy Statement.

(All this is to read a document costing thirty pounds for thirty pages. Remember that.)

After all that? Epic fail. "This Digital Edition cannot be opened. You have tried to open a Digital Edition that was downloaded to another computer. You can open such a document on two computers only when you have activated Adobe Reader or Acrobat on BOTH computers using the SAME Microsoft .NET Passport or Adobe ID.

PROBLEM: This computer and the computer to which the document was downloaded were activated using different .NET Passports or Adobe IDs.

SOLUTION: Return to the retailer, library or other location where you acquired the document and obtain permission to open it on this computer."

As my correspondent says: "After all that I still couldn't open the document (which I've only opened once before) and got this. Now I know I haven't opened the document at another computer because this is my only computer with a printer - so I didn't open it anywhere else. I am never using this service again. The British Library, Microsoft and Adobe can go shove their DRM up their document delivery service exit. "

This, let me reiterate, is a public body providing publicly paid-for research to a highly-qualified professional engaged in impeccable work for the public service.

It is hard to imagine something more expensive, condescending, inaccurate, frustrating and enraging – nor something better calculated to restrict knowledge and broadcast ignorance.

It's almost as if the parties involved actively want to prevent people learning. It certainly feels that way.

British Library, are you listening?

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