DRM In School eBooks: When Life Imitates Dystopian Stories

It always feels surreal to come across situations that are just a little too close to something you've read. It's even worse when you realize that something you've read is a dystopian story warning about the dangers of corporate greed and abuse of students.

In February 1997, the magazine Communications of the ACM published Richard M. Stallman's The Right to Read, a cautionary tale of a future where publishers and the government crack down on so-called piracy [1] to a massive extent.

In The Right to Read, a college student named Lissa Lenz has an issue. Her computer, which contains all her textbooks and is the only tool for writing her midterm project, breaks down. She asks her friend Dan Halbert to borrow his computer. This is a big problem for Dan. If Lissa were to read his books, the SPA—a government agency created to combat sharing—would arrest him for copyright infringement and brand him a criminal. In the end, out of concern for his friend, he does the unthinkable: he gives Lissa his password in an attempt to hide the copyright infringement from the SPA, breaking the law with that simple act.

Stallman predicted a lot of bad things in that piece of fiction. Sadly, they have already come true. The Right to Read is no longer a hypothetical scenario, no longer just a story warning about a possible future.

It is our present.

What is DRM?

DRM is an initialism which is supposed to stand for “Digital Rights Management,” but in practice it's more accurate to say it stands for “Digital Restrictions Management.” It refers to any means used to control copyrighted and proprietary digital works and hardware. Its purpose is to restrict what users can do. DRM is an umbrella term for various tools aimed at achieving that goal, such as legal agreements (which is the technique the dis-service in question is using), or malware that seeks to prevent specific actions. For example, to prevent users from connecting to a website through the TOR network or from outside of a certain geographical area (Ireland, in my case). For some examples of Digital Restrictions Management, take a look at the page on proprietary DRM

A Real-Life Encounter With Becoming Illegal

During the course of my secondary school education, I was contacted by a friend who was finding it difficult to study because he had managed to mess things up by leaving his textbooks in his locker over a mid-term break. Silly mistake aside, I thought nothing of lending him a modified version of my password so that he could access my copies of the ebooks, hosted at the publisher's platform (the “service”). He'd be able to study and pass the upcoming exams, no harm done. Little did I know that, according to the terms and conditions of the dis-service, I had just committed the most vile, despicable act a human being could commit: help my friend—or, in the eyes of the publisher, “piracy.”

The terms and conditions [2] of the dis-service are somewhat hard to find, which makes one feel the publisher is untrustworthy. They are not readily available on the login page or on the main library page; instead, they are hidden in the help section. I won't quote them exactly, but they do expressly forbid the sharing of passwords. They also contain several other things worth noting, which I will discuss later.

The terms and conditions are very, very clear about one thing: you're not allowed to share the ebook in any way, with any means, under any circumstances.

Let me clear up one thing. I don't actually own the ebook. The physical version of the book proudly displays a notice on the cover saying you'll get a free ebook version along with your purchase. That's misleading, at best. What I get is a time-limited license to access its contents, exclusively on the publisher's proprietary platform. I can't download it to get a local copy to read offline because the publisher claims it's “too big” to fit in removable media, ignoring the fact that I may just want it on my hard drive. I decided to see if the claim was true and found that the grand total size of the ebook came in orders of magnitude lower than even the capacity of a CD-R disc. Are we really to believe the reason we can't download a copy of a digital book is that it can't fit in removable media? In my opinion, the real reason they don't want people to download copies is to prevent sharing.

Common Restrictions

Some new schools where I live in Ireland are using iPads (which have a whole host of privacy and ethical concerns in and of themselves) with the goal of moving all their students' books to these online dis-services. Benefits cited often include reduced weight in students' bags, ease of organization, and multimedia capabilities. All of which are true, but what is often neglected is that the move to digital devices requires students to agree to terms of service imposed by companies. These terms restrict students' ability to explore, research, and learn.

There are also a lot of practical downsides to ebooks on these platforms. They have to be used with a constant connection to the Internet, which will be difficult for many schools to maintain. They can't be downloaded, so students who don't have easy access to the Internet will be essentially stuck with no books. They may not be supported on all devices, or may be restricted to a single operating system or browser. Probably the biggest downside is that they can be obtained only from one centralized location, with authorized access granted only to the person who paid for it, and taken away after a limited time. Could you imagine a company coming to your graduation and wordlessly snatching your physical books back? A silly, ridiculous image, but it's what happens with ebooks.

When schools use physical books, students at least have the option of buying them second-hand, or getting them handed down from a friend or a sibling. If the practice of getting an ebook access code from a single centralized publisher continues, we may see a publisher's monopoly where textbooks needed for our free education are held away from us with a massive price tag. We may end up with a situation like Texas Instruments, where a company with a stranglehold on education can charge astronomical prices without the need to innovate or upgrade. Such a position was gained by pushing themselves as the educational standard in the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Once established as such, the company began to abuse its position by refusing to reduce the price of their calculators as they become cheaper to manufacture year after year. This leaves the company with gross profit margins of up to 90 percent, all the while making it very difficult for lower income families to educate their children.

Students don't have much of a say about which platforms they'll be required to use. The school may give them an email address, provided by Microsoft Office 365, and require them to agree to the terms imposed by the publisher. Students may need books from different publishers, and may have to agree to multiple contracts. And even if they do agree to a given version of a contract, most publishers reserve the right to change it. Perhaps the publisher might—as I discovered in the terms of the dis-service I mentioned earlier—reserve the right to later charge fees to access the books. Do the students really have a choice? Not at the moment. Unless something changes, they don't have a choice. They're forced to accept the terms, no matter what they think of them, otherwise they lose their chances for education by losing their books.

Challenging the Assumptions

Some may say that these terms are reasonable, that students aren't entitled to learn how the tools they use during their education work, or to share information with their peers.

Would you object to a student reading her schoolbook while on holidays in France? If she reads it while traveling to Northern Ireland? On a bus? In a public library?

Of course not.

Would you also object to, say, a student lending a copy of his book to a friend? Allowing someone sitting next to him to look at his book? If a student copies a sentence from a book into his notes, is he a thief or a pirate? Should the teacher report him for illegal activity?

Of course not.

And what if the student were to ask how the book was bound? How the paper was made? What the ink was made up of? How the process of writing works? How they are delivered to bookstores to be sold? Should this student be punished for attempting to learn about the publisher's techniques?

Of course not.

And finally, would you object to students selling their textbooks when they no longer have a need for them? To giving away their notes, made using information from the book, to other students? Would you say students shouldn't be allowed to give away their book if it has a line crossed out and rewritten?

Of course not.

My friend made quite an apt summary: It's like [school systems] put the rights of companies over the rights of the students.

With the current landscape of educational institutions planning to introduce new technologies, we need to be careful. Without proper consideration and action, we may find ourselves in a reality even closer to the one described in The Right to Read. School boards have already made mistakes in the past, like with Texas Instruments. I would urge everyone to start pushing against this sort of terms. Here are some suggestions:

  • During the decision process about which textbooks to use, you could petition your school to consider the terms and conditions of ebook services and make it a requirement that ebooks be DRM-free and downloadable.
  • You could start the preparation of a textbook for your local curriculum and publish it under a free license such as the GNU Free Documentation License, CC BY-SA, or similar.
  • Support the FSF's campaign to abolish eBook DRM.

Let's make sure schools don't punish learning.

Let's make sure ebooks increase our freedom, not decrease it.

Author's Notes

  1. “Piracy” is a smear word.
  2. Some notes from the Terms and Conditions of dis-services:
    • Passwords must not be shared.
    • The publisher reserves the right to later charge for access to the dis-service.
    • The reader can't distribute any information from the dis-service unless in ways explicitly allowed.
    • It is forbidden to attempt to learn how the dis-service works by reverse-engineering, attempting to derive source code, or by any other means.
    • The books are region-locked (only accessible in a certain area) to the Republic of Ireland.
    • No warranties are provided. The dis-service shall not be liable for any damages, yet expects you to be liable for damages to them.


Thanks to Richard Stallman, Andy Oram, and the GNU Education Team for the idea and the help.