MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XX No. 2
November / December 2007
A Beacon Beyond Our Borders
M.I.T.'s Real Assets
A Call for Nominations
Disagreements and Community Building
Should MIT Increase the Size of the Faculty?
Avoiding a Rush to Judgement:
Implications of the Star Simpson Affair
The purpose of faculty meetings?
Not the Way to Treat Family
The MIT Energy Initiative: One Year Later
Faculty Renewal
Can't Stop Laughing
Making a Mountain Out of a Molehill: Understanding the U.S. News Rankings
Faculty Quality of Life
A White Paper on How MIT Should Think About Institutional International Exchanges
The MIT Office of Admissions:
Choosing the Best Candidates
and Handling Them With Care
A Meeting with Disaster: Planning for Emergencies and Extended Outages
The Pitfalls of Digital Rights Management
Student Global Experiences
(IROP and Survey Results)
Student Global Experiences
(MISTI Participation)
Printable Version

The Pitfalls of Digital Rights Management

Wai Cheng

How would you feel about colleagues who wish to read a paper you wrote for a professional organization being limited in the number of times they were allowed to print it? Or you being restricted in the number of students to whom you could distribute another colleague’s paper? These are precisely some of the limitations imposed by organizations who employ the use of Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology for their technical publications. DRM technology – which controls the use and distribution of electronic files – has been traditionally used by the commercial book publishing and music industries. DRM in these industries is justified as a protection of Intellectual Properties (IP). However, now that DRM is being used by technical organizations and scientific and engineering publications, one has to ask who should be the rightful owner of the IP.

My experience with DRM involves my research in automotive engineering. In the United States, the technical organization that promotes and “controls” the business is the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). SAE is a large and successful non-profit organization with a membership base of 90,000. The organizational structure and governance of SAE is similar to professional organizations such as the IEEE, ASME, IMechE, AIChE, and others.

A key mission of SAE as stated on their Website is a: “ ‘free exchange of ideas’ in order to expand [their] individual technical knowledge base.” In accordance with this mission, SAE organizes professional meetings several times a year where researchers and engineers can present their work and publish their presentations as SAE Papers. These papers become the de-facto knowledge base for automotive engineering – if one wants to disseminate, or conversely, to find, automotive engineering technical information, one goes to the SAE Papers.

The SAE Papers are a significant source of income for SAE. (Currently, the price of each paper is $11.20 for SAE members and $14 for non-members.) SAE papers are available digitally through subscriptions to a digital library. MIT and other universities/industries that have an interest in automotive engineering are subscribers to the digital library. The subscription is not cheap – $18K per year in 2006 for MIT, but in line with other publishers’ content.

In 2006 SAE began to demand Digital Rights Management (DRM) on the SAE Papers. DRM puts a software lock on the PDF file of the paper. Once an SAE paper is purchased, the PDF is permanently locked to your computer. You may view it as many times as you like, however you are not able to share the document with another computer.

The implication of the DRM on the digital library subscription is that the DRM comes with a limit on the maximum number of papers to be downloaded from the digital library. Thus if one wants to distribute a paper to five graduate students, each student has to download it individually.

In this manner, the quota can be used up rather quickly. Also, one is not able to browse freely the content of the paper, because each “look” would constitute a download. The loss of the freedom to browse is a serious setback on the accessibility of the knowledge base.

SAE papers contain work done with substantial effort and intellectual contributions by the authors. Industry, government, and various organizations and volunteers support the financial cost of the work. The primary goal of these publications is to benefit the technical community (and society as a whole) through dissemination of information. The authors and organizations that sponsored the work should clearly be the rightful owners of the intellectual properties associated with the publications.

Legally, however, SAE has ownership of the publication IP. They require authors to sign copyright release forms before their papers can be accepted for publication. The authors are usually willing to sign away their rights because (i) there is the trust and understanding that SAE will distribute effectively the papers to the widest audience; and (ii) the authors really have no choice, because SAE is the premium automotive knowledge base holder.

The authors, however, would like to get their papers read by as many people as possible. In an ideal world, the publications should be free of charge to maximize distribution. In practice, since there are costs associated with the distribution process, it is reasonable that SAE should charge a modest fee as the middleman. Thus there is an essential tension between SAE, who wants to maximize profits from the papers, and the SAE members, who want to maximize dissemination of and access to the knowledge base at reasonable cost.

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In April of 2007, I went before the SAE Publishing Board to argue against the use of DRM. I was supported at the meeting by colleagues from universities with significant automotive research. My arguments were as follows:

  • DRM is a significant inconvenience to users. Because of the DRM print and distribution limitation, users will revert back to archiving via the paper medium; hence the whole “digital revolution” is defeated.
  • The above inconvenience impedes the “free exchange of ideas;” therefore, the DRM is contrary to the founding principle of SAE.
  • In theory, the DRM would suppress the illegitimate users, and increase sales by only allowing limited distribution by legitimate users (e.g., instead of giving my graduate students copies of a SAE paper to read, I would have to buy them each a copy). In practice, illegitimate users would still be there, and it is very unlikely that any individual who has purchased a paper would purchase extra copies for limited distribution. Individual sales will not increase, but there will be a substantial number of cancellations of the digital library subscription. Thus there will be a loss of revenue.
  • The DRM practice has significantly alienated the SAE member community – including professors and students, engineers from industry, library staff from both academia and industry, SAE technical session organizers, and paper authors.

After the meeting a press release was issued, and a task group was formed to decide the future policy of DRM. The DRM practices for academic SAE Digital Library subscribers were suspended for the remainder of 2007.

For MIT, however, this reverse of policy was too late, since our subscription ended in March 2007 after negotiations with the SAE for a new digital library contract had  broken down over their requirement that MIT implement DRM, along with accepting a substantial price increase and download limits.

Since April, there have been several meetings of the SAE DRM task force that consisted of SAE staff and library representatives from two universities (Auburn University and Lawrence Tech). During the meetings the SAE staff side-stepped the bigger issue of technical information transfer and intellectual ownership from the perspective of the whole technical community, and instead argued narrowly that universities are “cheap,” and thus the issue is specific to academia. The proposed solution only addresses student and faculty uses by slightly relaxing DRM control on the number of printed copies to be made or the number of computers on which the files could be distributed – in other words, DRM is here to stay.

The SAE DRM case has been watched closely by universities, professional societies (e.g., IEEE) and the technical publishing world. Most technical literature is now available electronically. The MIT Libraries have not purchased any technical papers or journals that are subject to DRM and no other journal publisher or technical paper publisher has proposed access with DRM restrictions.

There are two possible pathways to getting rid of DRM and to making technical information exchange a free and open process. One is to find another market for technical communication. Web publishing is emerging, but it has not been widely accepted (think: tenure and promotion cases in academia). A significant deficiency in this model is the lack of organization and quality control. Some of us, however, are serving or have served as editors of professional journals, so what we can do is to switch the effort to become editors of Web journals; thus the resources are there. We just need to do it – both to do the work and to lend our names to legitimize the endeavor. Furthermore, professional services are needed to support Web journals in terms of both hardware and software support. The overhead, however, is much lower because of the electronic means. Therefore, with start-up money from foundations, modest subscription charges from libraries, and advertisement revenues (the Google model), the enterprise is entirely plausible. Therefore, I am calling for my colleagues to play a leadership role in Web publishing.

The other pathway is to make DRM an unattractive option for the publisher. Libraries should make it a policy not to subscribe to any publication with DRM. The MIT Libraries are doing just that, including cancelling subscriptions to the SAE Digital Library. This act was joined by the leading universities with significant automotive research (e.g., U. of Michigan; U. of Wisconsin, Madison; U. of California, including Berkeley, Los Angeles, and Davis campuses; U. of Texas, Austin; U. of Minnesota; Virginia Tech; Purdue). The subscription cancellation does mean some hardship for the users, but we will all learn how to cope. For SAE, the financial impact may be small, but not insignificant, and it is of vital interest to the technical community to resist the DRM implementation.


Editor’s Note:
As we went to press, SAE announced that “In 2008 students and faculty will be able to use SAE International’s Digital Library of Technical Papers in academic settings without the former restrictions.”

Based in part on the concerns expressed by Professor Cheng (and others) at the SAE Publications Board meeting last April, the press release went on to say that “As recommended by a special task force, the SAE International Publications Board voted Oct. 31 to eliminate the use of the ‘FileOpen’ plug-in on digital library products for licensees at colleges, universities and other academic institutions.

“Composed of university professors, librarians, publications board members and staff publishing professionals, the Special DRM Task Force was charged with making recommendations to improve the ‘ease-of-use’ of the Society’s Digital Library of Technical Papers in academic settings. This group concluded that the special information needs of students and faculty members would be best served in a more open environment ­ without the digital rights management restrictions imposed by a file security system resident at the client computer level.”

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