Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

DRM, Libraries and Digital audio book checkout limitations

Our family is up in Kansas this weekend for college football and a family wedding, and as usual we’ve swapped a few technological tips and tricks amidst our conversations about family and food. One I’m most interested in, which I learned about from my mom, is the availability of audio books for checkout from the Kansas State Library System. This service has been available for over two years, according to the State Library of Kansas’ blog about the project, but this is the first time I’ve heard about this type of library check-out for audio books online.

Kansas Audiobooks, music and more!

According to their website “Kansas Audiobooks, music and more!”

The State Library of Kansas is proud to announce the arrival of Digital Video and MP3 Audiobooks in addition to WMA Audiobooks, Digital eBooks and Digital Music. Our new MP3 Audiobooks will play on virtually any MP3 player available including the iPod® and Zune®! You can browse and search hundreds of great titles and download them to your computer, transfer them to a portable device, or burn onto a CD for your reading and listening pleasure anywhere, anytime. Try it, it’s easy!

Only Kansas residents (a category which no longer defines me at this point) are eligible to obtain a Kansas Library Card, which is required to utilize these services.

The Kansas digital book library initiative is being coordinated by OverDrive. The about page of the Overdrive corporate website describes itself as a company which:

…provides world-class infrastructure for distributing premium digital content. We empower publishers, enterprises, libraries, schools, and retailers to maximize their presences in the digital world by enabling them to securely manage, protect, and lend or sell digital audiobooks, eBooks, music, and videos.

The Overdrive “School Download Library” Service:

…supplements your school library with eBook and audiobook downloads from your school’s website. It’s easy and based on a proven platform currently serving 7,500 public libraries worldwide: Students install free software on their computers, browse the secure website for curriculum-based or recreational titles, check out their selections with an existing library card (or other ID), then download audiobooks and eBooks to their desktop or laptop PC. They can even transfer most titles to supported mobile devices!

What these websites do NOT say in clear words on the front page is that these Overdrive DRM-supported services and features are totally incompatible with iPods and iPhones. If non-DRM MP3 audio files are shared, those can be iPod-compatible, but most of the media resources shared with these systems tend to be (as far as I can tell) on the non-compatible, DRM-laden variety.

In searching for Oklahoma libraries utilizing the same or a similar system as the Kansas State Library system, I found the Pioneer Library System in Norman is utilizing Overdrive. The sidebar link on the Pioneer Library’s Overdrive website for “iPod users click here” includes BAD NEWS for iPod users, however, which seems at first-blush to contradict the State of Kansas’ Overdrive site regarding iPod compatibility:

At this time, OverDrive Media files cannot be used on iPods or Mac computers.

Our media titles, provided by OverDrive, Inc., use DRM (Digital Rights Management) protection technology from Microsoft Corporation. Unfortunately the iPod (and Mac) currently support neither DRM-protected Windows Media Audio (.wma) files nor Windows Media Video (.wmv) files.

OverDrive, along with hundreds of online media providers, is hopeful that Apple and Microsoft can reach an agreement that would enable support for Microsoft-based DRM-protected materials on the iPod/Mac [platform].

Why are Overdrive audio and video files in the Kansas State library system iPod compatible, but those in the Norman Pioneer Library System are not? Apparently the DRM-encoded files in both systems are NOT iPod compatible, the non-DRM encoded MP3 files offered by the Kansas Library System ARE, however. I’d like to see the statistics on how many media files which are now publicly available for checkout on the open web from the Kansas Library System ARE MP3, non-DRM files. My strong suspicion it that the number is a small fraction of the total.

The Overdrive Digital Media Guided Tour provides more information about the services provided by this particular company. The section on portable audio devices indicates that only “Windows-media audio DRM protected audio files” are supported.

Like many others I’d guess, I have mixed feelings about digital rights management. I understand why it is needed and how it has opened the door wider for the digital media revolution, but I don’t like the fact that DRM standards vary and compatibility issues can be common. My own negative experiences with my iRiver and its Windows Media DRM audio format is just one example. (I have repeatedly tried and had friends try to format the iRiver from MTP to UMS as I’d done in the past with a friend’s iRiver to no avail, it WILL NOT change to the more compatible UMS format.) Apparently similar DRM-woes afflict iPod-owning users of Overdrive and its digital media library service.

Here’s a fast question: Why would any forward looking organization utilizing and sharing digital media choose to lock itself into a DRM format which is utilized by the Zune but not iPods? I would caution anyone looking at digital media library services to AVOID formats which lock users into the Windows Media Audio DRM format which is (at least to date) totally unfriendly to iPods.

If your library system has chosen to use a media sharing system which is incompatible and therefore digitally irrelevant to a LARGE MAJORITY of patrons with iPod digital media players, is your library system making wise and fiscally responsible choices which meet the current and future needs of patrons? I think not.

Rather than blame Microsoft and Apple for the differences in DRM, as some do with statements about iPod/Zune DRM incompatibility, perhaps library systems embracing ONLY Microsoft compatible DRM media files should instead offer the following statement on the front of their websites:

We recognize that a vast majority of our library patrons who own a portable digital media player own iPods, however we have chosen to spend our limited financial resources on a digital rights management system which is incompatible with all those devices. We recommend you discard your iPod and instead purchase a Zune, which we happen to prefer (for unknown reasons) and will help Microsoft maintain its quarterly profit levels. Thank you for your support of our library system. Good luck convincing the teenagers in your household to discard their iPods so they can benefit from our digital media services here at the library.

Would such an announcement be far off base? I don’t think so. I’m quite disappointed that the Overdrive DRM is not supportive of iPods and iPhones, and I am pretty sure this sentiment is shared by others.

Are their other companies in addition to OverDrive which are facilitating the sharing and checkout of various media files using both Apple and Microsoft DRM formats?

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2 responses to “DRM, Libraries and Digital audio book checkout limitations”

  1. Adri Avatar

    To answer your question, “Why are Overdrive audio and video files in the Kansas State library system iPod compatible, but those in the Norman Pioneer Library System are not?” – It’s because OverDrive started rolling out the non-DRM MP3 format about a month ago. Because PLS has only been offering these downloadable titles since April 1st of this year – we did not rank among the first libraries to be able to purchase the new format. They are allowing their long time and big spending libraries the first chance at access because there’s a lot of back end configuration that needs to be done by OverDrive and also education of the library staff needs to be performed.

    Having said that – we will be adding select non-DRM titles before the end of this month. We’ve had a tremendous response from patrons regarding downloads of the DRM’d titles and are getting calls to expand to ebooks as well. We also have “download stations” in each of our branches for patrons to bring in their compatible devices and we help them download books.

    If you ever have a question please do not hesitate to contact me – Adri (Virtual Library Manager of the Pioneer Library System)