In a recent conversation with Sarah Houghton, a librarian and digital rights expert, I uncovered a number of things that I kinda/sorta knew and some that I had no idea about.

1. In most cases, after you buy digital media, you don’t actually own anything. All you’re doing is licensing the right to use or access digital content in certain ways, on certain devices. The content itself still belongs to the company leasing it to you. They can take it away at any time, edit it, and do whatever else they want to it. What you’re paying for is like streaming subscription to that content, but it’s not ownership.

2. Here’s how Digital Rights Management (DRM) works. It physically locks down content, so that only certain people (who have bought a lease to it) and certain technology (that works with that particular content) can unlock it. Each company has its own set of rules and regulations about how a lease works, and its own exclusive technology. When a lease expires or a technology becomes obsolete, it becomes impossible to access the content. It’s in a kind of impenetrable bank vault; the treasure is in there, but no one can get to it.

3. DRM is antithetical to the whole idea behind libraries, which is: free and open access to all information for everyone. DRM physically prevents that. If a library owns an unprotected MP3, for example, it can be shared however the library sees fit and migrated to a new file type when a new file type comes along. If the library is diligent, its users will have access to that music or audio in the future. But with a WMA file, or any other kind of file locked up with DRM, there is nothing the library can do to unlock that file or migrate it forward. They are stuck. If the keys to unlock the file go away, the library is left with data no one can see anymore. It’s scary to think about what the world will look like if that happens. This is not science fiction; it is already happening.

4. Digital media in its current form causes two big problems for libraries. One, when a library buys a digital book, they can’t guarantee that they’ll still own it in ten years, or be able to archive it and share it. The technology might not even exist to access it. Two, they’ve lost the right of first sale. They don’t really own the digital book, so they can’t decide to share it with multiple people or give it away when they’re done sharing it. In other words, the way digital media works right now, a library can’t own a digital book, use it, and then pass it on. Right now they’re spending money on content they won’t own in the future. If you care about the survival of libraries, you should care about this.

5. Here’s what happens when you check digital books out of the library. Are you ready for this? We’ll use Amazon as the example, though what happens when you check books out on other devices will be different and, as of now, more private. You own a Kindle, and all you are trying to do is check out books you can read on it. What happens is that your Amazon account becomes linked to your library account. So in addition to everything Amazon already knows about you, it now also tracks every digital book you check out through the library for your Kindle. This is the first time in the history of library lending that a private company has had access to your library information. controlled digital lendingLibraries and consumers didn’t agree to this, or vote for it; it just happened. How do you feel about the precedent of companies using the libraries to collect information about you?

6. Upon the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, there is now a part of the CIA called “The Vengeful Librarians.” Cleverly misleading name, guys! They are sifting through everything and anything on Twitter and Facebook. In theory, they are looking for terrorist activity. But in reality, who knows what they’re looking for? We don’t know what their keywords and hot keys are, and if you used one of them by mistake, you could theoretically be flagged and start getting tracked individually. So when you put something out there on social media, not only does it belong to the site and not to you and become impossible to take back, but it can also be searched by the government. This is not a crackpot fantasy; the government is actually watching social media.

7. Google’s project of digitizing books is not exactly open source. And because of pushback from publishers and authors, the project is in limbo at the moment. Don’t look there for the future Digital Library of Alexandria. But there are other, better models, like the Internet Archive’s Open Library Project, based in San Francisco, which is truly open source. The dream is still alive.

8. Right now, it’s crazy out there – Sarah Houghton compared it to the Wild West. But librarians are fighting back through legislative action and asking lawmakers to look at things like net neutrality, copyright protection, DRM, privacy, and the preservation of sustainable access to information over time. And there are things you can do too.

-Educate yourself about these issues.

-Make informed decisions about how you share your information. Is the fact that you already own a Kindle or a Nook or an iPad a good enough reason for you to agree to a DRM lease, or to allow the company who made that device to access your library account? If you don’t care, great; go for it. But if you do, think about alternatives. Choose to participate in a model you believe in.

-Vote with your dollars. This is the language companies respond to. If you don’t like the way DRM works right now, stop paying for it. In the meantime, you might choose to spend your money on paper books, DVDs, and CDs (or even vinyl!) that you definitely own and can share or pass on in any way you like. Or you might choose to educate other people about DRM, libraries, and private companies.

Thanks, Sarah Houghton (AKA The Librarian in Black) – you scared me a little bit, but you also got me up to speed about DRM!

Mike Wolpert, founder of Social Jumpstart. Social Media Training for Your Business. Solid how-to in bite size pieces. You know where you want your business to grow, we know how to make it happen, Socially!

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