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Letter to the Boston Public Library

by John Sullivan Contributions Published on Jan 30, 2006 01:27 PM

To the Management of the Boston Public Library,

Don Saklad forwarded me your message which reports that OverDrive Audio Books use "copyright protection technology" made by Microsoft.

The technology in question is an example of Digital Restrictions Management (DRM)--technology designed to restrict the public. Describing it as "copyright protection" puts a favorable spin on a mechanism intended to deny the public the exercise of those rights which copyright law has not yet denied them.

The use of that format for distributing books is not a fact of nature; it is a choice. When a choice leads to bad consequences, it ought to be changed, and that is the case here. I respectfully submit that the Boston Public Library has a responsibility to refuse to distribute anything in this format, even if it seems "convenient" to some in the short term.

By making the choice to use this format, the Boston Public Library gives additional power to a corporation already twice convicted of unfair competition.

This choice excludes more than just Macintosh users. The users of the GNU/Linux system, an operating system made up of free/libre software, are excluded as well. Since these audiobooks are locked up with Digital Restrictions Management (DRM), it is illegal in the US to release free/libre software capable of reading these audiobooks. Apple may make some sort of arrangement to include capable software in MacOS (which is, itself, non-free software for which users cannot get source code). But we in the free software community will never be allowed to provide software to play them, unless laws are changed.

There is another, deeper issue at stake here. The tendency of digitalization is to convert public libraries into retail stores for vendors of digital works. The choice to distribute information in a secret format--information designed to evaporate and become unreadable--is the antithesis of the spirit of the public library. Libraries which participate in this have lost their hearts.

I therefore urge the Boston Public Library to terminate its association with OverDrive Audio Books, and adopt a policy of refusing to be agents for the propagation of Digital Restrictions Management.

Richard Stallman
President, Free Software Foundation
MacArthur Fellow
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