Digital Rights Management: The Bane of Electronic Texts

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Key Takeaways

  • Digital rights management focuses on addressing intellectual property issues raised in the entertainment industry, which, unlike education, is content rather than process focused.
  • Because DRM restricts textbook availability to particular environments, it interferes with the key educational processes of how subjects are taught and how students learn.
  • A new model would support these processes by shifting away from a textbook-centric perspective to a focus on developing online course packs — that is, online products that are truly interactive, adaptive, and individualized.
  • By focusing on features traditionally seen as ancillary — such as access to homework, discussion groups, and so on — rather than the content itself, this new model can both guarantee sales and stop piracy.

Gerd Kortemeyer is associate professor of Physics Education at Michigan State University and director of the LON-CAPA Project.

Before anybody gets the wrong message, there are two points I should make.

First, I believe in giving authors and content providers the freedom to choose how their materials are licensed. Their choices will be determined by their value systems regarding their intellectual property, as well as their needs for sustainability and profitability. Different entities will choose different schemes, ranging from public domain and Creative Commons to fully commercial remuneration models. In any case, this freedom of choice can be guaranteed only if these same choices are also respected and — if need be — enforced.

Second, I am not a believer in the innate virtue of human nature. There will always be individuals who have little or no respect for other people's property, particularly when it comes to intellectual property. It is not my intention to open up more avenues for breaking the law.

Having said that — digital rights management (DRM) for educational content is on the wrong track.

The Problem

In its current incarnation, DRM interferes with the educational process, as electronic textbooks are typically available only in restrictive reading environments:

  • Students want to print materials? Sorry — if anything, you can print only a limited number of pages and a limited number of copies!
  • Students want access but are doing study abroad? Sorry — the IP range is restricted to North America!
  • Students want to look up materials from a course in another semester? Sorry — access time has expired!
  • Instructors want to show an example in class? Sorry — you can't copy/paste!
  • Instructors want to innovate by adapting and reshuffling the curriculum? Sorry — one size fits all!
  • Students have accessibility needs? Sorry — reader software often fails to adequately address them in an effort to protect the text.

All of the above are legitimate activities in the scholarly effort to study a subject; they neither infringe on the profits of the publishing companies nor violate traditional copyright. Still, DRM disrupts these activities due to the "guilty until proven innocent" assumption that students will try to either resell the product or otherwise undermine its sales. Worse, some potential problems being solved here are actually created by the publishers. For example, textbooks are significantly cheaper in other parts of the world (by factors of two or three), so the IP restriction exists solely to preserve the domestic profit margin.

In addition, students have to juggle even more logins and access codes to a fragmented plethora of online systems for electronic texts, homework, discussions, course management, clicker registration, plagiarism checking, and so on, and they must install even more software on their various gadgets while getting nickel-and-dimed at every opportunity. Finally, infringing on a digital product's accessibility for learners with disabilities is simply unethical (and fortunately, against the law).

Why Educational Content Is Different

DRM, as currently applied to educational content, was created in the context of entertainment content; essentially, current electronic textbooks are protected in the same fashion as music and movies. Clearly, good reasons exist for using these technologies with entertainment content, as piracy is rampant: for reasons that sociologists can probably explain better than I, young people — including college students — have even less respect for intellectual property in entertainment products than in other realms, while at the same time, few would consider stealing a Blu-ray from a video store (or a textbook from a bookstore, for that matter).

But the nature of educational content differs from entertainment content: for entertainment, the content is also the product, and nothing exists beyond the enjoyment of the content itself; in contrast, educational content is only part of the "education" product. This is evident in many ways:

  • Few can learn a complex subject just by reading a textbook, regardless of its format.1
  • For the vast majority of educational content, free alternative versions of the product's "knowledge" can be found on the open web.
  • Very good open textbooks exist in more and more subject areas and can replace traditional publisher content (see, for example, OpenStax).
  • Students are not even making good use of the content. Although they might listen to their favorite songs repeatedly, studies show that most educational content is never read.2
  • Students do not really value the educational content, even in a nonmonetary sense; students often rent books or sell them at the end of the semester.3

The product "education," in turn, is only a necessary ingredient for the product that colleges and universities are actually selling: certification of education.

It would be easy — too easy — to just give up on textbook publishers, but that would be a mistake. For the better part of the 20th century, publishing companies have supported education in very effective ways, assisting faculty in producing high-quality, readable, and attractive content; providing efficient distribution avenues; and supporting a sustainable economy for educational content overall. These same companies have unfortunately not yet adapted to the 21st century.

Publishing companies are heading toward extinction while they insist on selling "digitized dinosaurs," which are clearly just extensions of increasingly overpriced traditional textbooks. When value-added features fail to convince customers to actually buy the products, publishers add increasingly more sophisticated features to protect less and less desirable content — much to the annoyance of the customers. However, alternatives are closing in quickly!

Make Education, Not War!

Instead of engaging in a digital arms race, we might not need DRM at all if content is part of a larger educational product: a truly interactive, adaptive, and individualizing online course pack — instead of a PDF-file with static book content — delivered via a free course management application to any web-capable client platform.

Initially, publishers and educators might look at this from two very different angles. The publisher angle is as follows:

  • If the course pack includes embedded, graded online homework, students have no choice but to buy access. This is evident from online homework services such as WebAssign, Mastering, or Sapling, which do not need to protect their assessment content with DRM because students must solve their own individual problems to get credit.
  • If contextual online course discussions are directly attached to the content rather than held in a separate forum, students must buy individual access to the content to participate in "multiplayer" courses.
  • Finally, if remedial content is recommended to provide an adaptive learning path in response to assessment outcomes, students must buy the content alongside the assessment, discussion venues, and adaptivity features. That is, the remedial content would become one component of the overall educational experience.

The instructor angle is as follows:

  • Providing ample opportunity for formative assessment around content is good educational practice, and research in online course venues has shown that students choose this learning path naturally: they first try the homework, and then read up on the content.4
  • Peer discussions are a more effective way of teaching than reading or listening to lectures.5
  • Having all of this functionality unified in one venue cuts down on redundant maintenance and on having to troubleshoot student technology problems.

Eventually, these two views might converge: publishers clearly have an interest in providing an educationally effective product, and instructors do not really want to give up on publishers just yet, as they provide high-quality materials. Thus, a sustainable economy is in everyone's interest; somebody needs to pay those excellent editors, graphical artists, proofreaders, and so on. The result is simply greater value.

Instructors would remain in the driver's seat, selecting the online course pack's reading and assessment content from various sources and at different levels of granularity. The system would simultaneously track the total cost and provide one final price tag for the students to gain access to all content. Publishers might argue that these very same instructors frequently violate intellectual property rights themselves, as they photocopy large textbook sections for their courses or copy textbook problems into online homework systems — all the while invoking the misinterpreted Fair Use excuse. Given this, publishers might ask: Why would these people not just copy/paste the content for their students to use for free? However — and I am not defending breaking the law — but it might be that instructors violate current laws because they currently have no legal venue for fine-grained control over course content. Instructors might argue, for example, that it is unfair to force students to buy an entire (often expensive) book for just a few pages of content.


Is it realistic to hope that publishers might accept this DRM-free "upside-down" marketing model in which the tail wags the dog? A model in which the homework, interactive, and "multiplayer" features are supported by — rather than providing support for — the actual content, thus guaranteeing sales and stopping piracy?

This is happening in another publishing industry: games. Many of today's games have moved away from DRM in favor of charging for multiplayer interactivity, which was formerly ancillary to DRM-protected games and is now de-facto copy protection. As the president of Electronic Arts, a leading game company with titles such as SimCity, said last year: "DRM is a failed dead-end strategy; it's not a viable strategy for the gaming business."6 The question we face in education today is, Will textbook publishers stick with the dead-end strategy or opt for a model that actually supports the education process?

  1. John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking, eds., How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, National Academy Press, 1999.
  2. Thomas Berry, Lori Cook, Nancy Hill, and Kevin Stevens, "An Exploratory Analysis of Textbook Usage and Study Habits: Misperceptions and Barriers to Success," College Teaching, vol. 59, no. 1, 2010, pp. 31–39; and Daniel T. Seaton, Gerd Kortemeyer, Yoav Bergner, Saif Rayyan, and David E. Pritchard, "Analyzing the Impact of Course Structure on eText Use in Blended Introductory Physics Courses," American Journal of Physics, submitted, 2014.
  3. Judith Chevalier and Austan Goolsbee, "Are Durable Goods Consumers Forward-Looking? Evidence from College Textbooks," Quarterly Journal of Economics, vol. 124, no. 4, 2009, pp. 1853–1884.
  4. Behrouz Minaei-Bidgoli, Data Mining for a Web-Based Educational System, Doctoral Thesis, Michigan State University, 2005; and Gerd Kortemeyer, "Gender differences in the use of an online homework system in an introductory physics course," Physical Review ST Physical Education Research, vol. 5 (26 May 2009), DOI:
  5. Catherine H. Crouch and Eric Mazur, "Peer Instruction: Ten Years of Experience and Results," American Journal of Physics, vol. 69, no. 9 (September 2001), pp. 970–977; and Nathaniel Lasry, Eric Mazur, and Jessica Watkins, "Peer Instruction: From Harvard to Community Colleges," American Journal of Physics, vol. 76 (2008), pp. 1066–1069.
  6. James Brightman, "EA: 'DRM is a Failed Dead-End Strategy'," GameIndustry International, 27 March 2013.