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A Silly Saga: How I Downloaded an Audio Book from My Library

Audio books are a great way to pass the time while running, driving, or falling asleep. So, a couple of years ago, when I heard that libraries were distributing audio books over the Internet, I was ecstatic. But I was then disappointed to learn that the whole system was Windows-only. (This seems to be the rule throughout much of the United States; if you consult your local library system's online catalog, you'll probably find that, if it provides downloadable audio books, it operates through NetLibrary, just like mine, and has the same restrictions.) The reason seems to have to do with the perceived need for digital rights management. Apparently, only Windows has the necessary built-in technology to prevent the user from "stealing" an audio book downloaded from a library. I actually considered running Windows on my Intel-based MacBook, just to get these audio books, but decided it wasn't worth the trouble.

Then in late 2008 came the exciting announcement that the privilege of obtaining audio books online from libraries had been extended to Mac users, through a free application called OverDrive Media Console. I downloaded the app, and dashed off (virtually, in my browser) to my local library's Web site to view my choice of audio books. After some confusion, it turned out that my access was enabled through a third-party site, the Black Gold Cooperative Library System. (Once again, you may well find that your local library, too, if it has a Mac-enabled set of downloadable audio books, operates through OverDrive, though the details of how you obtain the books may differ).

So, what was my experience like? It was pretty silly.

The Agony and the Silliness -- First, it turned out that there wasn't much I was interested in - there are fewer than 200 titles to choose from. (Some library!)

Then, when I did find something I wanted to listen to, I couldn't just download it. I had to "place a hold" on it. Some further digging showed why: Black Gold was treating these audio books as if they were physical objects being borrowed from a physical library, and only one person at a time could have each one. This was as far as I could get: "You have successfully placed a hold on the selected title. You will receive an email when the selected title becomes available for checkout. Once you receive the email, you will have 4 days to check out the selected title."

Several weeks passed, and finally I received the promised email. Returning to the Black Gold site, I found that I still couldn't download the audio book. Instead, I had to click "Add to Cart," as if I were shopping for socks. On the cart page was this warning: "Please note: Titles added to your cart will remain there for 30 minutes before they are returned to the library's collection. Please be sure to complete your checkout within this timeframe to avoid losing access to your desired title(s)."

The next step was to click "Proceed to Checkout" (it is sounding more and more like buying socks, isn't it?). But I still didn't get to download the book. First, I had to pass through a "Terms of Service" page (which of course I didn't read, since no one ever does). Then I had to proceed to the "Confirm Checkout" page, where I still didn't get to download the book; all I was doing here was confirming that I wanted to download the book, something I had already said about half a dozen times that I wanted to do. I did, however, learn on this page more about the terms of "borrowing" an audio book: I could check out a maximum of 4 at a time - not that this site even had 4 books I cared about - and the lending period was 14 days. (I wondered: What happens after 14 days? Will the file lose its ability to play? Will my iPod self-destruct?)

At last I arrived at the download page, and clicked the link there; but I still couldn't download the book! What I had downloaded turned out to be a tiny ".odm" file. It was not at all clear what to do with this, but after a while I realized what you're supposed to do: you open this file with OverDrive Media Console, and it performs the actual download for you, placing the MP3 files in ~/Documents/My Media/MP3 Audiobooks.

Who Put the D in the DRM? Sillier and sillier. First you make me wait for weeks. Then you force me to add the book to a fictitious cart, instead of downloading it. Then you tell me that I must immediately download it or it will be removed from my cart? So why didn't you just let me download it in the first place?

Without sinking into the mire of perennial arguments over DRM and our outmoded, corporate-minded copyright laws, this much seems obvious to me. There are no originals in this story, so there is nothing to protect. When you download an MP3 file, you are not borrowing a physical object which no one else can have as long as it's in your possession. It's digital, and what you download is, by its very nature, a copy even before you receive it. Therefore, this pretense that you can't "have" the MP3 file until all other users have "finished" with it, that it must be placed in a "cart" and retrieved within a certain time frame, and that you can "keep" the file for only a limited amount of time, is just a lot of inconvenient flapdoodle.

But the icing on the silliness cake is what happened after my 14 days were up - nothing! It's true that when starting up OverDrive Media Console, I encountered a dialog stating that items in my "media library" had "expired." It said, "Under the terms of the license agreement and terms of use, you are required to delete/destroy all copies of expired titles, including those transferred to portable devices and other media." I then had to click a Delete button in order to proceed, and sure enough, those files were deleted from my MP3 Audiobooks folder.

But of course I had copied those files. The copies, elsewhere on my computer, and on a different computer, and on my iPod, were not deleted, and they still play perfectly well. There isn't actually any DRM in this story at all! So what on earth was all the fuss about?

Kooky Kabuki -- Here's my theory. The library has bought audio books in digital form from some publisher, and can do so only by satisfying the publisher that this is not a direct route to unlimited copying all over the universe. Let's leave aside the question of whether this is a reasonable concern on the publisher's part (I happen to think it is not, because digital wants to be free, as in free-as-a-bird), and just accept that this is how libraries and publishers do business.

We can find support for this theory in the following tale. A couple of years ago, I borrowed a cassette tape (remember those?) of an audio book from my library. My first move, when I got it home, was to play the tape into my computer and turn the resulting digital file into MP3s - not to steal it, but in order to listen to it. I listened to it (on an iPod on a long driving trip), and then deleted the files. But part of the tape was damaged, and it occurred to me that I could help prevent this kind of thing. Our library is tiny and works mostly through volunteers, so I went to a library administrator and said: "How would you like me to digitize your cassette library for you, to prevent further deterioration and to make it easier for borrowers to listen?" They were horrified and sent me scurrying from the building. Clearly, libraries are not allowed to think like this. They deal in physical copies, and making a new physical copy is illegal.

Returning to my downloadable audio book experience, let's contrast the procedure for a Windows user. A Windows user can download a WMA audio book instantly from the library Web site without passing through a third-party application. But the resulting WMA file does have true embedded DRM: only certain recent versions of Windows Media Player, and certain approved handheld devices, can play the file at all. So there's sufficient control maintained over the file's playability (and, I'm assuming, its lifetime) to satisfy all the parties concerned.

Now, there is a DRM mechanism on the Mac (iTunes and authorized AAC files), and iTunes movie rentals even add a lifetime playability mechanism. But this works through the iTunes Store, so presumably the distributors of these audio books can't use it. Thus they are left with no DRM mechanism. Therefore, they compromise in a different way: they force the user to participate in a Kabuki drama intended to instill a notion that what's being downloaded is a physical object that only one user at a time can borrow for a limited time. It's DRM by hypnosis! Apparently, such hypnosis is sufficient to satisfy all parties that the relevant laws are being obeyed. But the hypnosis involved is really only self-hypnosis. Someone, somewhere, is kidding no one but himself. Maybe that's why the selection of available MP3 downloads is so poor; perhaps they are providing access only to books that aren't selling anyway, so they don't really care what happens to them after all.


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