DRM In (and Out) of Schools

Kindles and iPads are making their way into classrooms across the world. Schools like Seton Hill and George Fox are giving iPads to incoming students. Monte Vista Christian School, in California, has sixty of them that are now in the hands of advanced placement students. Gibbon Fairfax Winthrop High School in Minnesota ordered 320 for their students in April of this year. Dr. Joseph Kim of KevinMD.com calls for making iPads mandatory for medical school students. Stanford University seems excited about the idea and gave them out to first year medical students this year. Clearwater High School in Florida gave all 2000 of their students Kindles at the start of the 2010-2011 academic year. WorldReader.Org, a non-profit founded by an Amazon executive, did a pilot program for e-book readers in schools in Ghana with Kindles. Some people are excited about the use of these new technologies in classrooms.

But not everyone.

There are two major reasons why Kindles and iPads have no place in schools, both of which are related to DRM (Digital Restrictions Management).

  • 1. DRM prevents learning. It's the information that is a resource. The access to this information is provided by tools. DRM actually makes it illegal for students to keep learning past a certain point, by preventing them from looking closely at how the devices work or from making their own methods for accessing, using, and sharing the information.
  • 2.DRM is, in the words of a guy I almost knew, “jus' morally wrong.” Forcing DRM on people, even more so.

In the summer of 2009, copies of “1984” and “Animal Farm,” both by George Orwell, disappeared from Kindles across America. MobileReference, the digital publisher who had been selling these ebooks, did not have the rights to them. When this came out, Amazon deleted the books off Kindles. Other Kindle owners complain of similar deletions surrounding various editions of other books, including Harry Potter. The biggest problem with this is most clearly demonstrated in a New York Times' article:

Justin Gawronski, a 17-year-old from the Detroit area, was reading “1984” on his Kindle for a summer assignment and lost all his notes and annotations when the file vanished. “They didn’t just take a book back, they stole my work,” he said.[1]

The text of “1984” itself was what he needed for his assignment and that text, his resource, was taken away by his tool. In losing his copy of “1984,” Mr. Gawronski did not just lose a copy: he lost his experience of the book and his own work related to it.

The fundamental problem with DRM from a user standpoint is having mediated access to the text. When you own a book, you own your copy of the book. You can read it for any purpose. You can read to learn, to share an experience with others, to have fun. You can study how the book works and change it. You can comment in the margins, highlight and underline sections. In theory, you can cut the book up, rearrange the parts. You can lend it to your friends. If someone comes into your house to take it without your permission, it's called “being robbed.” When you own an ebook with DRM, you have none of these freedoms. Maybe you can use your ebook reader to make comments and highlight sections, but that book can be deleted without anyone even coming into your house. This is not to say that real books are the only way and that ebook readers are bad—this is to say that how they are being managed with DRM-laden books is.

DRM is not an educational resource or tool. It is a restriction that inhibits people's access to resources. Which, in part, is why DRM is “jus' morally wrong.”

When schools give students iPads and Kindles, they are forcing an opinion on their students. They are taking away their students' right to make a decision—a decision with ethical consequences. I won't call it tantamount to making vegetarians eat meat, or forcing people to pray to gods that are not their own, but forcing someone not just to use a DRM system, but to support a DRM system, is removing access to their own freedoms. These are not just the freedoms of choice, they are freedoms of use, freedoms of study, freedoms of sharing, and freedoms of ownership.

Ebook readers and tablet computers might be excellent educational tools. We should be using them in schools. However, we need to be using ones that respect students' freedom. People need to be able to have access to their work, to own not just what they produce in school, but their own experiences of education.

For a more complete list, check out LibrePlanet's list and please add to it. To get a full account of why DRM is wrong, check out other articles on Defective by Design. Or drop me a line. I'd be glad to talk about it more.

[1] Stone, B. “Amazon Erases Orwell Books From Kindle Devices.” The New York Times. 17, July, 2009.