“Wait a minute Honey, I’m gonna add it up:” Kanopies, DRM, and the Permanence of the Collection

In my new position at the University of Washington I have a long commute, as one would expect, in a large city like Seattle. On this commute I listen to music and read and on the bus last week I reached for an old Midwestern standby, The Violent Femmes only to find that their first album, Violent Femmes (1983) had been removed from streaming platforms and, despite my purchase of the album electronically, had been removed from iTunes for me to listen to. (Reader, don’t worry many of the songs are available on their greatest hits record, aptly titled, Permanent Record.)

The Violent Femmes performing in 2006 (Wikimedia Commons)

In the last few weeks librarians have been confronted in various ways with the difficulties surrounding streaming and licensed materials. Kanopy, one of the largest and most popular streaming services available for library users, was recently and publicly dropped by the New York Public Library (NYPL). How we found this news out, and how it became well known, was a result of Kanopy sending an email to NYPL users who had registered for the service prior to NYPL’s own statement on the issue. In part, their message explained “The New York, Queens, and Brooklyn Public Libraries have decided to discontinue Kanopy’s film streaming service to its patrons…Film as a public resource is a critical part of New York’s culture and communities. We have enjoyed furthering the New York City Libraries’ mission of providing open access to knowledge… [emphasis mine].” 

Kanopy's Letter to Patrons
The Kanopy Letter sent to New York Public Library Patrons

Setting aside for a moment the frankly gross overstep of a vendor directly reaching out to library patrons about library budgetary or mission changes, let’s focus in on the language that Kanopy uses to describe their service: public resource and open access. For those of us who work in academic libraries and have dealt with the ongoing difficulties with providing access to streaming media for our communities, and especially those who are aware of Kanopy’s expensive nature, these kinds of words might make us take a pause.

As a cinema librarian I can say that film is an important part of cultural legacy and should be a public resource and that access to film should be part of any library’s collection mission. Yet, for many of us the way we consume and purchase media has dramatically changed in the past decade, as streaming and licensing digital files have become the norm for the majority of consumers. Kanopy fits into this very nicely. It’s interface looks remarkably similar to any other streaming platform, and invites users to click through its offerings like they would for Netflix, Criterion Channel, and Amazon Prime. It’s hidden cost, as we know, only triggers when a user clicks on a film and watches a certain amount of it. For users it seems free; like the offerings from Netflix that despite the monthly cost allows users to peruse and sample any film in the catalog. For the most part this is how streaming platforms like Kanopy have advertised themselves to our users.


I want to be clear that it is not my intention to pile on to Kanopy, because I truly believe that Kanopy provides a great service for spreading art and indie film to the widest audience. Rather I want us to think about how we are building collections and gathering materials in this new digital age of instant gratification and expectations.

Over the last year and especially in the wake of NYPL’s decision, I have seen many articles touting and promoting the great new “free” hidden service provided by the library. This article from Entertainment Weekly https://ew.com/movies/2019/01/18/free-streaming-service-kanopy/ emphasizes the accessibility and the free cost as these pillars of why Kanopy is amazing for users. And Kanopy for their part makes a pretty compelling case for this kind of access  CEO Olivia Humphrey states “‘We have such a wide audience,’ says Humphrey. ‘We have people who can’t afford an internet connection that go down to the local public library to watch…. That’s a really important demographic for us, [as much as] cinephiles in L.A. and New York.’ Part of serving that audience is finding what Humphrey calls “content gaps” in other streaming platforms and trying to fill the void” This is something that I think is a really wonderful part of Kanopy, is that it allows access to art and indie film through public libraries but at what cost?

Well…we often don’t know what the cost is. The model is certainly different at Academic institutions but one of the cited figures for public libraries is $2 a watch for each film, and some libraries have limited how often users can watch films a month in order to keep these figures down (
https://www.indiewire.com/2019/06/new-york-public-library-drops-kanopy-netflix-alternative-too-expensive-1202153550/ ) . For Academic institutions, Kanopy, and other services like it, are fairly reminiscent of our licensing agreements with our ebooks, and costs can be astronomical. In a Film Quarterly article critiquing the “freeness” of Kanopy, Chris Cagel, a film historian at Temple University, writes “Instead, Kanopy’s platform drives “patron-driven acquisition” in which three viewings (defined as 30 seconds or more of a title) trigger a library license fee per title. (The figures I’ve seen are $150 for a year, $350 for a 3-year license, though the price might vary or change over time.) (see: https://filmquarterly.org/2019/05/03/kanopy-not-just-like-netflix-and-not-free/ )” These costs can quickly go out of control for many libraries, and the larger the population and the more articles about how this “free service” is provided by libraries, complicate this matter. It leads us to the moment where we are forced to cancel subscriptions because our patrons are using it, rather than how we often weed in our collections based on lack of use or usefulness in a general sense.


…the larger expectation for our library within the community is that we are permanent repositories for information (see the issues we generally see when library’s weed their collections) digital media is anything but permanent, and we have to reconcile this fact with our user expectations.

I want to be clear that it is not my intention to pile on to Kanopy, because I truly believe that Kanopy provides a great service for spreading art and indie film to the widest audience. Rather I want us to think about how we are building collections and gathering materials in this new digital age of instant gratification and expectations and how we tell that story to our users. Our users will start to feel the loss of licenses when materials start to leave our collections, just as they are starting to see their own digital materials lost in their personal collections. On the same day that Kanopy and NYPL parted ways it was reported that ebooks purchased through the Microsoft Store would be deleted this month from those who had purchased them. https://gizmodo.com/ebooks-purchased-from-microsoft-will-be-deleted-this-mo-1836005672

Digital items with DRM (digital rights management) are never fully owned, instead they are licensed. You can read more about DRM from the grassroots anti-DRM movement Defective By Design. They even wrote an open letter to libraries https://www.defectivebydesign.org/LetterToLibraries. These objects can be locked to prevent sharing of the material to other users and they can be taken away, like the ebooks or like my precious Violent Femmes album. My institution is well off enough to encourage our subject liaisons to purchase ebooks without DRM (which increases the costs substantially), but many public libraries or smaller academic libraries cannot afford to pay an extra $150 to make sure digital items are the community’s to keep. But the larger expectation for our library within the community is that we are permanent repositories for information (see the issues we generally see when library’s weed their collections) digital media is anything but permanent, and we have to reconcile this fact with our user expectations.

In my own life I have begun collecting materials for myself in non-digital form. This means that I have spent money buying twenty-year-old video games, hard to find DVDs, and vinyl because I am aware of the tenuous grip that we have on our digital files and media. It is essential that libraries work to make our communities aware of the restrictions and the fugitive nature of digital licensed materials and platforms and work with our users to ensure their needs are met in this changing time. NYPL for their part explained their decision to move away from Kanopy stating that “The Library made this decision after a careful and thorough examination of its streaming offerings and priorities. We believe the cost of Kanopy makes it unsustainable for the Library, and that our resources are better utilized purchasing more in-demand collections such as books and e-books (https://www.nypl.org/press/press-release/june-24-2019/statement-about-kanopy

For a city of 8 million people, Kanopy was perhaps unsustainable, but NYPL is also making a point about how they see their collections growing and that is in books and ebooks. For libraries providing for the public good means making these kinds of decisions, and we need helpful partnerships with our vendors to provide this access. While I do not know what was going on in the minds of the directors of NYPL, it sure does not seem like the library system was wanting to wage this battle in the open prior to Kanopy’s patron email. Yet, this has become a moment where librarians can have conversations with patrons about the costs and limitations of streaming and digital materials. I, for one, have received several messages from my faculty colleagues about how the NYPL decision impacts us at the University of Washington, and I tell them that while it won’t change the way we interact with Kanopy (that decision was made long before I came here) but that this is an important teaching moment in our current climate. While the vendor spurred this conversation, I believe that libraries can have an important voice to share in this new media age.

Herd Immunity

I’ll add to the post-ACRL 2019 conference reflection writing with a nod to the presentation I can’t stop thinking about and sharing with colleagues:

When Research Gets Trolled: Digital Safety for Open Researchers
by Reed Garber-Pearson, Verletta Kern, Madeline Mundt, Elliot Stevens, and Madison Sullivan

This group of librarians from the University of Washington advocate for educating scholars on digital safety and privacy, particularly those who make their work publicly accessible, do research with or about people from marginalized groups, and/or identify as a member of a marginalized group. They acknowledge the risk that public intellectuals, or scholars who seek to make their work open, take on in this world of targeted online harassment, doxxing, and offline threats. People of color, and women of color in particular, are most likely to be impacted by these acts of sabotage and harassment; we need only look at Roxane Gay‘s Twitter feed at any given moment to see this kind of gross activity.

It is, quite frankly, terrifying.

The presenters make the case that this kind of trolling can have a serious impact on academic and intellectual freedom: If a researcher is brutally bullied online and threatened offline, will they be less likely to continue their line of research and make their work publicly available? For all that we in libraries push for open access to research, we need to be equally concerned about the safety and well-being of the researchers we are asking to share their work. In advocating for their safety and sharing information about protecting themselves online, librarians can help boost what the panelists’ referred to as “herd immunity.” Researchers who protect themselves online also protect their colleagues, friends, and families, as online harassers often jump between networks to target others.

As a woman of color who does most of her thinking and writing openly online, I will admit that this presentation hit me hard. I have friends and acquaintances who have been horribly bullied on social media and in comments (yes, I always read the comments and know it is the wrong thing to do). I always thought this was to be endured. Trolls gonna troll. I am so appreciative of this collective of librarians who are sharing ways to prevent, or at least mitigate this harm and harassment. I thought the presenters struck the right tone–not alarmist, but informative and considerate. They had the best interests of researchers–and yes, that includes us as librarians–in mind. Their goal was to embolden us, not frighten us into retreating. This presentation was a good reminder that supporting researchers doesn’t end when the research concludes. If we want to push for open access and a public discourse of scholarship we have a professional obligation promote the digital safety that allows this open exchange to flourish.

You can read notes from the panel on a collaborative GoogleDoc, view their presentation slides online, and begin thinking about how you can create digital herd immunity at your institution.

Open Access and the Benevolence of Multinational Corporations

As with much of its history the academic library is at a crossroads. The exploding budgets for journal subscriptions which are necessary to the living and breathing research institution is slowly strangling libraries. This, of course, is obvious and much maligned and talked about. Getting back to the perceived roots of librarianship and the values of intellectual and learning freedom is an increase in open access publishing and learning in the minds of our left-leaning colleagues. The narrative has been pretty simple; open access moves the dissemination of information away from large corporate publishers and into the hands of “radical” faculty members who use their clout and expertise to provide information for the masses.

Gold open access (journals which publish fully open with little or no strings attached) is hardly the norm, and is outpaced in all metrics by Green open access (the self-archiving of pre or post print versions from non-open access journals). Gargouri, Larivière, Gingras, Carr, and Harnad (2010) found that unsurprisingly that subscription-based journals dominated STEM fields for publications, and only about 21% of their articles were available by green open access means. At the time of their study, only ~3% of publications were fully open access, evidence suggests this number has grown but not by much. While this number has surely grown in many fields, currently OA is dominated by Green and the dreaded hybrid journals.

Oftentimes, green OA is only possible with copyright strings that make it difficult for scholars to keep straight the versions, the citations, and the identifiers necessary to comply with author’s agreements. The burden is on the scholar to provide the necessary versions to libraries or other disciplinary repositories for the green model to work. While this can be seen as an open path set forth by the publishers, the hurdles and the arcane rules behind it makes the benevolence more of a blind eye. Some scholars I’ve spoken with do not want work viewed as “unfinished” or “unpolished” out on the internet, which is a far assumption to make. The “pre-print” especially because of its lack of peer-review and editing is very unappealing in some disciplines, while others, with long standing histories in open science have embraced it (looking at you Physics). On a practical side, how do we cite pre-prints and post-prints? I’m a librarian and I’m not actually sure the best action on that. When a journal owns the copyright on the very page numbers, how can I cite a passage I glean from an IR?

This has led me to often wonder whether green OA operates under the assumptions that overworked faculty and librarians will not follow through on the rules and therefore keep the article behind subscription walls.

The present and future of Open relies heavily on the benevolence of corporations to provide avenues for their content to be openly accessible. The success that libraries and scholars have had with green open access is limited by the rules set up by journals as well as the initiative of individual scholars. With many of the larger publishers showing anything from reluctance to open hostility to open access measures, this is a precarious proposition for libraries. Pressure from researchers and the past Presidential administration has made OA an important part of the scholarly communication environment yet we as researchers and as librarians are at the mercy of the large publishers to make this happen and need their partnerships and the continued patiences of our patrons to make this happen. Publishers, knowing the field’s love affair with open, have provided for open access in a pay-to-play model known as “hybrid.”

For many librarians, hybrid journals are seen as double dipping. Institutions are asked to provide extra money on top of growing subscription fees to make locked access articles fully open. APCs, the most common way to pay for these articles to be made open, range from a couple hundred dollars to upwards of $3000 depending on the field. For libraries chaffing under the threat of rising subscription fees this is not something many are willing to pay for no matter what our good intentions are to do. The elitist and competitive nature of publications and tenure requirements reinforce the need to publish in certain journals published expensively by certain publishers. The best journal in your field will allow you to have an open access version with rules that are complicated and impossible to understand or with the low price of several thousands of dollars make it gold open access for you. Wealthier scholars will soon pay the APC rather than jump through the hoops of green open access, if they know such a path even really exists.

What we are left with is a system that is built to perpetuate the subscription crises without any real and easy solution to full open accessibility. We either pay for subscriptions, pay for APCs, or pay for both. International and national boycotts, like the ones striking Western Europe  hurt the bottom line of publishers but harm faculty who need the journals to survive in this current scholarly climate. Pirate websites prey on our log in systems to provide “open” access to every published article but put our institutions, as well as researchers, at risk. While green avenues might be appealing, they are only the most common method of providing open access materials because of their inherently difficult nature. A journal wanting you to pay their hybrid fee would be happy to provide you with many hoops to jump through for a post-print. Relying on faculty to provide the correct versions is like relying on faculty respond to your Friday afternoon emails during the Summer; some will be pros at it but most will ignore you.

For now, we wait with baited breadth for the benevolence of publishers like the cave children who could be saved by Elon Musk’s submarine.

 

 

 

 

 

An instruction librarian, a digital scholarship librarian, and a scientist enter a Twitter chat…

A quick note to preface this post: Thank you, Dylan Burns. After reading your post–What We Know and What They Know: Scholarly Communication, Usability, and Un-Usability–I can’t stop thinking about this weird nebula of article access, entitlement, ignorance, and resistance. Your blog post has done what every good blog post should do: Make me think. If you haven’t read Dylan’s post yet, stop, go back, and read. You’ll be better for it. I promise.

I am an instruction librarian, so everything that I read and learn about within the world of library and information science is filtered through a lens of education and pedagogy. This includes things like Dylan Burns’ latest blog post on access to scholarship, #TwitterLibraryLoan, and other not-so-legal means of obtaining academic works. He argues that faculty who use platforms like #Icanhazpdf or SciHub are not “willfully ignorant or disloyal to their institutions, libraries, or librarians. They just want what they want, when they want it,” and that “We as librarians shouldn’t  ‘teach’ our patrons to adapt to our obtuse and oftentimes difficult systems but libraries should adapt to the needs of our patrons.”

My initial reaction was YES, BUT…which means I’m trying to think of a polite way to express dissent. Thankfully, Dylan’s always up for a good Twitter discussion, so here’s what ensued:

My gut reaction to libraries giving people “what they want, when they want it” is always going to be non-committal. I’ve never been one to subscribe to what a colleague a long time ago referred to as “eat your peas librarianship” (credit: Michelle Boulé). I don’t think things should be difficult just for the sake of being difficult because things were hard for me, and you youngin’s should have to face hardships too! But I am also enough of a parent to know that giving people what they want when they want it without telling them how it got there is going to cause a lot of problems (and possibly temper-tantrums) later on. Here’s where the education librarian in me emerges: I don’t want scholars to just be able to get what they want when they need/want it without understanding the deeper problems within the arguably broken scholarly publishing model. In other words, I want to advocate for Lydia Thorne’s model of educating scholars about scholarly publishing problems. To which Dylan responds:

To which I can only respond:

Point: Dylan. Those of us who teach have all had the experience of trying to turn an experience into a teaching moment, only to be met by rolling eyes, blank stares, sighs, huffs, etc. Is the scholarly publishing system so broken that even knowing about the problems with platforms like SciHub, scholars will still engage in the piracy of academic works because, well, it’s all a part of the game they need to play? Is this even an issue of usability then? Creating extremely user-friendly library systems won’t change the fact that some libraries simply can’t afford the resources their community wants/needs, but those scholars still need to engage in the system that produces that resources. Is it always going to be a lose-lose for libraries?

At this point a friend of mine enters the Twitter discussion. Jonathan Jackson is an instructor of neurology and researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital:

Prior to this conversation I’d not thought about #TwitterLibraryLoan and similar efforts at not-so-legal access to scholarship as acts of resistance, but Jonathan’s entrance into the discussion forced me to think about the power of publicly asking for pdfs. I’ll admit that part of me skeptical that all researchers are as politically conscious as Jonathan and his colleagues. I’m sure there are some folks who just need that article asap and don’t care how they get it. But there is power in calling out that one publisher or that one journal again and again on #ICanHazPDF because your library will never be able to afford that subscription.

I’ll admit that the whole Twitter exchange made me second guess motivations all around, which is what a good discussion should do, right?

What We Know and What They Know: Scholarly Communication, Usability, and Un-Usability.

Over the past handful of years, a lot of digital ink has been spilled on library responses to #icanhazpdf, SciHub, and, most recently, the #Twitterlibraryloan movement. This hit home in my life because  in recent discussion with students at my University, we found that students told us outright that they used SciHub because of its ability to “get most things.”

How we talk about piracy with our patrons is an important topic for discussion, and places a tremendous amount of emphasis on the ethics of a for-profit publishing model. But it places librarians in a precarious situation defending publishing practices that build barriers to research.

SciHub Pirates, from the Rjiksmuseum in Amsterdam. Schip van de schrijver Jean de Thevenot door zeerovers overmeesterd, Jan Luyken, 1681

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lydia Thorn wrote an excellent piece about teaching professors and students about the importance of legal means of acquisition, pointing to an expectation of immediate access and declining library budgets as culprits in this explosion of piracy. Thorn suggests pointing to the ways in which piracy hurts small presses and not-for-profit publishers and how the library can and should fill these needs. She also suggests that we point to several open models that provide access to materials without the illegality of piracy.

Switching gears slightly, it reminds me of the difficulties I have in working with faculty on online scholarly profiles. Because I administer DigitalCommons@USU, and its profiling system Selected Works, I am often confronted with faculty and students who use the for-profit academic profiling systems (I’m using this difficult phrase to talk about the systems that we all know but I’d rather not name) that are extremely popular across the world and across disciplines.

What brings these two examples and issues together is the way in which we, as librarians, promote ourselves as experts in this realm and how, in a lot of ways, our strategies for promoting our services fall flat. Faculty are not cynical monsters who actively search for ways to be “anti-library,” but make rational choices that fit what they need. They aren’t very often knowledgeable about the inner working of collection development or the serials crisis but they are knowledgeable about what they need right now in their academic careers.

I explain to my faculty, much like Thorn suggests, that the for-profit profiling systems are sometimes deceptive, corporate, and, often times, include illegal materials. While the illegality of the for-profit profiles often reaches faculty, who want to avoid any legal entanglements, the prevalence of these systems does not seem to be waning. The library’s 100% legal version pales in popularity in comparison to the others, who are often much more popular in certain fields. Who am I to tell professors not to choose these options in academic areas where for-profit profiles are more valuable than the library’s resources? Despite my feelings to the contrary, sometimes the for-profit profiles fit certain scholars well.

This brings me back to the issues surrounding SciHub and #Icanhazpdf. The important thing to remember about our users is that they spend much less time than we do worrying about these things. For them, the ease of use of a for-profit profile or a pirated pdf warehouse is an issue of access and not a preference towards profits or not-profits. While each choice we make as actors is political, I do not believe that our faculty who use these platforms are willfully ignorant or disloyal to their institutions, libraries, or librarians. They just want what they want, when they want it.

Carolyn Gardner and Gabriel Gardner speak to this in their College and Research Libraries article from earlier this year:

“Poor usability is also hindering our patrons from gaining access to materials. Librarians need to apply user experience thinking to all our online systems. At our respective libraries, we have to click multiple times just to discover if an item is own. Besides complicated discovery methods, software or holdings errors are possible…Librarians need to view these crowdsourced communities as alternatives that fill a gap that we have yet to meet as opposed to purely underground and shadowy communities.” (CRL February 2017 pg 144)

When the film and television industries felt the crunch from piracy they invested in Netflix and created Hulu, and when the music industry faltered we got Spotify and other streaming platforms. Each of these systems allowed for the quick access to media that users stole to gain access to. Libraries should view SciHub and for-profit profiling systems not as a betrayal but as a call to change and action. If SciHub is easier to use than the library we cannot blame our users if they use it over our complicated systems. If the for-profit profiling systems are superior to the library administered in someways, perhaps that is what our faculty are looking for.

We as librarians shouldn’t  “teach” our patrons to adapt to our obtuse and oftentimes difficult systems but libraries should adapt to the needs of our patrons. I really do not want to be at odds with my colleagues who call for education on these issues, because education is needed on these issues. After all, we are in the business of education. Yet, I believe that, in some ways, we should respect our faculty for what they do know. They know that they need resources to do their job. They should know that the library is often the best source for these resources. They also know that there are some platforms that provide easier access to these materials. I do not begrudge faculty who seek easier paths towards the resources they need to do their jobs, as much as I don’t begrudge undergraduates (or librarians) who use Wikipedia as a first source of quick info. It is a symptom of the age of easy access to materials online, and it is something that we as librarians should learn about what our scholars are looking for.

The second part of this is adpatation. We should not only respect our patron’s decision making processes but we should listen when  faculty seek sleazier means towards library services, and adapt to this need. If the for-profit profiles do something that my profiles don’t, I should think about ways to build my system to reflect those needs. If access to materials needs to be quicker than three clicks through our system, we should work to make it easier to gain legal access to materials. We shouldn’t claim that we know more than they do just because we deal with our obtuse systems on the daily, we should adapt to their needs when they arise.