MIT Rejects SAE's DRM Policy, Prompts Review

Following opposition by MIT, the Society of Automotive Engineers halted implementation of digital rights management controls aimed at restricting access to SAE documents. On April 19, SAE issued a press release stating that they would not enable DRM controls "on the Society's Digital Library of technical papers for licenses at colleges, universities, and other academic institutions."

The release came a month after MIT announced that it would not renew its subscription to SAE's Digital Library because of SAE's desire to place all of its content under DRM. "It would have been dramatically precedent-setting to accept this DRM," explained Ellen F. Duranceau, scholarly publications and licensing consultant for MIT.

Two years ago, the SAE announced that it would begin to use DRM on all of the content in its Digital Library, placing additional restrictions on end-users accessing SAE papers. According to Tracy A. Gabridge, associate head librarian of the Barker Engineering Library, "what makes it really negative is that this content is largely provided by academic institutions to the SAE … and the SAE then is imposing much more strict access requirements than that are really necessary."

SAE's recent press release in effect creates a special task force to look into its DRM policies, likely delaying any definitive decision on DRM until the end of the year. According to Nancy Lewis, corporate communications manager at SAE International, the task force will have a teleconference later this week and "from that teleconference, recommendations will be made to the SAE Publications Board."

After MIT first learned about the new DRM controls, MIT Libraries began to gather feedback from "key faculty, especially those who wrote for SAE," said Duranceau. "We felt that ultimately it was a question for the faculty." According to Duranceau, the outcome of these discussions was pretty uniform and the faculty was clear that they "did not want to cross this line with Digital Rights technology."

The DRM controls in place by SAE would place constraints on the end-user that MIT felt was unacceptable, according to Gabridge. In order to view files, users would have to download a plug-in for Adobe Acrobat called FileOpen. The plug-in, created by FileOpen Systems, Inc., allows users to view the encrypted document provided by SAE, but places additional restrictions on what can be done with the document.

For example, according to SAE's Web site, users are only allowed to view documents from a single computer, the computer on which the document was first opened. This prohibits users from e-mailing or sharing documents over the network. Additionally, users must be connected to the Internet when first opening the document, and can only print a single copy of the file. Making photocopies of the document is also in violation of copyright, as documents cannot be reproduced without written permission from SAE.

According to Duranceau, MIT began testing the plug-in over the winter and had been in contact with FileOpen in order to try to make the plug-in more usable for academic institutions. This was done in anticipation of the new restrictions that would be placed upon them once MIT's subscription to SAE's Digital Library expired at the end of March. As that time approached, Duranceau said MIT was faced with two options: either accept the DRM controls, or cancel their subscription and purchase CD-ROMs of the archives that were available in non-DRM format.

Given the strong feelings of the faculty, MIT ultimately chose the latter, announcing the decision in a Libraries blog posting. "SAE's DRM technology severely limits use of SAE papers and imposes unnecessary burdens on readers" the posting stated, and went on to describe how "SAE is limiting access to the research that has been entrusted to the society." The full post is available at

In response to the posting, MIT received "an outpouring, worldwide, of support," from other academic institutions and companies, said Duranceau.

Wai K. Cheng, professor of Mechanical Engineering and member of SAE, has been attempting to convince SAE to revise its DRM policy and gave a presentation to SAE International's Publishing Board on April 18 in Detroit, outlining the negative impact of DRM. "The board recognized that it was a problem," said Cheng. Immediately after the meeting, the Board went into an executive session, according to Duranceau, and the next day they issued the press release announcing the postponement of DRM controls.

Currently, MIT provides access to SAE materials in various forms. For all papers published this year, members of the MIT community can request them by filling out a form through the MIT Libraries Web site. "There have been a few requests," said Duranceau, although she said she was "disappointed we can't distribute pdf copies" due to the new restrictions.

Papers published between 2004 and 2006 are available on CD-ROM in Barker Library, and papers published before 2004 are available either in print form or on microfiche in Barker. Previously, subscription to SAE's Digital Library allowed online access to all papers, which eliminated the hassle of manually searching through the index in person.

MIT Libraries is currently looking into making the CD-ROM archives available online, so articles between 2004 and 2006 will be available from any machine on campus. According to Gabridge, the service should be available during the fall term.

However, if the SAE were to come to a resolution soon against using DRM, MIT "can react very quickly" said Gabridge. As MIT awaits the decision of SAE's Publication Board, Gabridge is confident that the Institute made the correct decision. "[MIT] is making a stand that hopefully will make a big difference," she said.