The media library in a post-disc world


I’ve read a number of articles like this one, speculating on the potential future of the Blu-ray disc as media platform in the wake of online delivery of HD content. As a consumer and viewer, I’m heartened by this, as I’ve not jumped on the Blu-ray train yet. Moreover, I see a lot of potential in subscription-based downloads for allowing and nurturing alternative content – much like HBO, a subscription based model allows innovative creators a chance to let a series develop without ratings-driven scheduling and promotion becoming the central question for sustainability. What might you pay monthly for a subscription to the Joss Whedon Channel – not with a constant schedule of content like a TV channel, but on-demand access to any new productions or archived work?

But as an educator, I’m fearful. At Middlebury, we have a collection of thousands of DVDs to be viewed on-site or checked out for teaching and research. While physical media are fragile, I know what we have and can generally depend on being able to access it for years. The same is true for CDs, books, magazines, and any hard copy publications or releases. This has been shifting in the print world, as journal subscriptions make less and less sense in the era of JSTOR and other full-text databases. While it’s true that we might not be guaranteed future access to such titles electronically, academic publishers recognize the needs of libraries as the primary market and thus I feel more or less confident that there will be a reliable way to gain access to necessary titles for decades to come.

Moving image media are completely different, however. The library market is not only an afterthought for film and TV distributors, it’s an impediment to marketization. The first sale doctrine allows libraries to lend physical items that have been purchased, which also enables the video rental aftermarket. Hollywood has never seen this as a benefit, as the library and rental market provides potential consumers with videos without direct renumeration (although I’d argue that the majority of these renters/borrowers would never purchase the item, and that many might discover a title via loan that then spurs future purchases). So for the media industries, a way to avoid first sale and require licensing, purchase, or subscription for each viewer is a huge upgrade – and thus there is a direct incentive to find profitable models not dependent on physical media like DVDs and Blu-rays.

In many ways, the current DVD era is an exception to the traditional role of media libraries. When I started grad school in 1994, our official library was the archive, with a good but semi-random collection of film prints that may or may not be able to be screened in class. The video collection of television programs was a gray market hodgepodge of over-the-air recordings and film transfers with a few commercially-released VHS and Laserdic titles, plus the faculty’s personal collections. Today, nearly everything I might want to screen is available on DVD at my library, and I own almost nothing myself (although certainly the scope of the field is shaped by the gaps and absences that don’t get official release). My entire pedagogical approach is enabled and based on the relatively new notion that a library can provide access to the history of American television and media, even at a small college in rural Vermont. What would change if this access were tied to online streams not physical objects? A whole lot.

And how might a library deal with this? First sale doesn’t apply to downloaded files, as it requires “copying” to transfer it to another computer, even if its via a secure stream or encoded with protections to avoid further copying. So if I ask my library to purchase a video download, what do they do with it? How can they make it accessible to students and faculty as we do with DVDs? And how might an institution deal with video on-demand or other subscription systems that are designed solely with the individual consumer in mind? How can we know that titles that we purchase or subscribe to today will be accessible when we need them in class? Questions abound.

Plus DRM can interfere with legitimate fair use and educational practices – for instance, I wanted to show Dr. Horrible to my class this past fall before the DVD was released. I’d purchased the show on iTunes, and thus “own” it. But Apple’s DRM prevents me from making a DVD copy of it, meaning that I can only screen the program through my computer and thus cannot make it accessible to students who miss class. As an alternative, I decided to just point students to Hulu to watch the series on their own. This solution is obviously convenient and flexible for students – but it also means I’m mandating that students watch advertising and turn themselves into commodities. Additionally, it avoids the group-viewing big-screen experience which I find important pedagogically.

All of this is just to say that it’s important that educators and libraries get involved with the policy making and decisions that are shaping the future delivery, access, and archiving of digital media. A number of us are involved in pushing for exemptions to copyright laws to allow us to do our jobs – but the future business model for Blu-ray and online video won’t be decided with rulemaking procedures unless the educational community somehow pushes legislators to ensure archival and educational access. Perhaps this is already happening, and I welcome any links or pointers to show me how to get involved. But from where I sit, I’m concerned that the next technological wave might drown my discipline.

7 Responses to “The media library in a post-disc world”

  1. 1 tsimpkin

    Hi Jason,
    This is an interesting post. I read that NYT article too, and also am glad I haven’t jumped into Blu-Ray.

    I do think video publishers will push physical media as long as they can. I know there’s no love lost between publishers and libraries, but I can’t imagine that will be a big factor in their shift to digital (downloadable) formats. (When are libraries ever a factor in their thinking, except of course when trying to tighten copyright restrictions?)

    Even in the music realm (which is ahead of the film/video industry with respect to downloadable content), MP3 files haven’t made a huge impact in music libraries yet, as far as replacing physical media. Perhaps someday, and then we’ll need to make some changes in the way we catalog and make our content accessible, but not yet, and it’s been several years now since they’ve been available. (By the way, isn’t it fascinating that the only physical music media to see an increase in sales last year was vinyl?)

    So far, with respect to digital music files, music libraries now subscribe to one or more streaming music databases. It’s a lot easier to manage these than it is to manage individually downloaded content. And we’re starting to see some video streaming databases out there for historical video. My thinking is that this might be more along the lines of what the future holds for libraries than dealing with individually downloaded files. (I could see Netflix getting into organizational subscription models for their streaming content.) This doesn’t, of course, alleviate the problem of titles falling in and out of availability, and there will still be concerns with file quality, which is another reason that I think physical media will hang on longer than perhaps implied in the NYT article. So, while consumer downloadable video might be starting to take off, I think it’s going to take a while before it becomes the predominant format.

    This isn’t to say the day isn’t coming that will see the end of physical media, but I think there is still a pretty good market for it, and that’s what will ultimately determine when the shift finally occurs.


  2. As the eternal optimist, I might add that at least for popular materials, one can imagine that students will have access to high-quality video (that would stand up to projection, even) for a small fee that they would personally have to pay. While this might seem to be against the principles of libraries, where the reader is entitled to borrow materials for free, is it counter to the principle that students should have to pay a reasonable amount for their reading materials? The key point here is access, and what is reasonable. The optimist thinks that people who distribute video will offer up lots and lots of important content for low cost. The pessimist thinks that important materials won’t be available in the marketplace, and that the cost structure will be prohibitive. The main question I would ask is: if a video is as central to a particular course as a book might be to a different course, is it unreasonable to think that the student ought to pay something in order to have access to that intellectual property?

    — mike

  3. One important development in the relationship between libraries and publishers is the backfile archive. Some publishers have started offering libraries (or anyone who wants, but mostly the customer is libraries) the option to purchase sets of electronic journals, in lumps of titles the way some subscriptions work, or title-by-title. The library then owns the backfile database, the way it would if it owned the paper versions of the same titles. This frees the library from concern about the publisher pulling access to the title in the future, and maintains the archival purpose of the library.

    I have not heard of any music or film publisher offering “backfile archives” to libraries. But then I’m not a music or film librarian. But I wonder if this might be a possible solution for music or film librarians to pursue with vendors.

    As for DRM, there are some legal minds on the periphery of library & information science that argue that DRM actually violates copyright laws, in particular cutting off some legitimate fair uses. At the latest Macworld it was announced that the iTunes Store will soon be DRM-free. Given that Apple basically owns the music industry now, I wonder if this isn’t the beginning of the end of DRM. Which would free you up in your course, but would also allow libraries to manage media in ways not now possible.

    Terry mentions Netflix. Again, I have not heard of any library subscribing to Netflix, though I have had conversations with colleagues and librarians where this has come up. Libraries participate in interlibrary loan networks, and keep detailed statistics about the movement of materials between libraries. I don’t know how much it costs to ILL a CD or DVD, but I’d hypothesize that a subscription to Netflix would be cost-effective for a library. Especially as Netflix’s streaming offerings increase. There are technical problems here of course, but I tend to be optimistic about “merely” technical problems being solved where the movement of data is concerned.

    Libraries have heavily relied on vendors for decades — for access to journal subscriptions in particular. There’s some movement in librarianship away from reliance on vendors — particularly in the arena of software (online catalogs, tools for conducing reference work). Still, I wonder if Netflix, or some service like it, isn’t poised to be the next library vendor for this kind of content.

  4. the library and rental market provides potential consumers with videos without direct renumeration

    I think you mean “remuneration.”

  5. Thanks all for the comments. I’m curious to see if there’s a way to get institutional access to video collections, a la ArtStor/JStor, or the backfiles that Jeff mentions, or even the site license for NetFlix. The benefits would be huge in terms of flexibility of use; the potential downside is that we’d be paying for something that we could otherwise claim fair use for (assuming we own the disc version). I’m sure the same is true now for journal databases, as libraries have bought renewed access to things they already own.

    The other potential issue is that many of us media educators need to excerpt & clip works for lectures, republication, and the like – while DVDs are hard to use (even with the DMCA exemption), I imagine that capturing from a stream would be even harder. And when I assign students to do remix projects, what raw materials can I give them?

  6. 6 Patty Hornbeck

    Distributors can’t sell perpetuity rights for something they only have the rights to sell for a limited time, so unless they are able to contract individually with each producer or filmmaker, educational access to films through a “backfile archive” like JStor is unlikely.
    Another problem is that streaming rights will never be able to be cleared for films that are considered essential to film/media studies.

    This will eventually be worked out, but right now nobody on either side has a clear idea about the direction it will take.

  1. 1 Favorite Cinema Discoveries in ’08 – Girish Shambu

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