MIT Faculty and Libraries Refuse DRM; SAE Digital Library Canceled

The MIT Libraries have canceled access to the Society of Automotive Engineers’ web-based database of technical papers, rejecting the SAE’s requirement that MIT accept the imposition of Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology.

SAE’s DRM technology severely limits use of SAE papers and imposes unnecessary burdens on readers. With this technology, users must download a DRM plugin, FileOpen Systems’ third-party plug-in for Adobe Reader called “FileOpen,” in order to read SAE papers. This plugin limits use to on-screen viewing and making a single printed copy, and does not work on Linux or Unix platforms.

Latest SAE self-help guide for how to locate and how to request SAE documents.

MIT faculty respond

“It’s a step backwards,” says Professor Wai Cheng, SAE fellow and Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, who feels strongly enough about the implications of DRM that he has asked to be added to the agenda of the upcoming SAE Publication Board meeting in April, when he will address this topic.

In addition to Professor Cheng, the MIT Libraries consulted with other faculty members who publish or use SAE content. The responses were uniformly against accepting DRM, even if it meant losing ready access to SAE papers. When informed that the SAE feels the need to impose DRM to protect their intellectual property, Professor John Heywood, the Director of MIT’s Sloan Automotive Lab, who publishes his own work with the SAE, responded with a question: “Their intellectual property?” He commented that increasingly strict and limiting restrictions on use of papers that are offered to publishers for free is causing faculty to become less willing to “give it all away” when they publish.

Echoing Professor Heywood, Alan Epstein, Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, believes that “If SAE limits exposure to their material and makes it difficult for people to get it, faculty will choose to publish elsewhere.” He noted that “SAE is a not-for-profit organization and should be in this for the long term,” rather than imposing high prices and heavy restrictions to maximize short-term profit.

Reducing access to research

At a time when technology makes it possible to share research more quickly and broadly than ever before, and when innovative automotive research is a matter of global concern, SAE is limiting access to the research that has been entrusted to the society. In addition to imposing DRM on access to the papers for paid subscribers, the SAE also prevents information about its papers from being found through any channel other than the ones they control.

What does this mean? In contrast to information about research published by other engineering societies, which can be found in databases such as Google, ISI’s Web of Science, or the Compendex engineering database, information about SAE papers is only made available through SAE’s proprietary database. Such policies severely limit access to information about SAE papers, and are out of step with market norms.

New arrangements for access to SAE content at MIT

While MIT faculty, the MIT Libraries, and MIT’s Office of Information Services & Technology all agree that SAE’s imposition of DRM is unacceptable in our environment, the Libraries nevertheless recognize that it is important to provide some level of ongoing access to SAE papers needed by the MIT community. The Libraries are therefore working on a new access arrangement.

Beginning in April, 2007, the Libraries will make available either a printed or web-based index of SAE papers; once a citation is identified in this index, the paper will be accessible through one of three channels, depending on its publication date:

• SAE papers published prior to 2004 will be available either in print or on microfiche in the Barker Engineering Library.
• SAE papers published in 2004, 2005, or 2006 will be available either in print or on CD-ROM in the Barker Engineering Library.
• SAE papers from the current year will be made available on request through a web form.

The Libraries are working to ensure that this system will be in place in time to avoid major disruption to MIT users when the SAE Digital Library access ends March 31. We regret that CD-ROM and on-demand access will not be as convenient for the MIT community as the full-text, web-based access has been.

Before taking this step, the Libraries spent several months weighing options, consulting with faculty and IS&T experts, and in conversation with the SAE. When the SAE informed the Libraries that they remain unwilling to accept any access to the Digital Library other than through the DRM plugin, the Libraries reluctantly chose this alternative path.

We welcome and encourage your feedback

We are interested in your views about this situation, particularly given its manifestation of some of the complex issues currently facing publishers, academic authors, users of digital content, and the libraries that serve them. Please address comments or questions to

Please note: a correction was made to this story 3/22/07 to clarify the ownership of the DRM plug-in, based on information received from Adobe.