Electronic document delivery (EDD) is a relatively new addition to the older traditions of document supply and inter-library loan. EDD involves the supply of a non-returnable surrogate copy of the required item, usually an article in a journal, by an electronic method which is very fast and can be instantaneous. It has proved very popular with users who can easily obtain a copy of an article that is not held locally. This is the very reason that publishers find it unattractive. They claim that EDD permits libraries to cancel subscriptions to journals and rely on document suppliers and other libraries instead – the so called "just-in-case" versus "just-in-time" argument. Arguments to counter these claims (Russon 2001) have been met with a degree of scepticism by publishers.

These arguments have been heard for some considerable time but the recent addition of EDD to the document supply process has intensified the debate. Publishers see the possibility of users obtaining copies of articles almost at the same speed as if they were available on a local subscription. Document suppliers on the other hand see instant supply as a natural progression in the evolving nature of the document supply process. They want to be able to offer a service that does compete effectively with local supply.

One method of controlling EDD is by the use of digital rights management on the transmitted file. This article offers a background on the use of such systems and describes the implementation of such a system by one major document supplier.

Digital Rights Management
Digital Rights Management (often referred to as DRM) can either mean the digital management of rights, as in the context of this article, or the management of digital rights. The latter term, which is a market enabling technology, encompasses the identification and description of content and includes information about the rights and permissions associated with that content; usually this is done in such a way as to be interoperable with other content and access systems.

The digital management of rights means the technical protection measures that are added to (or wrapped around) a piece of content. This usually involves the use of some form of encryption and access control mechanism. As well as preventing unauthorised access, the controls limit various aspects of use of the content. Such limitations include the number of copies that may be printed, whether the file may be copied, the length of time that the file may be accessed and whether the content may be "cut and pasted". Unlike the management of digital rights, where work has been done by several organisations, for example BIC in the UK, in proposing standards for the electronic trading of rights, there is little standardization in the digital management of rights. Several systems have been developed and have found use in controlling many digital objects, typically e-books. Here the user, after downloading the necessary access software, can obtain an e-book and obtains rights using a variety of business models. Many of these are based on analogies with borrowing physical books, for instance the length of time the e-book is available can be controlled and the item can be lent to another user.

Reasons for implementing DRM for document supply
At least three major document suppliers, the British Library, CISTI (cf. sources) and Infotrieve (cf. sources), have now implemented a method of secure electronic delivery. Although the three systems differ technically they have all been implemented for the same reason. That is because, unless such systems are in place, publishers will not grant the necessary rights for EDD to be provided.

This may seem an irrational response from publishers, nearly all of whom allow unsecured access to their online journals for subscribers and pay-per-view customers but they are unwilling to grant similar access through document suppliers. The reasons for this are that (i) publishers are not in direct control when supply is through a third party; (ii) they fear that inappropriate use might result; and (iii) as stated above they fear erosion of subscriptions. DRM systems do not provide a solution to all of these fears but they do give comfort to publishers in controlling inappropriate use.

The British Library and electronic document delivery
The British Library has experimented with several forms of EDD over the years (Braid 1993). Many of the systems described have not come to fruition, although the Ariel (cf. sources) system has been used since the late 1990’s. In 2003 the Library upgraded its copying processes and replaced all the photocopy machines with electronic scanners using the Relais system (cf. sources). Although principally used for output in print format, this gave the possibility to supply any item from the collection by electronic delivery, if the necessary rights are in place. To obtain these rights it was necessary to come to an agreement with either individual publishers or their agent in the UK, the Copyright Licensing Agency (CLA). For the reasons stated above, in order to obtain the required rights it was necessary to implement a secure electronic delivery system.

The chosen system
Several forms of secure electronic delivery were investigated. All of these were based on DRM systems. Many of the early systems were rejected for one or more of three main reasons: (i) they were too expensive; (ii) they were too complicated; or (iii) they did not work properly. Trials began with one system in 2001 but it proved to be inadequate technically.

During 2002, the British Library worked closely with Elsevier to develop a system which, it was hoped, might develop into an industry standard. The Adobe Content Server and Adobe eBook Reader systems were chosen. These permit the encryption of existing PDF files in real time and allow a variety of security levels to be set. Initially, the following parameters were chosen:

  • Use of the file limited to the machine on which it is downloaded;
  • Printing set to one copy only;
  • Saving and viewing of the article permitted, but for a limited period of time. (The time period varies depending whether the article originates from a scanned image, when the item is only available for printing for 14 days, or a digital original, when the article is available for viewing for up to three years)
  • Forwarding and copying disabled;
  • Annotations and conversion to speech permitted.

The other advantage was that, for users, they had software that was provided at no cost by a well known and reputable company. Many of the other systems rely on plug-in software, often supplied from very small companies. Since the initial work Adobe have integrated their eBook Reader software into Adobe Reader from version 6 onwards. This has the added advantage that, as most users already use Acrobat Reader, it is not necessary to install any additional software to use the system. However, the requirement for version 6 has caused some problems – see later.

It was also decided that rather than "push" the PDF file to the requester it would be better for the requester to ‘pull’ the file from a British Library server. There were several reasons for this, but many of the problems associated with the transmission of large files as email attachments and firewalls are overcome if the requester controls the process. The drawback is that, for the standard requesting methods, the user is not online to the British Library and so cannot initiate the downloading process at the time of placing the request. However, the British Library does offer two services (Inside and British Library Direct) where the user searches and orders documents in the same online session and these will permit online delivery.

Both these services allow users to search for and select individual articles from the listing of journal content pages. Individual articles can be requested for delivery through a web interface. The British Library has agreements with some publishers for the storage and use of online journals. These publishers permit the delivery of requested articles to be online (a PDF icon alongside the bibliographic citation signifies that the article is available for immediate downloading). When such a request is placed, the PDF file is encrypted using Adobe Content Server and downloaded for viewing using Adobe Reader. The file is secured according to the parameters listed above.

For material held in paper format a different approach has been adopted. After the article has been scanned it is encrypted in the same way as above. The article is then stored on a server. An email message containing a link to the article is sent to the user. Because the security permits only the person who opens the link to download the file, it is important that the requester should be the person to do this. Thus, if the request is sent via an intermediary, it is important that the intermediary should forward the email message to the original requester before downloading takes place. An added advantage is that, as the encryption and access software is exactly the same for born-digital and scanned files, both types can be transmitted in exactly the same way.

The system in practice
The system has been operational since December 2002 for Inside users, with the name Secure Electronic Delivery (SED; cf. sources). Because of the relatively small number of documents that are available take-up was not great. Problems were also caused when Adobe changed the reader software from eBook Reader to Adobe Reader v6 in June 2003. The system linked to scan on demand from paper originals became operational in December 2003. At the time of writing (May 2005) use has grown considerably and SED is now responsible for over 10 %of all items supplied.

There are still some problems to be resolved. The main ones are:
  • Some large organisations have shown reluctance to upgrade to the latest version of Adobe Reader
  • Some customers who mediate requests have asked for a mechanism whereby the item can be checked to see if it is the correct item and complete before it is forwarded to the end user. At present the system does not permit this.
  • There were some problems in the authentication of version 6 of the Adobe Reader software. These have been resolved with the release of version 7 of Adobe Reader

For those who have used it reaction to the system has been very positive. Many users have commented favourably on the speed of delivery and the ease of using the system.

Bottom line
The DRM system chosen by the British Library has proved to be successful. It is now responsible for over 10% of all items delivered. At first sight, the use of such a complex system for what is a relatively low-cost product may seem overkill, but it proved to be the only way that the British library could obtain the rights that it required to be able to continue to offer electronic document delivery. It is hoped that, as both publishers and users become more familiar with the use of such technology, a less obtrusive system of control might be possible.

Sources (websites current as at May 2005)

About the author: Andrew Braid is head of Licensing and Copyright Compliance at the British Library. He joined the former National Lending Library for Science and Technology at Boston Spa in 1968. He has held a variety of posts including management of the literature stores and reprographic unit, the conservation unit, stock relocation, building planning and service development. For the past 10 years he has been involved in negotiating licences with publishers for use of electronic journals in the Library’s document supply services. He can be contacted at

Status: first posted 30/05/05; included in INDICARE Monitor Vol. 2, No. 3, 30 May 2005; licensed under Creative Commons