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Digital Rights Management Explained

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The abbreviation for “digital rights management” is “DRM”. It’s an umbrella term for any technology used to limit access to and use of proprietary hardware, software, and copyrighted works. It can stop the owner of a product from making changes, fixing it, making it better, distributing it, or using it in any other way that the copyright holder has not approved.

Bypassing DRM is illegal in many countries, as are the production and distribution of tools to do so.

Why there is DRM?

DRM is supposed to stop people from stealing other people’s work and to protect intellectual property. By putting limits on what the owner can and can’t do with their product, copyright holders can stop theft of intellectual property and copyright infringement, keep artistic control, and make sure they have a steady stream of income. DRM can help protect the owner by putting limits on how it can be used.

Copyright owners also use DRM for less than honest reasons. DRM can stop rivals from making improvements to the product. It can make products not work with each other, forcing owners to buy only products that work with each other. This is good for the person who owns the copyright. When the DRM scheme changes, it can force owners to buy the most recent version. DRM can stop owners from making copies, selling, giving away, fixing, or changing their products, which can lead to more money for them.

Does DRM work?

DRM can stop people from using their products in ways that aren’t allowed by the person who owns the copyright. How well it works depends on the DRM technology used.

Non-profit digital rights organisation Electronic Frontier Foundation is a vocal opponent of digital rights management, claiming that there is no proof that it reduces piracy or increases user safety.

This is the case against DRM.

When a consumer buys a product, the consumer legally takes full ownership of that product from the manufacturer or retailer. DRM gets in the way of this simple legal rule by letting the original owner keep some parts of ownership.

Many groups that fight for consumer rights, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, are very against DRM. They say that the goal of DRM isn’t to protect consumers or intellectual property, but rather to make owners’ lives harder, stop would-be competitors from coming up with new ideas, hide flaws, and keep them from really owning a product.

DRM can make it so that the owner of a product can’t sell it again or give it to someone else. This can make it hard for places like libraries and rental stores to do business.
Under the DRM law, security researchers can be sued if they find flaws in a product and tell people about them. For example, a group of researchers at a university couldn’t share information about a flaw that could put the private information of customers at risk.
Customers can’t add or take away features from a product they own if it has DRM. For example, an inventor might not be able to sell an add-on that makes an existing product better.
Customers can’t change the format of a digital product with DRM. For example, they can’t change the format of an audio or video file so it will work with a different player or device.
DRM can make it so that owners of a device can only use certain accessories and products that work with it. One good example of this is printer ink cartridges.
DRM can make it hard for customers to fix their own broken products. A computer maker can void a warranty if, for example, a customer takes the device to a third party for repairs and replacement parts.
Anti-DRM is not pro-piracy
People who support DRM often say that being against DRM means you support piracy. This is not true, and those who want to take away consumers’ right to own things are spreading this myth.

There are better ways than DRM for copyright holders to stop people from stealing their work, which we’ll talk about later.

Smartphones are a good example of hardware DRM.

The standard analogue headphone jack was taken out of the latest iPhone, which made headlines. This means that users can only listen to music and other audio through a digital signal through Bluetooth, AirPlay, or the Lightning jack. There’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but it makes it easier for DRM to be abused.

Nilay Patel wrote an article for The Verge about how serious problems could happen:

Music publishers and streaming services will be able to insist on digital copyright enforcement mechanisms if audio output is limited to a digital connection. Moreover, you can bet that the music industry will begin cracking down on “unauthorised” playback and recording devices regardless.

Patel says that the entertainment industry has been trying to close the “analogue loophole” for a long time, and now it has more control over how people listen to music.

DVDs and Blu-Rays
Most DVD movies are protected by DRM, which makes it impossible to rip, copy, and back them up.

Blu-Ray takes this one step further by adding several more layers of DRM. This makes it impossible to play the discs on anything other than a Blu-Ray player and an HDTV that supports video encryption. In the same way, a computer needs an HDCP-compliant video card and monitor to play a Blu-Ray disc. The software that is needed to read the discs is not free, and DRM means that free software can’t play them.

In 2006, the Free Software Foundation said it would not buy any HD-DVD or Blu-Ray discs.

In September 2016, HP changed the firmware on a number of its printers, making them incompatible with printer cartridges from other brands. The owners had to buy HP ink cartridges, which are more expensive than generic cartridges from other brands. If someone used a different brand, even if it had worked before, the printer would tell the owner that the cartridge was “damaged” and needed to be replaced.

After a lot of customers were upset and the Electronic Frontier Foundation sent a petition, HP apologised for the DRM and put out an optional firmware update to fix the printers.

TVs: Many smart TVs sold today already have a record function built in. Most likely, the DRM on your smart TV means that the content you record with it can only be played on that TV and not on any other device. Also, DRM might limit the amount of time you can record for. Smart TV makers can work with the owners of the rights to content to add DRM that only works for certain TV shows and movies.

Appliances: DRM can be used on home and kitchen appliances as well. In 2014, this was tried by Keurig, the company that makes the coffee machines that use single-use pods to make instant coffee. The company noticed that customers were using pods from other brands and using pods more than once to save money. The Keurig 2.0 machine had a scanning feature that would lock out competitor pods that didn’t have a special mark. This was done so that customers would only buy Keurig pods.

The DRM didn’t work as planned, so sales of the new Keurig dropped. Not only could you not use pods made by companies other than Keurig, but you also couldn’t use older Keurig pods. The owners were, as expected, very angry.

Some examples of DRM in software

Digital books, music, and videos
iTunes is probably the best-known example of how DRM is used to protect digital music and videos. It uses a DRM system that is built into all Apple devices and media players called FairPlay. FairPlay makes sure that only Apple products can play music and videos bought from the App Store and iTunes. Some examples are movies, songs, TV shows, ebooks, and apps.

You can only use apps from the App Store on an iPhone or iPad unless you jailbreak it, which voids the warranty. There is no way, like there is on Android, to allow apps from developers other than Google to be installed.

With this method, iPhone and iPad users can’t use apps that Apple doesn’t like. These apps could be stolen, have explicit content, harm the device, or be used to change the device in a way that isn’t good for Apple. Without jailbreaking, you can’t, for example, fake your GPS location or change which ports and apps an iPhone can use.

Video games and software
DRM is used in many ways to stop illegal copying and distribution of commercial software. It could limit the number of devices on which a single copy of the software can be installed (Evernote, Microsoft Office). Another method is persistent online authentication, which requires an internet connection so the software can “phone home” to make sure it’s a real copy (Diablo 3, Assassin’s Creed II). Product keys are another easy way to prove that you bought software, but they usually only work with physical discs and not with online downloads.

It makes sense to try to stop piracy, but limiting the number of devices and forcing the use of product keys can make it harder for the owner to sell or give away used software, which is something they should be able to do. Constant online authentication is bad for privacy and can make it impossible for software owners to use their programmes without an internet connection.

DRM can stop people from copying and distributing software without permission. It can also stop people from changing, improving, or removing features from software. The official goal is to protect intellectual property, but it can also make it harder for other businesses to compete.

Streaming services that don’t have DRM

The content on Netflix and Spotify, which you can stream for free or pay for, is not protected by DRM. Just because you pay $10 per month for a Netflix subscription doesn’t mean you own every movie and TV show in Netflix’s library.

So where do you stop? DRM makes it harder to own something. If you own something, you should be able to do whatever you want with it, except make as many copies as you want and give them to random people. If you stream something, that doesn’t mean you own it.

Streaming is a service, not a product. Since services can’t be owned, DRM can’t be used in the traditional way.

DRM makes it hard to do things that you could do without it. DRM is when a printer cartridge works perfectly with a printer in every way except for some arbitrary rule that keeps third parties out.

But DRM has no effect on the technology itself. It is not DRM if only one company produces a cartridge that works with a particular printer and no other options are available.

This is probably the area where it is hardest to tell what is and isn’t DRM. Let’s say Apple told Macbook and iPhone users that they could only use Apple-brand charging cables because third-party cables always caught fire. This restriction wouldn’t be put in place to protect Apple’s copyright, but rather to look out for the best interests of its customers.

This is just a thought experiment, but when does a safety restriction become DRM? This needs to be looked at for each product individually.


The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 says that it is against the law in the United States to make or share any technology that can be used to get around the DRM protections on products. The DMCA makes it a crime to get around DRM for any reason.

The law was meant to stop people from stealing digital products, but it has been used to silence security researchers who find flaws in products, stop competitors from reverse engineering products, and threaten fair use.

Even though it is a law, the DMCA hasn’t done much to stop software pirates from copying DRM systems and the products they are supposed to protect. There is a lot of free software online that can get around DRM. As is usually the case with DRM laws, the bad people get away and the good people get in trouble.

Combating DRM

DRM doesn’t work, which is probably the most frustrating thing about it. If you Google any of the above examples, you’ll probably find a way to get around the DRM on the first page of results. Most of the time, DRM just makes things harder for honest consumers and punishes them. It doesn’t do much to stop piracy or theft of intellectual property.

Even though cracking DRM is against the law in many places, the laws are hard to enforce and don’t do much to stop people who steal intellectual property.

How do you fight against DRM? We can’t tell you to use DRM-removal software and steal, but both creators and consumers can find other ways to get what they want.

Streaming content for digital media gets rid of many of the most controversial parts of DRM. It can give customers a better experience, doesn’t require them to buy anything, and is hard to pirate, at least in high quality. When considering the mutual benefits of a streaming model for consumers and creators, one need only consider Netflix.

Lightweight Content Protection
The successor to digital rights management encryption is Lightweight Content Protection, or LCP. GiantSteps, a developer, says it will create a standard encryption for eBooks that will be used by all publishers and won’t force customers to use only one platform. In theory, this would make sure that someone bought a digital product, but it would also let them use it on multiple devices, like tablets, smartphones, and e-readers like Kindle and Nook.

LCP promises to be less intrusive, give users a better experience, and be easier to set up than traditional DRM. How it is actually used, though, could still go against the anti-DRM principles set out by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other consumer rights groups.

Don’t use DRM.

Companies that are brave enough to release products without DRM often earn the respect of their customers and get them to buy from them again. Going DRM-free shows that a company is sure they have the best product possible and that people are willing to pay for it.

The last two games in the hit Witcher series were released without DRM. These games were made by CD Projekt Red. After Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings came out, the company noticed that the DRM-protected disc version was pirated more than the DRM-free online download version. After that, Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt broke sales records.

Customers can show their support for DRM-free software by purchasing the software and/or purchasing it from a marketplace that allows for the sale of DRM-free products. For example, GOG.com only sells games that don’t have DRM, like The Witcher series.

Fair labelling
Last year, the EFF asked the Federal Trade Commission to require retailers to tell customers if a product has DRM by putting a label on it.

Fair use

Fair use laws say that copyrighted material can be copied without the permission of the copyright owner for “limited and transformative” purposes. Most of the time, DRM goes against these laws because it makes it hard to copy or share the limited content. Fair use lets you comment on, criticise, or make fun of a work that someone else owns the rights to. It is a term that journalists and other people in the media use a lot.

Blockchain technology is the future of DRM.

A blockchain is a public, decentralised ledger of transactions that can’t be changed. It is most famously used by Bitcoin to stop people from spending the same bitcoin twice and to add new bitcoins to the economy at a set rate.

But blockchain is becoming a disruptive technology that can be used in many different ways. One of these uses is provenance, which is another word for proof of ownership. In this way, blockchain could be used in DRM systems to make sure that the person who plays a song or video actually owns it.

Blockchain-based DRM systems are still in the works. Depending on how they are used, they could help or hurt consumers. It could be a central place for content owners to store their rights and could even let users trade rights with each other. It could also be used to make all of those bad rules stick, since blockchains are much harder to hack or get around.

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