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Digital Rights Management

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Digital Rights Management (generally abbreviated to DRM) is an umbrella term that refers to any of several technologies used by publishers or copyright owners to control access to and usage of digital data or hardware, and to restrictions associated with a specific instance of a digital work or device. The term is often confused with copy protection and technical protection measures; these two terms refer to technologies that control or restrict the use and access of digital content on electronic devices with such technologies installed, acting as components of a DRM design.

Digital Rights Management is a controversial topic. Advocates argue DRM is necessary for copyright holders to prevent unauthorized duplication of their work to ensure continued revenue streams. Some critics of the technology, including the Free Software Foundation, suggest that the use of the word "Rights" is misleading and suggest that people instead use the term Digital Restrictions Management. The position put forth is that copyright holders are attempting to restrict use of copyrighted material in ways not granted by statutory or common law applying to copyright. Others, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation consider some DRM schemes to be anti-competitive.

Enterprise Digital Rights Management (E-DRM or ERM) refers to the use of DRM technology to control access to corporate documents (Microsoft Word, PDF, TIFF, AutoCAD files, etc), rather than consumer playable media. The technology usually requires a Policy Server to authenticate users' rights to access certain documents but more recently software that does not require this has been created. EDRM vendors include Microsoft, Adobe Systems, EMC Corporation and several smaller companies. There are open source implementations as well. EDRM is generally intended to apply to trade secrets, which are different from copyrighted material (though there is sometimes an overlap as some material is both copyrighted and a trade secret — eg, the source code for some proprietary software), and for whom the primary issue is industrial or corporate espionage or inadvertent release. In most jurisdictions, there is no notion of fair use for trade secrets as there is for copyrighted material. Trade secrecy confidentiality measures are somewhat less controversial than DRM applied to copyrighted works sold to the public in many copies (eg, audio or video recordings, texts, ...).


DRM vendors and publishers coined the term "digital rights management" to refer to the protective (or restrictive) schemes discussed here; it is limited to digital media because of their special characteristics, especially exact copyability. There is a long history of objection on the part of copyright holders (in modern times often music distributors or broadcasting companies) to copying technology of any kind. Examples have included player piano rolls (early in the 20th century), audio tape recording (after WWII), video tape recording (e.g., in the famous Betamax case in the US), etc. Digital copying raised concerns to a higher pitch. While analog media loses quality with each copy generation, and often even during normal use, digital media files may be copied an unlimited number of times without degradation in the quality of subsequent copies. Digital Audio Tape, thought by many observers of the time to be a probable replacement / improvement for the audio cassette, was a market failure in part due to opposition on grounds of the potential for unauthorized copying. The advent of personal computers, combined with the Internet and popular file sharing tools, have made unauthorized sharing of digital files (often referred to as digital piracy) possible and profitable.

Although technical controls on the reproduction and use of software have been intermittently common since the 1980s, the term DRM has come to primarily mean the use of similar measures to control artistic works or content. Beyond the existing restrictions imposed by copyright law, most DRM schemes are able to enforce additional restrictions at the discretion of the content's publisher, which may or may not be the same entity as the copyright holder.

DRM schemes are built on numerous technologies, such as modifications to digital media player software to use cryptography. Since such implementations can be reverse engineered, they cannot be effective as an inherent part of the design. This fact has resulted in a general move toward Mandatory Access Control systems (as opposed to Discretionary Access Control) in which use restrictions are enforced by firmware (ie, software permanently embedded in hardware). These software provisions interact with operating systems, media player software, or both. However, some implementations of this DRM type are vulnerable to an additional class of attacks, due to the requirement to run on tamper-resistant hardware. There has been pressure (successful in some places) for legislation and regulation creating new offenses (ie, controlling or prohibiting examination of DRM schemes, or possession of any tools (eg, software) which might interfere with the operation of a DRM scheme.) An example is the DMCA.

While digital rights management is most commonly used by the entertainment industry (eg, films and recording), it has found use in other media as well. Many online music stores, such as Apple’s iTunes Store, as well as certain e-books producers, have adopted various DRM schemes in recent times. In recent years, a number of television producers have begun demanding implementation of DRM measures to control access to the content of their shows in connection with the popular TiVo system, and its equivalents.

Legal enforcement of DRMEdit

Digital Rights Management systems have generally received some international legal backing by implementation of the 1996 WIPO Copyright Treaty (WCT). Article 11 of the Treaty states that:

"Contracting Parties shall provide adequate legal protection and effective legal remedies against the circumvention of effective technological measures that are used by authors in connection with the exercise of their rights under this Treaty or the Berne Convention and that restrict acts, in respect of their works, which are not authorized by the authors concerned or permitted by law."

Just which DRM scheme, and which additional restrictions over and above copying are covered by this, is not entirely clear. The WIPO provision is in any case implemented differently in different countries and jurisdictions. It should be noted that the legal protection is for 'effective technological measures', which has been read to preclude DRM systems that do not establish copy-protection.

The WCT has been implemented in most member states of the World Intellectual Property Organization. The American implementation is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), while in Europe the treaty has been implemented by the 2001 European Directive On Copyright, which requires member states of the European Union to implement legal protections for technological protection measures. In 2006, the lower house of the French parliament adopted such legislation as part of the controversial DADVSI law, but added that protected DRM techniques should be made interoperable, a move which caused widespread controversy in the United States.

Copyright ImplicationsEdit

While DRM systems are ostensibly designed to protect an owner's right to control copying, after a statutorily-defined period of time any copyrighted work becomes part of the public domain for anyone to use freely. DRM systems currently employed are not time limited in this way, and although it would be possible to create such a system (under compulsory escrow agreements, for example), there is currently no mechanism to remove the copy control systems embedded into works once the copyright term expires and they enter the public domain.

Furthermore, copyright law does not restrict the resale of copyrighted works (provided those copies were made by or with the permission of the copyright holder), so it is perfectly legal to resell a copyrighted work provided a copy is not retained by the seller—a doctrine known as the first-sale doctrine in the US, which applies equally in most other countries under various names. Similarly, some forms of copying are permitted under copyright law, under the doctrine of fair use (US) or fair dealing (many other countries). DRM technology restricts or prevents the purchaser of copyrighted material from exercising their legal rights in these respects.

An oft-cited example of DRM overreach is Adobe Systems' release in 2000 of a public domain work, Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, with DRM controls asserting that "this book cannot be read aloud" and so disabling use of the text-to-speech feature normally available in Adobe's eBook Reader.

An example of a DRM system is one that is currently being used on books from multiple publishers by VitalSource Technologies, Inc. (purchased by Ingram Industries in the summer of 2006). Books using this system (called VitalBooks) are used by many American Dental Schools and are included on many educational computers sold by IBM/Lenovo, Apple Computer, and other computer makers. The textbooks are delivered by pre-installing them on the hard drive, via download, or on DVD (or some other media) which students purchase instead of printed versions (some schools require use of the electronic books as part of their instructional system). The VitalBook titles are readable only on a computer the user has authorized, and can be transferred to other systems. The titles are owned by the user and fully functional with printing and copy/paste capabilities, and some other specific features.

The DRM DebateEdit

DRM advocatesEdit

Some DRM advocates have taken the position, certainly implicitly, that the operational contexts and design goals of DRM, security, software engineering and cryptography are sufficiently well understood that it is already possible to achieve the desired ends without causing unrelated problems for users or their computers.

Others have taken the position that creators of digital works should have the power to control the distribution or replication of copies of their works, and to assign limited control over such copies. Without this power, they argue, there will be a chilling effect on creative efforts in the digital space. This has been and remains the underlying argument for copyright. DRM is one means by which creators of digital works may obtain this power.

A similar view states that DRM's advent is the first time large-scale digital distribution has been reasonably achievable, which proponents claim to be a benefit both to content creators and their customers that far outweighs any problems that arise. This argument cannot be applied to some physical media, however, as such media are in many respects similar to traditional (analog) media.

Furthermore, advocates of DRM believe that its opponents advocate the rights of hardware and media owners, but at the expense of the privileges of artists and those who have acquired copyright in thier creations. On this account, consumers of hardware and media voluntarily and knowingly agree to the grant of limited use of the content exhibited using their physical media.

DRM opponentsEdit

Many organizations, prominent individuals, and computer scientists are opposed to DRM. Two notable DRM critics are John Walker, as expressed for instance, in his article The Digital Imprimatur: How big brother and big media can put the Internet genie back in the bottle, and Richard Stallman notably in his article The Right to Read.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation and similar organizations, including Free Culture, Boycott RIAA and I Hate DRM, also hold positions which are characterized as opposed to DRM.

The Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure criticizes DRM's impact as a trade barrier from a free market perspective.

To date, the first two draft versions of the GNU General Public License version 3 released by the Free Software Foundation, prohibit using DRM to restrict free redistribution and modification of works covered by the license, and has a clause stating that the license's provisions shall be interpreted as disfavoring use of DRM. Also, in May 2006, the FSF launched a Defective by Design campaign against DRM.

Creative Commons provides licensing options encouraging the expansion of and building upon creative work without the use of DRM.

In France, in order to inform consumers about DRM, the citizen group StopDRM is regularly organizing protests in general stores (like Virgin or La Fnac) in different cities.

As already noted, many DRM opponents consider Digital Rights Management to be a misnomer. They argue that DRM manages rights (or access) the same way prison manages freedom. A common alternative is Digital Restrictions Management. Alternatively, ZDNet Executive Editor David Berlind suggests the term Content Restriction, Annulment and Protection or CRAP for short.

The use of DRM may also be a barrier to future historians, since technologies designed to permit data to be read only on particular machines may well make future data recovery impossible. This argument connects the issue of DRM with that of asset management and archive technology.

DRM opponents argue that the presence of DRM infringes private property rights and restricts a range of heretofore normal and legal user activities. A DRM component would control a device a user owns (such as an MP3 player) by restricting how it may act with regards to certain content, overriding some of the user's wishes (for example, preventing the user from burning a copyrighted song). An example of this effect may be seen in Microsoft's Windows Vista operating system in which content is disabled or degraded depending on the DRM scheme's evaluation of whether the hardware and its use are 'secure'. All forms of DRM depend on the DRM enabled device (eg, computer, DVD player, TV, ...) imposing restrictions that cannot be disabled or modified by the user.

DRM and Specific MediaEdit

DRM and audio CDsEdit

In 2002 Bertelsmann (the record companies BMG, Arista and RCA) were the first to use DRM on audio CDs. Initially this was done on promotional CDs; later all CDs from these companies included DRM. Other record companies also started using DRM as well.

However, these CDs could not be played on all devices that were supposed to do so, including some car CD players. Many people could no longer play the CDs on their computers any more. Computers running Windows would sometimes crash when people attempted to play such CDs, and many of the CDs could not be played on people's computers at all.

Later on all CDs from those companies were DRM'ed to deter playing on computers at all. In 2005 Sony BMG's DRM technology installed software without notification or confirmation, and instead installed a "rootkit" on the computer. This created security vulnerabilities others could exploit, and in the end Sony had to recall millions of CDs.

Consumer rights organizations complained that people could not exercise their legal rights, such as copying CDs for their own private use (including backups and personal re-mixes).

It also did not prevent copying. The DRM software had to be renewed constantly to fight cracking, yet this basic goal never succeeded. For example, the Sony DRM technology created vulnerabilities in consumer's computers, yet could be trivially bypassed by holding down the "shift" key while inserting the CD, or disabling autorun. And of course, the audio could be played and re-recorded, completely bypassing all of the DRM.

By January 2007 EMI stopped publishing audio CD's with DRM, stating that "the costs of DRM do not measure up to the results". EMI was the last publisher to do so; audio CDs with DRM are no longer released by any major publisher.DRM on audio CDs abolished, January 9, 2007.

DRM and Internet musicEdit

Most internet music stores employ DRM to restrict the usage of music purchased and downloaded online. There are many options for consumers buying digital music over the internet, in terms of both stores and purchase options. Two examples of music stores and their functionality follow:

  • The iTunes Store, formerly the iTunes Music Store, the industry leader, allows users to purchase a track online for under a dollar, to burn that song to CD an unlimited number of times, and transfer it to an unlimited number of iPods. The purchased music files are encoded as Advanced Audio Coding or AAC, a format supported by iPods, and DRM is applied through FairPlay. Many music devices are not compatible with the AAC format, and only the iPod itself can play FairPlay-encoded files. Apple also reserves the right to alter its DRM restrictions on the music a user has downloaded at any time. For example, Apple recently decided to restrict the number of times a user can copy a playlist from ten to seven. Songs can be played on only five computers at a time, and users cannot edit or sample the songs they purchased (though copies can be used and edited in Apple's iMovie). Despite these restrictions, the iTS DRM is often seen as lenient. Previously, it was possible to bypass the DRM through programs such as Hymn but Apple has altered its systems to close such loopholes. Apple provides iTunes software for copying the downloaded music to iPods in AAC format or to conventional music CD (CDDA format). No copy restrictions are recorded onto the CD - a limitation of the medium - and many programs can read and convert music from CD to other music formats, such as MP3 used by competing digital music players.
  • Napster music store, which offers a subscription based approach to DRM alongside permanent purchases. Users of the subscription service can download and stream an unlimited amount of music encoded to Windows Media Audio (WMA) while subscribed to the service. But as soon as the user misses a payment the service renders all music downloaded unusable. Napster also charges users who wish to use the music on their portable device an additional $5 per month.

The various services are currently not interoperable, though those that use the same DRM scheme (for instance the various Windows Media DRM stores, which include Napster) all provide songs that can be played side by side through the same program. Almost all stores require client software of some sort to be downloaded, and some also need plug-ins. Several colleges and universities have made arrangements with assorted Internet music suppliers to provide access (typically DRM protected) to music files for their students, to less than universal popularity, sometimes making payments from student activity fee funds.[1] One of the problems is that the music becomes unplayable after leaving school, unless the student continues to pay individually. Another is that few of these vendors are compatible with the most common portable music player, the Apple iPod.

Although DRM is prevalent for Internet music, some online music stores such as eMusic and Anthology recordings do not use DRM. Major labels have begun releasing more online music without DRM. Eric Bangeman suggests in Ars Technica that this is because the record labels are "slowly beginning to realize that they can't have DRMed music and complete control over the online music market at the same time... One way to break the cycle is to sell music that is playable on any digital audio player. eMusic does exactly that, and their surprisingly extensive catalog of non-DRMed music has vaulted it into the number two online music store position behind the iTunes Store."[2]

Further readingEdit

  • Lawrence Lessig's Free Culture, published by Basic Books in 2004, is available for free download in PDF format. The book is a legal and social history of copyright. Lessig is well known, in part, for arguing recent landmark cases on copyright law. A Professor of law at Stanford University, Lessig writes for an educated lay audience, including for non-lawyers. He is, for the most part, an opponent of DRM techologies.
  • Eberhard Becker, Willms Buhse, Dirk Günnewig, Niels Rump: Digital Rights Management - Technological, Economic, Legal and Political Aspects. An 800 page compendium from 60 different authors on DRM.
  • Fetscherin, M., Implications of Digital Rights Management on the Demand for Digital Content, provides an excellent view on DRM from a consumers perspective. [3]
  • Bound by Law, by James Boyle et al, at Duke University Law School (, a comic book treatment of the US Fair Use doctrine (with some relevance to other jurisdictions, for example in the Commonwealth usually called Fair Dealing). that is license fee free, under stature and common law precedent, use of copyrighted material without permission from the copyright holder.
  • DRM on Open Platforms - A paper by Hagai Bar-El and Yoav Weiss on ways to partially close open platforms to make them suitable for DRM implementations. It has been released under a Creative commons by NC-SA license.
  • The Pig and the Box, a book with colorful illustrations and having a coloring book version, by 'MCM'. It describes DRM in terms suited to kids, written in reaction to a Canadian entertainment industry copyright education initiative, aimed at children.
  • Present State and Emerging Scenarios of Digital Rights Management Systems - A paper by Marc Fetscherin which provides an overview of the various components of DRM, pro and cons and future outlook of how, where, when such systems might be used.
  • DRM is Like Paying for Ice - Richard Menta article on MP3 Newswire discusses how DRM is implemented in ways to control consumers, but is undermining perceived product value in the process.

External linksEdit

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