How Digital Rights Management Works

DRM Controversy

The DRM controversy stems from software implemented by Sony-BMG.
Courtesy Sony BMG Music Entertainment

Recent DRM schemes have set up an adversarial relationship between digital-content providers and digital-content consumers, and it's not only the consumers who are employing sneaky techniques to get the upper hand. Over the years, several controversies involving DRM technology have surfaced.

In 2005, for instance, Sony BMG distributed select CDs (one estimate puts the number of titles at 20) that led to lawsuits, backtracking and a public-relations nightmare. The problem stemmed from two pieces of software on the CDs: SunnComm's MediaMax and First4Internet's Extended Copy Protection (XCP). The incident has raised questions regarding just how far copyright holders are allowed to go to protect their content. In this case, copy protection was the least of people's concerns.


In the first place, the MediaMax software doesn't protect a copyright at all. It tracks users' activities. Every time someone plays the CD on his or her PC, MediaMax sends a message to the SunnComm server. Sony-BMG can find out who's listening to the CD and how often they listen to it. And this happens behind the scenes -- there are no obvious signs of the activity or disclaimers on the CD. To make matters worse, there's no easy way to uninstall it.

The other problem is a bigger one. First4Internet's Extended Copy Protection limits the number of copies a person can make of the CD to three -- this might be annoying, but it's arguably within the "copyright protection" realm. The XCP uproar is primarily about the software's other activities. First, it hides in the user's machine so the user doesn't know it's there and probably can't find it if he or she looks. It creates a hidden area (sometimes called a rootkit) in the Windows operating system that could potentially pose a security risk once virus writers find out it's there. A virus could live there undetected indefinitely. Virus scanners typically can't see the files in a rootkit. XCP also slows computing processes and automatically connects to the Sony-BMG server to install copy-protection updates. And there's no easy way to uninstall it. Some users had to reformat their hard drive to get rid of the files and their negative effects.

Sony recalled the millions of discs with this DRM software combination built in and has agreed to issue tools that make the hidden files visible. Sony, along with the rest the major labels, essentially have given up on DRM [source: Holahan].

DRM hasn't disappeared forever, though, and it continues cause problems for businesses and consumers alike. The hotly anticipated computer game "Spore," released by Electronic Arts (EA) in 2008, came with what many players considered an intrusive and difficult-to-remove DRM system known as SecuROM. The technology limited gamers who bought "Spore" with three installations -- anything more than that required contacting EA's customer service and providing proof of purchase, reasons for exceeding install limits and other information. EA eventually loosened up the restrictions on the game's DRM, but they were still hit with several lawsuits soon after the release date [source: Kuchera].

Apple and its customers have also sparred concerning downloading movies from iTunes, the company's download service. With very little press concerning any type of DRM, Apple released new models of their personal laptops, the Macbook, in October 2008. These Macbooks were installed with High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP), a copy protection scheme developed by Intel. Without being aware of the technology, many customers who purchased Macbooks and tried to play movies downloaded from iTunes on external monitors hooked up to their laptops were unable to watch anything. HDCP blocks any movies from playing on analog devices in order to stop pirates from recording content onto copying software, but many customers who purchased content found they couldn't display movies on external monitors hooked up to their computers -- forcing them to watch on their Macbook screens [source: Chen].