How Digital Rights Management Works

DRM Standards

There are no industry-wide standards for DRM. At this point, many companies in the digital entertainment sector are opting for the crude, "because I said so" approach in which users can't copy, print, alter or transfer material, period. The area of most concern to activists regarding DRM has to do with the fact that current DRM trends surpass the protections afforded under traditional copyright law. For example, when you play a DVD that won't let you skip the trailers, that has nothing to do with protecting a copyright. Even more than consumers, though, libraries and educational institutions that archive and lend digital content have a lot to lose if highly restrictive DRM software becomes the norm. A library can't archive a piece of software with a time-limited encryption key, and it can't lend out a machine-specific license for viewing content using its traditional lending structure.

The arguments against digital rights management discuss issues like user privacy, technological innovation and fair use. Under copyright law, the fair use doctrine gives a consumer the right to make copies of copyrighted content for their own use. Other doctrines like "first sale," the right of a content purchaser to resell or give away the content he's purchased, and "limited term," the expiration of a copyright after a certain period of time, also afford consumers rights that fall by the wayside in DRM implementation. As we saw in the case of Sony-BMG , secretly tracking consumer activities and hiding files on a user's computer invades user privacy -- they're the methods of a spyware application, not a legitimate rights management scheme. DRM systems can also affect technological innovation as it limits the use and form of digital content. Third-party vendors can't develop software-specific products and plug-ins if the computer code in that software is indefinitely protected by DRM, and consumers can't legally tinker with their own hardware if it's protected by a DRM scheme that prohibits alteration.


As Professor Ed Felten of Princeton University discovered, DRM affects not only technological freedom of development, but also freedom of speech. When Felten tried to publish an article on a faulty DRM system in 2001, members of the music industry threatened him with lawsuits. Several companies said that his research would assist people in bypassing DRM schemes, which is illegal in the United States. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 (DCMA) ensures the protection of a DRM scheme regardless of whether or not it respects the fair use doctrine. It's not only illegal to get around DRM, but it's also illegal to create, purchase or download any product that enables you to bypass DRM restrictions. Consumer rights' groups are lobbying Congress to amend the section of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that makes disabling a DRM system against the law, claiming that it gives an improper advantage to copyright holders by not placing limits on the type of DRM schemes they can employ. In essence, according to some, the DCMA encourages anti-competitiveness and makes it increasingly difficult for consumers to easily enjoy their entertainment [source: Lee].

In the increasingly embattled realm of digital content, we're left to wonder whether any DRM system can satisfy both copyright holders and consumers. As DRM becomes standardized across industries, the result will be what experts call "trusted computing." In this setup, DRM methods will ensure the protection of copyrighted content along each step of the way, from the production or upload process to the purchase or download to the use of the digital content once it's in the user's hands. Computers will know automatically what a user is legally allowed to do with a piece of content and will act accordingly. With the adoption of standards, consumers will be better off at least in part, because DRM-encoded media will play on all types of equipment. As far as user rights go, however, it doesn't look good for consumers. Their best bet is the chance that programmers will somehow quantify "fair use" so that computers can understand the concept.

For more information on digital rights management and related topics, take a look at the links below.

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  • Chen, Brian. "Apple bends to studios, adds copyright protection to Macbooks." WIRED. Nov. 17, 2008. (Nov. 16, 2008)
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