DRM stands for digital rights management. It’s an umbrella term for any technology used to control access and restrict usage of proprietary hardware and software and copyrighted work. It can prevent the owner of a product from modifying, repairing, improving, distributing, and otherwise using the product in a way not authorized by the copyright holder.
In many countries, circumventing DRM is illegal, as are the creation and distribution of tools used to bypass DRM.
The stated purpose of DRM is to prevent piracy and protect intellectual property. By restricting what the owner can and cannot do with their product, copyright holders can prevent intellectual property theft, copyright infringement, maintain artistic control, and ensure continued revenue streams. DRM can help ensure owner safety by restricting how it is used.
Copyright holders implement DRM for less scrupulous reasons as well. DRM can stifle competitors from improving on the product. It can make products incompatible with each other, forcing owners to buy only compatible products that benefit the copyright holder. It can force owners to upgrade to the newest product when the DRM scheme changes. DRM can prevent owners from making copies of, selling, giving away, repairing, or modifying their products, leading to increased revenue.
Does DRM work?.
DRM can prevent owners from using their products in ways not authorized by the copyright holder. How effective it is depends on the individual DRM technology.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit digital rights group and major critic of DRM, argues that there is no evidence suggesting that DRM prevents piracy or protects users.
The argument against DRM.
When a consumer buys a product, full ownership of that product is legally transferred from the manufacturer or retailer to the consumer. DRM interferes with that simple legal premise by retaining certain elements of ownership for the original copyright holder.
Many consumer rights groups, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, have taken a strong anti-DRM stance. They argue that DRM’s intention is not to protect consumers or intellectual property, but to inconvenience owners, stifle innovation from would-be competitors, hide flaws, and prevent them from truly owning a product.
- DRM can prevent the owner of a product from reselling it or giving it away. This can bar libraries and rental stores from doing business, for example.
- Under DRM law, security researchers can be sued if they expose vulnerabilities in a product. A University research team couldn’t publish information about flaw that puts customers’ private information at risk, for example.
- DRM can prohibit customers from adding or removing features from a product that they own. An inventor might be barred from selling an accessory to improve an existing product, for example.
- DRM can prohibit customers from altering the format of a digital product, such as changing the format of an audio or video file to work with a different player or device.
- DRM can limit owners to using certain accessories and compatible products with a device. Printer cartridges are a notable example of this.
- DRM can prevent customers from repairing broken products on their own. A computer manufacturer can void a device’s warranty if customers go to a third party for repairs and replacement parts, for example.
Anti-DRM is not pro-piracy.
DRM advocates often equate being anti-DRM to being pro-piracy. This is simply not true and is a stigma perpetrated by those who would take away consumers’ right to ownership.
There are more effective means of combating piracy that copyright holder can employ than DRM, which we’ll discuss later.
What is not DRM.
The content on free and subscription streaming services, such as Netflix and Spotify, doesn’t qualify as being DRM-protected. Just because you pay $10 a month for a Netflix subscription doesn’t mean you own every movie and TV show in the Netflix library.
So where is the line? DRM specifically interferes with ownership. If you own something, you should be able to what you want with it, bar making unlimited copies and distributing them to strangers. Streaming content does not mean you own it.
Streaming is a service, and services are not products, therefore they cannot be owned, and DRM in the traditional sense cannot be applied.
DRM prevents you from doing what would be possible without it. If a printer cartridge is fully compatible with a printer in every aspect except for some arbitrary restriction designed to lock out third parties, that’s DRM.
However, DRM does not affect the underlying technology. If only one company makes a compatible cartridge for a printer and there are no third-party options available, that’s not DRM.
This is perhaps the least clear line of what is and isn’t DRM. Let’s say Apple were to restrict Macbook and iPhone users to Apple-brand charging cables because third-party products had a consistent record of bursting into flames. The purpose of that restriction would not be to protect Apple’s copyright, but the best interests of its customers.
This is just a hypothetical example, but at what point does a safety restriction turn into DRM? This must be assessed on a product-by-product basis.
Go DRM free.
Companies bold enough to put out DRM-free products often earn the respect and repeat business of their customers. Going DRM-free shows that a company is confident that it has the best possible product and consumers are willing to pay for it.
CD Projekt Red, the makers of the hit game series Witcher, released the last two installments of the series without DRM. The company noted that after the release of Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings, the DRM-protected disk version distributed by Atari was pirated more times than the DRM-free version sold via online download. Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt went on to break sales records.
Customers can support DRM-free software by not only buying it, but buying it from a marketplace that supports DRM-free products. GOG.com, for example, only sells DRM-free games, including The Witcher series.
Last year, the EFF petitioned the Federal Trade Commission to institute labeling rules that would require retailers to warn customers if products contain DRM.
Fair use laws state that copyrighted material may be copied for “limited and transformative” purposes without the permission of the copyright owner. DRM often runs in contradiction to these laws by interfering with the ability for the limited material to be copied or shared. Fair use can be used to comment upon, criticize, or parody a copyrighted work. It is frequently used by journalists and other forms of media.