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.
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.
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.
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.