Technology Training

DRM Explained

How Digital Rights Management Works

Original article courtesy of Julia Layton

For much of the music industry’s lifetime, piracy wasn’t a serious problem. From the onset of recorded sound through the 1960s, people bought vinyl records at record stores. They could listen to them at home and at gatherings and swap them with friends, but copying them would’ve been a difficult and expensive endeavour. Of course, a few people made bootleg records, but they were typically collections of outtakes or live performances the record companies had little interest in releasing — some alternate recordings of Bob Dylan songs, for instance, or a cobbled-together version of the Beach Boys’ album “SMiLE” that had yet to see the light of day.

The advent of magnetic tape as a recording medium began to change things, primarily after blank microcassettes went on sale. Some recording industry executives took issue with people duplicating cassette tapes, but soon they had bigger problems to worry about — especially when CDs arrived and sound became digital. CD burners allowed people to rip music off of CDs and onto personal computers. Add the Internet and peer-to-peer sites (P2P) to the equation, and record executives really started to worry. People were suddenly able to duplicate and share music with an almost unlimited about of users over the Internet, giving many the chance to download songs, albums, even entire discographies without paying a dime. With the value of music changing so rapidly, how would the music industry react?

Soon, record companies began selling “special” music CDs to consumers who thought they were getting ordinary compact discs. When people played these CDs on their computers, what happened in many cases was the equivalent of a spyware nightmare: Programs froze up, applications slowed and a series of hidden files that were the source of the problem proved to be nearly impossible to uninstall. Why would a company do this to its customers?

The answer comes down to copyright. The digital revolution that has empowered consumers to use digital content in new and innovative ways has also made it nearly impossible for copyright holders to control the distribution of their property. It’s not just music, but film, video games and any other media that can be digitized and passed around. Digital rights management, or DRM, is a general term used to describe any type of technology that aims to stop, or at least ease, the practice of piracy.

Digital rights management is a far-reaching term that refers to any scheme that controls access to copyrighted material using technological means. In essence, DRM removes usage control from the person in possession of digital content and puts it in the hands of a computer program. The applications and methods are endless — here are just a few examples of digital rights management:

  • A company sets its servers to block the forwarding of sensitive e-mail.
  • An e-book server restricts access to, copying of and printing of material based on constraints set by the copyright holder of the content.
  • A movie studio includes software on its DVDs that limits the number of copies a user can make to two.
  • A music label releases titles on a type of CD that includes bits of information intended to confuse ripping software.

While many consumers see DRM methods as overly restrictive — especially those methods employed by the movie and music industries — digital rights management is nonetheless trying to solve a legitimate problem. The distribution of digital content over the Internet via file-sharing networks has made traditional copyright law obsolete in practice. Every time someone downloads an MP3 file of a copyrighted song from a free file-sharing network instead of buying the CD, the music label that owns the copyright and the artist who created the song lose money. In the case of the movie industry, some estimates place revenue losses from illegal distribution of DVD content at around $5 billion a year. The nature of the Internet makes it impractical to try

to sue every person who breaks the law in this way, so companies are trying to regain control of distribution by making it technologically impossible for consumers to make digital copies.

The problem is that when you buy a DVD, it’s perfectly legal for you to make a copy of it for your own use. This is the gist of the fair use doctrine in copyright law — there are certain situations that negate copyright protection in favor of the content user, including copying protected material for personal use and copying anything in the public domain for any use. Most digital rights management schemes cannot take fair use into account, because a computer program cannot make subjective decisions.

Before we get further into the DRM controversy, let’s take a step back and find out what a DRM scheme entails from a programming standpoint.


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