The Cause of Digital Rights Management – by “Benjamin B”

DRM is the natural evolution of copyright protection. As media transitioned into a digital form publishers needed to develop new methods of protecting their works. Some of the earliest copy protections mechanisms accompanied the first generation of computer games. They were usually some sort of gimmicky device or language that often contributed to the gameplay or developed the game’s atmosphere.


Code Wheels from A Secret of Monkey Island. The keys written under each pirate head were required at various points in the games.

Once consumers learned how to bypass these physical copy protections, corporations began using registration keys. These long numerical codes are typically written inside the software’s box or separately mailed.  Programs require the code before initially running. Once hackers developed key generators, companies began requiring online registration and authorization, a policy still in use today.

Online authorization was the last step before Digital Rights Management. DRM is unique because in many circumstances it infringes on typical consumer rights and can invade privacy. DRM varies widely between platforms, but most often comes in two forms: a frequent online check between the user and producer for authenticity, and a complex authorization program on the user’s computer.

Common Forms of DRM

Most eBook sellers require all purchases to be linked to a user’s account.  Each account can have a limited number of devices authorized to read a book.  You must purchase multiple copies of a book to exceed the number of permitted devices.  Most retailers allow between four and six activations.  While this seems like a large number, the limit is quickly reached if you want to share the book within your family or read it on multiple devices.

eBook DRM prevents sharing among friends, one of the best parts of reading books.

Music was one of the first battlegrounds for DRM.  As computers become more common during the late 1990’s and early 2000’s music piracy skyrocketed.  Publishers responded by including DRM on CDs, making it far more difficult to rip music.  However as digital music players replaced portable CD players this became untenable. People now buy CDs with the express intent of ripping music to their digital players.  As this became the norm publishers gradually eliminated DRM from CDs.  Currently most physical and digital retailers sell music without any form of DRM.

Unlike music DVDs and Blu-Ray discs still use multiple forms of DRM.  DVDs have used a technology called CSS (Content Scrambling System) for almost two decades.  While this technology was decoded and circumvented years ago, publishers continue to include it on most DVDs.  Blu-Ray discs use a variety of methods to prevent copying.  Some require online authorization, while others utilize a complex series of encrypted keys that require a virtual machine to decode.

Of all forms of copy protection DRM for software is by far the most developed. Every major game release is accompanied by the latest DRM.  Many publishers have their own preferred form of copy protection.  EA typically uses SecuROM for its big releases.  Ubisoft recently started using a form of DRM nicknamed ‘always-on’, which requires a user to be continually connected to the Internet for their games to work regardless of whether the game uses the Internet.  Any disruption in Internet connection will force the user to exit the program.

The Problems of DRM

While DRM is a justifiable reaction to piracy, in many regards it goes beyond what an average person would consider reasonable.  If a product requires online authorization it is only freely usable while the company maintains its servers.  Microsoft is a major culprit in this respect. It is stopping all support for its eBook format .lit by the end of 2012.  Even though the purchased files will still be usable, Microsoft will not offer any help if problems arise.  Microsoft is also discontinuing support for Windows XP, shutting down the activation servers by 2014 and preventing individuals from new XP installations.

Not only can DRM occasionally prevent people from using their legally purchased goods, it can also damage and destabilize a machine.  Some forms of DRM install secondary programs on computers to authorize and check software. These programs often require high security clearance.  The worst-case scenario is a hacker developing a virus that specially targets DRM, exploiting any security flaws and using it to highjack the computer. Of all DRM programs the most insidious is SecuROM, which installs itself in a computer’s kernel (the system’s core). Removing it requires wiping the entire computer and starting anew. To make it worse, originally EA neither asked nor informed users about SecuROM before installation.

If DRM itself was not enough of an issue, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act makes bypassing DRM illegal.  If the company that authorizes your purchases goes bankrupt, the DMCA’s anti circumvention clause makes it a felony to recover you files.

Just like with everything on the Internet, XKCD offers its own take on DRM

How to Fix DRM

This is a tragic cycle perpetuated by a single public outlook. For some reason people do not equate pirating media with theft. The social stigma associated with online piracy is incomparable to that of shoplifting.  This dichotomy needs to be rectified before any DRM-less solution can be found.

There is an economic issue fueling the cycle as well.  All forms of electronic media are far more expensive than necessary. As publishers have transitioned to digital distribution, costs have dropped but in many circumstances prices have not equally declined.  There must be a major incentive for people to stop pirating media.  The most obvious one is convenience. Publishers need to make buying their products more convenient than pirating.  If prices drop and online distribution methods become simple and quick, people will readily purchase products. Some companies have already instituted such business models.

In the video games industry Steam is the dominant source for digital distribution, holding about a 70% market share.  It is significantly more profitable than physical store, yielding a 70% gross margin on sales to the 30% average for most physical retailers.  Downloading from Steam is simple and fun.  The program runs frequent sales, offering blockbuster titles at significant discounts.  While some DRM is included in these products, it is often of the non-intrusive sort.

Typical Reaction to a Steam Holiday Sale. Its business model seems to be doing quite well.

Numerous retailers have developed this type of business model for television, music, and movies.  Netflix and Hulu Plus both offer a large variety of television shows and movies for a nominal monthly fee.  Their titles can be quickly streamed to any equipped computer, gaming console, or TV.  Amazon and iTunes now offer easy and fast movie, television and music downloads, almost all DRM-free.  These businesses have made an impact.  Music piracy has dropped significantly as a total share of worldwide piracy.  While once the majority of bittorrent traffic, music now constitutes only 2.9%.  As more companies shift to this model, piracy overall should decrease

DRM is an evil born of our time. As people begin to see the Internet as an extension of the physical world rather than a separate realm social norms should decrease piracy. As corporations shift to more sustainable electronic business models, piracy should begin to disappear.  Once both of these changes have occurred DRM should naturally disappear into the annals of history.

Further Reading

Defective by Design

Electronic Frontier Foundation


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