Digital Rights Management, or DRM, is a set of user access control technologies used to protect
the intellectual property contained in copyrighted materials from unauthorized use or theft.
Although DRM is widely used today, its history has been fraught with controversy. Although
record companies, publishers and other content providers claim it is necessary to protect
themselves against bankruptcy due to online piracy, its critics contend that it stifles innovation
and inconveniences users, while failing to actually protect against piracy.
In essence, DRM attempts to limit how a consumer can use a product after purchasing it. This
limitation can take the form of controlling access or preventing the user from copying the
material. This is typically achieved by encryption or tag embedding within the copyrighted
material to prevent it from being freely reproduced. Although this keeps users from copying
material and uploading it to file sharing services, it also prevents them from making personal
backup copies for their own archives, an activity which does not explicitly violate the law.
DRM can encompass many different technologies, from CableCard access limitation on cable
television to copy protection on music CDs. One of the earliest widespread uses of DRM
technology was the content scrambling system used in early DVD movies. It essentially rendered
all DVDs unplayable, except on players made by companies that had licensed the content
scrambling technology on their machines.
Within a few years, hackers had found their way to compromise the process and it was no
longer feasible. Although new DRM technologies have also come along, hackers are continually
working to crack them. Part of the limitation on media encryption is also due to legal limitations:
materials exported from the United States cannot contain advanced cryptography at the
level used by the government, because it would present a national security risk were it to be
compromised and fall into the wrong hands.
The main problem with DRM in its application is that it is not immune to hacking. Although
DRM prevents users from copying files to spread, hackers have sidestepped DRM technologies
time and time again. For example, the copy protection technology that was once commonplace
on music CDs not only prevented users from burning the discs to their own personal hard drives,
but even from playing the discs on their computers or in their cars in many cases.
Many consumers were understandably angry over not being able to legitimately use materials
they had paid for without any prior warning of its limitations, and hackers quickly found their
way around the technologies – which in some cases was as simple as marking the “protected”
discs with a black Sharpie. In the end, only the law-abiding users were inconvenienced, and the
law-breakers still found a way to pirate material. And in the world of peer-to-peer file sharing,
all it takes is one single user cracking a DRM technology to spread the material to millions of
Although DRM shows no sign of disappearing since its introduction in the late 90s, it will never
be perfect or beyond controversy. In essence, it bears the same limitations of measures designed
to control the smuggling of guns, drugs or any other restricted material – only those who abide
by the law will be restricted, and outlaws will continue to defy it. As long as there is money to
be made in pirated intellectual property, tech companies and publishers will always be racing to
keep up with the pirates.