DRM: Here Today, (Hopefully) Gone Tomorrow?

By Scott Nesbitt - Sunday, July 19, 2009

pullquoteIt's your birthday. Someone gives you a DVD of your favorite movie. In anticipation of a long train ride you're going to be taking soon, you decide to make a copy of the DVD that you can download to your MP4 digital media player.

You pop the DVD in your desktop computer and try to rip it. But it doesn't work. The DVD plays on your DVD player and on your computer.

Welcome to the world of DRM, one of the most contentious issues in the digital world today. Say you don't know what DRM is? Read on.

What is DRM?

DRM is short for Digital Rights Management (although some say it means Digital Restrictions Management). It's a set of technologies that's restricts how you can use digital content like music, video, and software. DRM is designed to stop or limit you from copying, converting, or accessing digital media.

DRM can block you from viewing something like an ebook on a device other than your ebook reader. It can stop you from ripping a CD or converting an audio file from one format to another. Or, it can prevent you from installing software (like games) on multiple computers.

cdLockHow it works is fairly simple. DRM applies encryption, in the form of a digital signature, to a file or a piece of software. The signature is like a unique stamp, telling the hardware or operating system software that whether or not it's OK for them to play together.

If the device or operating system on your desktop computer or laptop computer doesn't mesh with the digital signature of the file, then the file will be useless to you or you won't be able to install the software. Often, DRM is tied to one piece of hardware. If, for example, you have an MP3 file with DRM applied to it, that file might only play on one computer or MP3 player.

There are, and have been, a number of DRM schemes. Some of the more widely-used ones are Windows Media DRM and Apple's FairPlay. You can read more about some of the better-known DRM schemes here.

Examples of DRM

As mentioned a few paragraphs ago, DRM can be applied to any digital file. Like what? How about an electronic book. Most ebook readers and reader software for computers have a unique ID. Some ebook sellers require you to register the IDs of those devices when you buy an ebook. A digital signature is applied to the ebook before you download it, and you can only read the ebook on those devices.

With digital television, many transmissions have a form of DRM called a broadcast flag applied to them. The broadcast flag indicates whether or not you can record the digital transmission and, if you can, what restrictions there are on recording it.

Microsoft Office (2003 and later) allows business users to apply DRM to word processor and spreadsheet files. If the business is running Microsoft Windows Server 2003, all that Office users need to do is click a toolbar icon to restrict permissions on a file. If anyone wants to read the file, they'll need to get the author's permission and get an add-on for Internet Explorer.

Why use DRM?

Napster logoThe folks who advocate DRM, like record companies and publishers, do so to enforce copyright and to protect their revenue. I'm sure that everyone remembers Napster. It was a file sharing service, one that really opened a huge can of worms as far as DRM and copyright went by allowing people to share digital music over the Internet.

The musicians and, especially, the record companies complained that they weren't getting royalties for this. It wasn't a new problem, just a new twist on an old one. Instead of people trading cassette tapes and burned CDs with family and friends, file sharing services like Napster enabled them to exchange huge numbers of files with strangers from around the world.

It's a matter of trust

The content providers that advocate and use DRM technologies will tell you that they're protecting their interests. They argue that every book, movie, or MP3 that's copied is one less book, movie, or MP3 that they can sell.

DRM restrictions, though, treat consumers like potential thieves. That's not a healthy relationship, and overlooks the value of viral marketing. Case in point: last year, a friend passed me a couple of MP3 files by a musician named Zoe Keating. I loaded the MP3s on my media player, and listened to the music while commuting. I was so impressed that I went out and bought another of Keating's albums. If the MP3 files that my friend passed my way had DRM applied to them, then I might not have ever heard Zoe Keating or bought one of her discs.

A number of writers and other artists are against DRM. One of the most vocal opponents of DRM is author and blogger Cory Doctorow.Whenever one of Doctorow's books is published, he makes it available for download (for free) from his Web site. All with the permission of his publisher. While some people mock Doctorow for doing this, he claims that doing this actually increases the sales of his books.

batmanAnother proponent of a world without DRM is author and comic writer Neil Gaiman. He's all for people sharing electronic copies of his work. Why? Gaiman likens it to people lending their friends a book or a CD. It exposes those friends to a new artist, and often spurs them to buy another of the artist's work.

Even a once staunch supporter of DRM, the band Metallica, has begun to change its tune (so to speak). In 2008, the band made DRM-free music available on its Web site.

Dealing with DRM

That's definitely a contentious issue. Much like DRM itself. Many consumers don't care whether their music or movies or software has DRM applied to it. As long as they can watch, listen, and use everything is fine.

That said, there's a growing anti-DRM movement. More and more people are speaking out against DRM, and working against it with their wallets.

So, what are your options? You can accept DRM. Or, you can choose to not buy movies, music, and software that has DRM applied to it. Both the Apple iTunes Store and Amazon.com offer DRM-free downloads of thousands of songs. (Amazon, though, is bi-polar in this regard: ebooks for the Kindle are locked down with a form of DRM.). Or, you can turn off formats that support DRM altogether, and go with Open Source formats like Ogg Theora and Ogg Vorbis.

Summing up

DRM is definitely a contentious subject. At the heart of the arguments for and against DRM is the issue of rights. The rights of the people producing and marketing content, and the rights of the consumers of that content. It's going to be a long time before both sides can find an acceptable middle ground, assuming there is one.