What Is DRM & Why Does It Exist If It’s So Evil? [MakeUseOf Explains]

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what is drmDigital Rights Management is the latest evolution of copy protection. It’s the biggest cause of user frustration today, but is it justified? Is DRM a necessary evil in this digital age, or is the model it supports no longer valid? Join me, as I explain all about DRM, why it’s needed, and why it just doesn’t work.

DRM was introduced to stop piracy by preventing unauthorised copying. This isn’t really a new thing; games of yesteryear often included a check to ensure you owned the physical game manual by asking you to type in the first word found on page X, paragragh Y – the result of which meant typical home computer enthusiasts had reams of photocopied manuals for their “borrowed” games. DVDs had encryption designed into them from the start; but it took very little time for the encryption to be cracked and DVD “ripping” to become a trivial task.

Digital Rights Management – or DRM for short – was the evolution of these copy protection systems; an attempt to tie a single purchase to a single person, with a form of access control. Access which could not be transferred to anyone else. Suddenly we all needed user accounts, and to authenticate our purchases before being able to access them. Thanks for spending $60 on this game; now please activate it and stay connected to the Internet whilst playing.

what is drm

DRM takes many forms in varying degrees of intrusiveness. In the gaming world, some games require persistent online authentication – in other words, to be permanently connected to the Internet. If your Internet is not available – either due to temporary error, or because you’re travelling and have no access – you cannot play the game you paid for. The same is true if the DRM server has a fault – as was the case on launch day of Diablo 3 earlier this year, leaving millions of players unable to even play single player campaigns that by rights shouldn’t need online access at all.

Some software products and games require a one-off online authentication, often with a unique code. Some have DRM built into the disc, but are otherwise invisible to the user with no installation limits and no activation requirements. The apps you purchase on iTunes have DRM that ties them to your iTunes user account, but not to any single device; iTunes music is now completely DRM-free. Amazon Kindle eBooks have DRM, but interfaces are provided for a variety of platforms. My point is – it’s a confusing situation for everyone.

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what is drm content

Is DRM Justified?

Proponents of DRM argue that it ensures continued revenue streams for rights holders in a digital age, and this is an argument that I believe has some merit. Copying has over time become far easier, to an almost laughable point today where two clicks in your browser could bag you the latest album (often ahead of it’s official release).

First came LP records (those big flat black disks for those of you young enough to have no idea what I’m referring to), which couldn’t realistically be copied at home so piracy was rare (though not impossible). Then came the age of the cassette tapes, heralding a new era of being able to actually copy from one tape to another – but the analogue nature of the medium meant the quality would degrade somewhat. If you wanted the best quality, you needed to buy a new one – the same album could potentially be resold forever, ensuring a lifetime of revenue for the rights holders.

what is drm content

Once data was stored digitally, this model began to fail fast; a perfect copy of a CD could be made, because the data is stored digitally. Now in the age of the Internet, making a perfect copy and simultaneously distributing it to millions of users worldwide is beyond trivial. DRM therefore, is needed as technology opens up the possibilities of widespread distribution of perfect digital copies of media.

But does it work? Nope.

Why DRM Doesn’t Work

Firstly, we need to establish that any form of DRM can be cracked eventually; given which DRM simply fails to prevent people from pirating media. Anyone who really wants a copy will download a DRM free version of the files instead, from torrents or otherwise. Users who pirate their media have never had a problem with DRM – it’s legitimate consumers who purchase their media that have problems.

what is drm content

Only the lightest, casual forms of piracy are prevented with DRM – making a mix CD for your sweetheart, or emailing a friend an MP3 from a new band they absolutely must hear. These things used to be a subversive tradition of youth – the only way to spread the word about your favourite band in the days when Spotify didn’t exist and radio played the same thing (actually, it still does). Now they’re criminalised.

So we’ve established that DRM doesn’t prevent piracy – but worse still – it frustrates legitimate consumers. They find their media needs special software to be installed to allow access; an always-on Internet connection so it can dial home and check if your purchase is valid; or that it’s limited to a single device and rendered permanently useless once that device breaks, or the DRM service goes down. If the perfect DRM was invented that couldn’t be hacked, you can be certain it would be the most frustrating and restrictive technology ever.

Furthermore, DRM prevents many legitimate uses of media – such as a public library lending a book, or being able to use materials from a piece for research and education (which are classified as fair use, and therefore legal).

Should We Care?

Many organisations exist today because they’ve made a business model of selling a copy of something; therefore anything which enables a home user to copy it themselves is entirely disruptive to that organisation. If we find the idea that copying something is an acceptable business model, then obviously DRM is needed to protect such a model – there really is no other alternative. However, let’s toy with the idea that simply producing a copy of something, without adding value and essentially profiting from the work of others, is not such a great business model that’s worthy of protection. Perhaps instead, it would be wise to abandon such models, and develop new models which reward the original content producer as best as we can instead, as well as opening the playing field for a greater diversity of creative talent that might otherwise have been ignored.

This is the model favoured by an increasing number of artists who are fed up with the piddling amounts of royalities paid to them by companies who just copy their work and sell it. Many artists would rather sell directly to the consumer, getting their work out to as many people as possible.

Thankfully, this new model appears to be working. Louis CK is one such example, a comedian that abandoned his publisher and instead chose to distribute his tour digitally, direct to fans; for a fraction of the price a publisher would charge consumers to put it on a DRM-restricted DVD – and yet, he made far more from the model than a deal with a publisher would have ever given him.

Perhaps his success came from the fact he was famous to begin with, but as the rise of Kickstarter would suggest, you don’t need to be famous already to have your artistic talents supported. As a crowd funding mechanism, Kickstarter allows all kinds of artists to bypass the publishers – in this case often before their work has even been made – and gain support directly from philanthropic fans. In fact, I’ve spent far more on Kickstarter projects in the last year than I have on DVDs or CDs for the past 10.

what is drm

The world is changing. The old business model of selling copies of data is no longer viable, despite the efforts of DRM technologies to maintain the status quo. Success will come to those artists who realise this, embracing the digital age and new distribution methods and funding models; whilst consumers tied to the old ways and the DRM will feel nothing but constant frustration.

So I call to you – the consumer – to vote with your pockets. Would you rather support the artists directly through new funding mediums, and be able to choose how to consume your purchased media on any device you wish and in any form? Or would you like to support the aging business model of copying data, along with the restriction of DRM that it innately warrants in a digital age?

Image credits: Mixtape via Shutterstock, Copy Protection via Shutterstock, iTunes DRM via DefectiveByDesign.org

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