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 Is DRM a necessary evil in this digital age, or is the model it supports no longer valid?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.

what is drm content

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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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Comments (16)
  • Dallas Smith

    I love the pictures. This is great.

  • Brenden Barlow

    i do dislike games that are “always online”, but as someone who has pirated in the past, these were always the worst gaming experiences as far as cracks went. but most other drm is just annoying…..less as a pirate than as a consumer, ive found. i generally downloaded the no-cd crack for any game as soon as i purchased it as i installed it, so i wouldnt have to worry about it.

  • Guest

    tl;dr rant, not directed at the author but at the system. There has to be some way of ensuring people get paid for their work, although I don’t know: Piracy seems inevitable, as it is simply a fault of the medium as well as a consequence of our “gibsmedat” culture that expects everything for “free.” When it comes to earning money off something that can easily be given away for free, the economic model of digital is simply “defective by design.” To this article about games and music, I add: what about e-books? In theory, the cumbersome nature (and arguably, cost per page) of photocopying print books was a major discouragement for people to copy them. There do exist old anecdotes of college students Xeroxing page after page of expensive textbooks on reserve from the library, which itself only works out to a little less than the book itself (ex: at ten cents a page, a 400-page textbook retailing for $80 comes out to half that price when copied).

    Now, .pdfs and .epub documents are readily shared, sometimes without authorization (a word you can’t spell without “author”) on sites like Pirate Bay and Rapidshare. Even if the government did manage to kill off RS and TPB, e-books would still be relatively easy to distribute via e-mail, considering how they’re basically just document files. There’s no way the government would make e-mail illegal. Theoretically, people could sign up for an e-mail database to have books sent to them in their inbox. Growing attachment limits would mean that audiobooks might even be sent (i.e. through the Google Drive 10GB attachment system). And since the only “restricted” file formats in e-mail attachments are executables like .exe and .vbs, archive files like .zip, .rar and .7z (which are often password protected and names altered when dealing with pirate material) are still permissible, and the e-mail system doesn’t know whether a filename such as “J.G. Legal Reports.zip” is actually from a law firm or Grisham’s entire bibliography. “Wizards.rar” could be Harry Potter or details on software “wizards.” And so on.

    The thing that bothers me is how Amazon et. al. (especially Amazon) actually encourage this pricing model geared to compete with fast food items and merchandise at Family Dollar, especially for the so-called self-publish system that allows authors to give their books away free. Free! Apparently people are no longer of the mindset that “you get what you pay for,” because self-pubbing is more and more considered to be a first line of action for newbie authors regardless of the quality of their work. It’s more about marketing and “platform” than it is spending time honing your craft or finding help from someone who can work with you. Ultimately, it’s less about the product than it is about the packaging — the oft-forecasted demise of the big-name publishing industry has been blamed in part on the rise of celebrity “authors” such as the Kardashians and Britney Spears, many of whom, arguably, have never even READ a book. But since they carry a recognizable name, the backing goes to them rather than to an unknown newbie that Penguin House would be loathe to take a chance on — and swamped literary agents whose first line of action is usually no. Authors too are to blame, because there does still exist a chance that the book was rejected simply because it sucked — and self-publishing carries that name vanity for a reason: in many cases it amounts to pure ego from sensitive artist types who can’t bear the thought that someone, anyone, would dare to tell them they’re not a literary genius. “Fifty Shades of Gray” was only a success at $0.99 because, well, sex sells, and kinky sex is worth a million bucks.

    So in my opinion, there is an exorbitant cost of “free” and pirate-friendly when it comes to mass distribution of creative works (video games and music among them, along with e-books, movies and other forms of “art”). Earnings suffer and the quality too. People are delusional if they really think relationships and “social capital” are meaningful, tangible exchanges for creative material. What’s wrong with feeling justified in monetary compensation for one’s work? Pats on the back and positive comments don’t pay the bills for independent creators (such as self-published authors or independent music artists), not to mention employees of companies like Sony, who unfortunately will be unable in the future to derive a meaningful income from their endeavors (let alone get rich). Ironically, this whole pirate system has a decidedly anti-establishment attitude about sticking it to the man. How ironic that people will STILL have to suffer with worthless, soul-sucking day jobs and give up their creative dreams, thanks to the good-for-nothing Swedish meatballs who continue to steal their work for “free” and save their $0.99 for Mickey Dee’s instead! Gives a whole new meaning to “I Can Has Cheeseburger,” doesn’t it? :-(

  • Subhom Mitra

    Great article James; however, even if we buy direct from the author, the possibility of the media being illegally copied and distributed online is none the lesser than if we had bought it through a record company. Though I know that direct-from-source prices are quite lower than what it’d have been if it was being sold by a record label, but nonetheless, the issue of illegal copying remains, with or without DRM. If the author does employ DRM on his works, the cycle simply starts again. Any insights on this?

    • Muo TechGuy

      You’re right of course, buying direct from the author and DRM technically are unrelated. However, in practice we find that authors never DRM their own media when purchased direct, and that while piracy will always be an issue reagrdless of source, people are much more inclined to pay the author than the extortionate mark-up added by the copy-sellers.

  • Gary Mundy

    Some one needs to come up with a new business model. That some one would be a heck of a lot smarter than me. Richer too.

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Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.