Technology Explained Web Culture

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

James Bruce 28-11-2012

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 Is DRM a necessary evil in this digital age, or is the model it supports no longer valid?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

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

Explore more about: Copyright, Digital Rights Management, Software Piracy.

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  1. supergirl
    October 23, 2017 at 4:19 am

    dont forget that thru-out history entertainers were poor & poorly regarded.
    Only since Capitalism & non copy media {LP records etc}.

    While Farmers & IMPORTANT people/contributors were driven to the poor house.

    The days that the entertainment industry can get greedy......are over

    no more multi-millionaire rockstars, actors & media conglomerates.
    Tech has made it unworkable.
    I say good riddance....

  2. Ego sum Singularitas
    September 28, 2017 at 2:45 pm

    Wu-Tang Clan sold an album to a private collector for about $2 million. Buying directly from the source, with no bounds to the product, sounds fine. I have been struck by not being able to use products after 5 out of 5 installations were used (same computer was re-imaged, new operating system installed, etc., making the drives clean for new installs) although I never bought "x"amount of installations in a CD mind you, I bought a product that was being taken from me for the explained. Fear should propel those making the money (singers, actors, performers) to spend on securities, new securities or means in which their customer is not scrutinized and abused for wanting their product.

  3. Paok
    July 18, 2017 at 9:09 pm

    Bolches yarboclos pa todos.

  4. Carey Daly
    April 2, 2017 at 12:16 am

    I write children's books and publish them through the usual suspects (Amazon, B&N, Kobo, etc)
    The usual suspects tout their DRM and when a sale takes place, they make the lion's share of the selling price, while the author gets pennies on the dollar. My books may be bootlegged and sent to friends and family of the buyer. I DON'T CARE. I now sell DRM Free books and make more.

  5. andrés
    August 8, 2016 at 8:05 am

    i buy indie games and pirate big companies games

  6. Dallas Smith
    December 21, 2012 at 11:04 pm

    I love the pictures. This is great.

  7. Brenden Barlow
    December 15, 2012 at 6:41 pm

    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.

  8. Guest
    December 14, 2012 at 4:29 am

    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" 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? :-(

    • Ego sum Singularitas
      September 28, 2017 at 3:08 pm

      Your notes on self-publishing seem...harsh. Not everyone plays baseball because they wish to become Babe Ruth, Darryl Strawberry, or others. Some play because they have fun doing so. In that regard, they may invite others to come and enjoy a good ole'fashion baseball game while perhaps having hot dogs every inning; when friends come out of the stand to laugh about the plays made. Others enjoy pushing their children to hate the sport(s) by yelling, hitting, and putting up too high expectations. The same is true for your book and self publishing view. It seems we are all different and don't all need to like the same thing, especially be judged for it.
      The main topic however, discussed the abuse done to the person by factors intrinsically embedded into products, be it books, music, or other which are quite frankly as the expression goes "a necessary evil". I do agree with the article, and not with you, in that the person most impacted is the person who purchases the product, not the person who steals the product. You however are of a different opinion. I'm afraid that great as the past was, we are alive in the present where we attempt to do our part to save the rainforest by not making copies of 400 page books and instead, asking someone else to lend/send us the PDF or download link.
      A lot of publications attempt new ways to deal with the issue of piracy. Allowing the reader to keep copies of their product in their account, share that purchased product with family members, and etc. I feel lucky to be exposed to a lot of this, not being grossly a post of the problem myself.
      I expect books, games, music, architectural designs, bank account numbers, social securities, and etc., all things online to have a security to go alongside then, but I am aware of their corruptability.

  9. Subhom Mitra
    November 29, 2012 at 5:30 pm

    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
      December 1, 2012 at 8:36 am

      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.

  10. Gary Mundy
    November 29, 2012 at 7:38 am

    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.

  11. Matjaz Mirt
    November 29, 2012 at 6:51 am

    Good points. This specially:
    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.

    So true.

  12. Tyler Da Silva
    November 29, 2012 at 4:55 am

    DRM should protect artists from their work being stolen by other artists. I can understand wanting to stop piracy, but as you pointed out most DRM just hurts the legitimate consumers.

    The only DRM I have ever supported is the one included in Batman: Arkham Asylum. Instead of preventing play, it just implements a bug that makes the game unbeatable at sometime around the fourth mission. Almost like the developers are saying "We won't let you pirate the game, but since you're so interested, we'll let you play the first 30 minutes or so."

    • Ego sum Singularitas
      September 28, 2017 at 3:18 pm

      I love this idea.
      In recent, a highly like game found that their users are exploiting an area in the game to make more money than they ever could elsewhere. Their solution was not to remove it, rather to implement a system that stopped the exploit in its tracks. What was it? Kill cow, sell hide, make money, and repeat. Cow would have spawned upon return. Exploit recognized by the system, when you kill the first cow next time the King comes and kills you; it being incredibly powerful.
      Books? Make font instead of 12, 1. CD/Blu Ray? Make tracks repeat the last 5 seconds of sound.
      Coffee can be written into most things today!

  13. Astro
    November 29, 2012 at 3:21 am

    nice article, past concepts definitely need an update.

  14. Jagbir Sembhi
    November 29, 2012 at 1:17 am

    nicely explined

  15. Mac Witty
    November 28, 2012 at 10:33 pm

    As you put the question there is just one answer! ;)
    But even so I do think it is up to me how I want to consume things and if the seller don't let me well then I do not buy!

  16. Axel
    November 28, 2012 at 8:33 pm

    I think the problem is that the current business model has been around for so long that those currently in control are going to absurd lengths to try and keep the current model alive (even if it's already doomed to fail).
    That the current drm systems are already breaking the line between 'preventing' copying and to actively causing problems to legit buyers certainly doesn't help to prevent their downfall.

    This was an issue even back when dvd's started to get copied/ripped, why choose to buy a dvd that for example forces you to view commercials before watching it.
    Or buying one that somehow is unable to get played on your specific device due to a overprotective drm (which somehow decided that your dvd player wasn't allowed to play this file).

    The entire thing about forcing online play/usage is also a pain but I would say this is a much smaller problem then the issue where a pirated version actually gives you a better experience then if you had actually bought it. (crash issues/driver issues/sometimes your bought copy doesn't work, drm that's incompatible with your dvd reader just to mention a few).

    I've personally bought games, that after trying to get the bought version to work have simply downloaded a cracked copy and then finding that the cracked version actually worked much better then the one I bought.
    This is mainly towards software though.

    For music my main issue is that the cost of a cd online actually costs the same as a cd in a store, where at the online cd require's 0 cost in terms of production / transport / store cost and so forth.
    The problem is of course also that 95% or so of online music that you buy also is drm protected which often prevents you from listening to the music on one or more of your own devices unless they all share the same os / distributing software.
    This is again where the issue of a overprotecting drm actually making the bought copy a worse experience then a downloaded pirated one.

  17. Kevin Maeda
    November 28, 2012 at 8:23 pm

    James, thank you for this interesting article.
    One thing I don't quite understand though:
    Diablo 3, for example, still hasn't been cracked and surely, as annoying as its infamous DRM policy has been so far, it made people buy the game instead of waiting for what is bound to be a clumsy pirated version whenever one comes out. So are you quite sure that DRM doesn't work ? Isn't the main point of it to create a strong enough barrier that will get the customer to question him/herself about how much he/she really wants this product and ... maybe it's time to pay for this special one ?

    • James Bruce
      November 28, 2012 at 8:27 pm
      • Kevin Maeda
        November 28, 2012 at 8:47 pm

        And as of today, it's still riddled with glitches.

    • Axel
      November 28, 2012 at 8:40 pm

      The problem with diablo 3 as with many 'online only' games is that when there are server issues / internet connected problems it completely prevents people from playing at all.
      The entire issue with error 37 for example was such a big turnoff that I know a lot of people just gave up and tried to return the game to the store.
      So sure they might have made all those people buy the game instead of pirating them but the thing about this is that most of those people would have bought the game anyway because no cracked games (practically none anyway) are playable online.
      And the negative exposure they got from the entire release debacle turned away a lot of the buyers after those early reviews came out (those early reviews that gave them a 3/10 average, if for no other reason that no one was actually able to play the first week)