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section heading icon     overview

This note provides an introduction to Digital Rights Management (DRM) systems.

It covers -

Later pages in this note examine issues for rights owners, custodians, manufacturers and consumers. They highlight government, industry and academic studies. They discuss particular technologies in more detail and identify some major projects

subsection heading icon     orientation

DRM, sometimes characterised as Electronic Copyright Management Systems (ECMS) or Technological Protection Measures (TPM), are viewed by some as a means of enticing the information genie back within the copyright bottle, thereby preserving the publishing industry and underpinning growth of the 'information economy'. Others characterise them as assaults on fair use that are doomed to failure because of technological inadequacies or merely lack of support from hardware vendors.

DRM is a term that is often used loosely, whether because of confusion, ignorance or in advocacy statements. In principle it encompasses any scheme that is used to restrict or otherwise manage electronic content. That content might be audio recordings, video (broadcast, online, on disk), electronic books, digital still images or volatile data such as financial and other information that is updated in real time.

In essence DRM schemes embody two approaches for securing content -

  • containment - typically encrypting content so that it can only be accessed by authorized users
  • marking - inclusion of a 'flag', watermark or tag to signal to a device that the content/medium is 'copy protected'.

Restriction might be hardware- or software-based. It might seek to inhibit any copying of a work (including copying permitted under national fair dealing/fair use law). It might instead seek to crimp any unauthorised copying and transmission of a work, for example preventing transfer of a music recording from one device to another. Some schemes allow a user to view content but not to print it. Others seek to 'lock' the content if it copied or even viewed more than a few times, an issue of particular concern if the content resides on a device such as an iPod with a short life.

Many DRM schemes are vendor/publisher specific. A consumer might accordingly end up with several incompatible DRM implementations on a single personal computer (some potentially conflicting with each other) and find that particular content/devices only accommodate some DRM tools.

The more ambitious DRM schemes move beyond basic restrictions by seeking to associate a work with identifiers on a robust basis and to use that information for the collection and distribution of payments (eg from individual consumers and custodians such as libraries to publishers and even individual authors/performers).

Such schemes feature protocols and databases that automate existing licensing arrangements. Others - the holy grail of digital copyright - would integrate online payment systems with automated rights licensing and measures that both inhibit misuse of content distributed online and underpin enforcement action if misuse occurs.

subsection heading icon     problems and possible solutions

Many publications - including many films, multimedia works and sound recordings - consist of bundles of intellectual property, eg the various photographs and other illustrations in a book or multimedia CD or the bundle of music score and performance in a sound recording. 

Identifying who owns each item, gaining permission for its use and distributing fees or royalties is a daunting task.

The 'minimalist' ECMS do not attempt to provide technological protection for content being accessed online or distributed in media such as CD-ROMs. Instead, they are far less ambitious, aiming to link existing databases maintained by rights management bodies and to establish globally-accepted labels for identification of each bundle and the components of which it's formed. 

There is currently little uniformity between databases in different countries and between industries. Getting the various computers to talk to each other and encouraging the inclusion of pertinent information - particularly as metadata - in digital works (online, in CDs, in broadcasts) is proving to be a major challenge for administrative as well as technological reasons. 

The 'maximalist' ECMS projects, considered by Lessig and others as probably a defining feature of the next generation of the web, go well beyond those building blocks. They aim to permanently identify digital publications (using steganography and other tools noted in our Security guide) and to 'wrap' them with encryption or other measures to inhibit misuse such as unauthorised redistribution and incorporation in other publications. 

Some of the maximalist schemes would involve levels of restriction (eg view and copy, view and partially copy, view but not copy), with differential payments being made online in a secure environment. Some envisage access on a micropayment basis. 

Most would allow for seamless online licensing and rights trading (based on the links set up by minimalist projects), with royalties being automatically negotiated and distributed and would be backed up by spiders and other 'smart' tools for identifying unauthorised redistribution.

On a publication by publication basis administrative costs would be dramatically lower than at present. ECMS advocates claim there'd be greater transparency in what money's being collected when from whom. Use of the publications would be underpinned by contract law - emerging as an area of concern within the US and Australia with debate about initiatives such as UCITA - as well as intellectual property law.

subsection heading icon     challenges

Challenges to DRM begin with the terminology and extent outwards. Stanford's Peggy Radin for example sniffed in 2006

I wish people would drop the term "DRM". It was coined by those who wish to claim as "rights" some things which are not actually their rights, or are at best contested. In other words, the "R" in the term "DRM" begs an important legal question. I wish people would instead use the term "TPM" (Technological Protection Measures) because at least it is neutral on whether or not those who deploy them have a "right" to do what they're doing in locking up information. And TPM happens to be the term used in the WIPO treaties, too.

Consumers have complained that some protection measures are overly restrictive. Others comment that particular schemes involve a form of spyware, installed without the permission of the consumer, difficult to remove and increasing security vulnerabilities.

Some have complained about the lack of interoperability. French consumer association Union Federale des Consommateurs-Que Choisir for example launched legal action against Apple and Sony over their proprietary music formats, claiming that consumer choice is being severely limited by DRM mechanisms (similar to those used by Microsoft) that prevent music bought from the Apple and Sony online music shops from being played on other manufacturers' media players. It commented

The total absence of interoperability between DRM removes not only consumers' power to independently choose their purchase and where they buy it from but also constitutes a significant restraint on the free circulation of creative works

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version of February 2006
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