Understanding digital rights management

Copyright registration of digital content has limited ability to protect creative works. Digital rights management (DRM) is a way to increase protection, but it's necessary to understand its benefits and limitations.

by Edward A. Haman, Esq.
updated May 11, 2023 ·  4min read

If you have or use copyrighted material that is stored or distributed in a digital format, you should be aware of digital rights management (DRM). Digital media poses new challenges to protecting copyrights, which DRM attempts to resolve.

Woman pressing futuristic glass touchscreen with many hexagons containing symbols with "DRM" written on screen

DRM that is used to protect proprietary and other business information is sometimes known as information rights management or enterprise rights management. Some critics of DRM call it digital restrictions management.

Copyrights and DRM

Traditionally, copyright registration offered the only protection for creative works, including written material, videos, and music. But copyright protection is also available for digital property rights, such as for e-books, games, website content and blogs, emails, and computer programs.

While copyright protection focuses on legal remedies that are available after someone has violated the copyright, DRM focuses on preventing someone from violating the copyright in the first place, as the ease with which copies can be made and distributed online has made copyright registration less effective. It is impossible to identify and sue every person who illegal copies digital files, so companies turn to DRM technology to make illegal copying difficult or impossible.

With or without DRM, it is still important to copyright digital media.

How DRM works

There are numerous approaches to DRM, and constant efforts to develop new methods. DRM frequently operates with computer code embedded in the digital content. Some of the more common forms operate in one of the following ways:

  • Limiting the number of times the content can be copied or printed
  • Limiting the number of devices on which the content may be installed
  • Limiting the time period for accessing the content, after which the content disappears
  • Limiting the types, brands, or number of devices on which the content can be displayed, printed, or played
  • Limiting access to the content to devices running certain programs or plug-ins
  • Causing distortion of the content if it is copied
  • Requiring an internet connection, which requires a key, password, or other type of authentication to make the content available
  • Altering or reducing the performance of the content if unauthorized use is suspected

DRM is often used for e-book content, music, and videos, as well as smartphones and their applications, cable television, and online video streaming. Some companies also use DRM to help protect confidential information, which may include programs that restrict the ability of employees to send emails from company computers.

Some DRM technologies spy on purchasers and report how, when, and by whom the content was accessed or used.

DRM drawbacks and limitations

As with any software, DRM technologies are subject to being bypassed. This can be done in a variety of ways, such as creating decryption keys, disabling DRM, deleting DRM code, or using a separate program or device to record the content as it is played. Such circumvention of DRM has been made a criminal offense by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and by similar laws in other countries. However, widespread circumvention continues.

DRM also leads to customer dissatisfaction. Copyright law allows the purchaser to make copies for personal use, which falls under the parameters of fair use. For example, although the purchaser of a music CD is legally allowed to make a backup copy, DRM may prevent such legal copying.

Consumer dissatisfaction and complaints are also generated by technical problems with some DRM systems. For example, with a game that uses a DRM system requiring authentication though an online server, an internet outage locks out the user. Also, many people may want to be able to play a game when internet access is not available.

DRM may also decrease the value of the item to the consumer. Not having DRM may actually increase the perceived value, and therefore increase sales and revenues, even if piracy also increases. The position of the distributor and the artist is that money is lost every time someone copies the material rather than purchasing it and paying a royalty fee. While this is true in many cases, there are also many people who would not make the purchase, even if they couldn't get it for free.

DRM can eventually make content obsolete, as it may not be accessible on new players or with updated versions of software. The content can also become unusable if the company that produced it goes out of business. For example, if Game-Idiot LLC produces games that are only playable with a connection to its website, and Game-Idiot LLC goes out of business, its games become unusable.

Such ineffectiveness and consumer dissatisfaction has led many companies to abandon DRM. For example, in 2009, Apple eliminated DRM from its iTunes music.

Because DRM can be difficult to set up and has limitations on it effectiveness, the first step in protecting digital rights is still copyright registration.

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Edward A. Haman, Esq.

About the Author

Edward A. Haman, Esq.

Edward A. Haman is a freelance writer, who is the author of numerous self-help legal books. He has practiced law in Hawa… Read more

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of the author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.