What is DRM and how does it impact you?

DK Media Blog: What is DRM ?

DRM (Digital Rights Management) has always been a point of contention amongst the tech-savvy, but is also a headache for the typical end-user, even if they have never heard the term DRM before. From wikipedia, we can define DRM as:”a class of access control technologies that are used by hardware manufacturers, publishers, copyright holders and individuals with the intent to limit the use of digital content and devices after sale.” Ouch, this does sound a tad Draconian, doesn’t it?

DRM is a form of copy-protection by content owners. It stops you from sharing your media with everyone out there, usually by tying it to an account, limiting the number of uses, requiring specific software to be installed, etc. While this is a big plus for risk-adverse content owners to move to digital, it can cause some consumer headaches. DRM is used for a number of reasons, and it probably impacts you right now even though you may not think about it.

Basically, DRM is meant to prevent the widespread piracy of digital goods. Sony’s PSN Videos may be seen as a extreme form of DRM – one download, licensed only for the device you purchased it on. Did your hard drive break or did you do a backup? Time to beg Sony for a “one-time exception” to that content that you thought you purchased. Torrents may be seen as the extreme anti-thesis – a peer-to-peer network, with no central servers, where users are free to share whatever they want. Obviously, this does open the door to piracy, but surely there must be something in between legitimate purchases and full blown piracy?

The Good

There are some great examples of DRM out there which I feel really favour the consumer. I will be dedicating a post to these examples soon, but I’d like to mention ComiXology.com here. It is a great service for reading digital comics on PCs, tablets and smartphones, and I have never felt restricted by their DRM. Rather, I feel it makes it convenient to have my favourite comics living in the cloud.

The Bad

If implemented poorly, DRM can be incredibly harmful to the end-user experience. I often find it limiting, and feel that it can easily detract from the value of the product. I recently purchased The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 and as usual got the free digital copy. The same digital copy that I have never used. Why? First, I need to run it on Windows or Mac. So much for my 6 Linux PCs or my 5 Android devices. Second, I have to login and connect a device and do a bunch of other stuff? Why not just put a digital copy on the disc and use a single login (i.e. facebook or something similar) and hope that I don’t turn around and sell it on a street corner? I can’t even give these away to friends, and if I tried selling them I’m sure someone like these guys would not be pleased.

The Ugly

I would like to throw a radical concept out there: your customers don’t like being treated like criminals! And even scarier then that, many of your customers are probably not criminals! Mind blowing, huh? And even more radical: people want to actually OWN something that they buy. They don’t want a revocable license, they don’t want a generous license, they want what they were promised! To BUY something.

Confused? Basically, with just about any digital purchase (and many physical ones), you are merely buying a license to use something as long as the content holder sees fit. If their service goes under, or if they decide that you are using your purchases inappropriately, then kiss your license goodbye. Think this only applies to media? According to Sony, you can’t really own a PS3, because they only want you to use it how they say you can use it. Extreme (although highly hypothetical and probably not valid) legal theories even propose that content owners could take physical media away from you if they so chose. Second-hand sales in the gaming industry will likely become restricted in the near future, and don’t even think about selling your digital media.

Does this sound ridiculous? Ridiculous is the fact that these restrictive licensing schemes have been in use for OVER A CENTURY.


While it’s far too easy to focus on the negatives of DRM (and I am certainly guilty of that here) my next post will focus on some real shining examples. When done right, DRM really brings out the benefits and value of digital media, and I hope to share it soon.

Rodolfo Martinez

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