How DRM Copy Protection Affects Your Ability to Play Music and Movies

What you should know about Digital Rights Management

Beware of Digital Rights Management

Robert Silva

Digital Rights Management (DRM) refers to a variety of digital copy-protection formats. They dictate how music and video content can be accessed and distributed. The purpose of DRM is to protect the rights of music, TV, and movie creators. DRM encoding stops a user from copying and sharing a file so that musicians, film studios, TV networks, creators, and content owners don't lose revenue.

What Are DRM Files?

For digital media, DRM files are music or video files that have been encoded so that they will only play on the device onto which they were downloaded, or on to compatible devices that have been authorized. 

If you are looking through a media server folder but can't find a file in the music or movie menu of your network media player, it may be that it is a DRM file format. If you can find the file but it will not play on your media player, even though other files in the music library can play, it may also indicate a DRM or copyright-protected file. 

Online Stores

Music and video downloaded from online stores like iTunes may be DRM files. DRM files may be shared between compatible devices. iTunes DRM music can be played on an Apple TV, iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch that is authorized with the same iTunes account. 

Typically, computers and other devices must be authorized to play purchased DRM files by entering the original purchaser's username and password.

How Apple Changed Its DRM Policy

In 2009, Apple changed its music DRM policy and now offers all of its music without copy protection. However, songs that were purchased and downloaded from the iTunes store prior to 2009 are copy protected and may not be playable across all platforms.

However, those purchased songs are now available through iCloud. When these songs are downloaded again to a device, the new file is DRM-free. DRM-free songs can be played on any network media player or media streamer that can play the iTunes AAC music file format (.m4a)

Movies and TV shows purchased from the iTunes store are still copy-protected using Apple's FairPlay DRM. The downloaded movies and videos can be played on authorized Apple devices but cannot otherwise be streamed or shared. The DRM-protected files will either not be listed in their folders on the network media player's menu, or you will receive an error message if you try to play the file.

DRM, DVD, and Blu-Ray

DRM is not only limited to digital media files that you play on a network media player or streamer, but the concept is also present in DVD and Blu-ray media, courtesy of CSS (Content Scramble System) for DVD and Cinavia for Blu-ray.

Although these copy-protection schemes are used in association with commercial DVD and Blu-ray disc distribution, there is another copy-protection format, known as CPRM, that allows users to copy-protect home-recorded DVDs, if they choose to do so.

In all three cases, these DRM formats prevent unauthorized duplication of copyrighted or self-made video recordings.

Although CSS for DVD has been "cracked" several times over the years, and there has been some limited success in breaking the Cinava system, as soon as the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) gets verification of a hardware or software product that has the ability to defeat either system, legal action comes swift to remove the product from availability.

However, the one twist is that while CSS has been a part of DVD since its beginning in 1996, Cinavia has only been implemented in Blu-ray Disc players since about 2010, which means that if you own a Blu-ray Disc player made before that year, there is a possibility that it could play unauthorized Blu-ray Disc copies (although all Blu-ray Disc players employ CSS in association with DVD playback).

Digital Copy and the Movie Studio Solution to Piracy

In addition to legal enforcement, another way that Hollywood prevents the making of unauthorized copies of DVDs and Blu-ray Discs is to provide buyers with the ability to access a "digital copy" of the desired content via the cloud or download. This gives users the ability to watch their content on additional devices, such as a media streamer, PC, tablet, or smartphone without having to be tempted to make their own copy.

When you purchase a DVD or Blu-ray Disc, look on the packaging for a mention of services like UltraViolet (Vudu/Walmart), iTunes Digital Copy, or something similar. If a digital copy is included, you will be provided with information on how you can use your digital copy as well as a code (on paper or on a disc) that "unlocks" the digital copy of the content in question.

On the downside, although these services claim that the content is always there and always yours, they have final discretion with regards to access. They own the rights to the content, so ultimately they can decide how and when it can be accessed and distributed.

DRM: A Good Idea That Isn't Always Practical

On the surface, DRM is a good idea to help protect musicians, movie-makers, and other content creators from piracy—not to mention the threat of losing revenue from the distribution of stolen content. But as more media playing devices are created, consumers want to be able to turn on a media player at home, or a smartphone when traveling, and be able to enjoy the media they bought fair and square.