Apple's FairPlay DRM: All You Need to Know

FairPlay is still used in the iTunes Store, but what exactly is it?

FairPlay DRM
Is it still used for iTunes songs?. Filo / iStock Vectors / Getty Images

It's a copy protection system used by Apple for some types of content on the iTunes Store. It's also built into the company's hardware products such as the iPhone, iPad, and iPod. FairPlay is a digital rights management (DRM) system which is designed to stop people from making copies of files that have been downloaded from Apple's online store.

The whole purpose of FairPlay is that it prevents the illegal sharing of copyrighted material. However, Apple's copy protection system can also be a real pain for users who have legally purchased content and can't easily make backups for their own use.

Is it Still Used For Digital Music?

Since 2009, FairPlay is no longer used to copy-protect purchased songs and albums. The iTunes Plus format is now used for digital music downloads. This audio standard provides DRM-free music that has much better sound quality than before. In fact, it has twice the resolution -- a bitrate of 256 Kbps rather than the 128 Kbps for DRM protected songs.

However, even with this DRM-free standard, it is known that a digital watermark is embedded into downloaded songs. Information like your email address is still used to help identify the original purchaser.

What Content is DRM Protected?

FairPlay DRM is still used to copy protect some digital media products on the iTunes Store. This includes:

  • Movies
  • TV shows
  • ebooks
  • Apps.

How Does This Copy Protection Work?

FairPlay uses asymmetric encryption which basically means that key pairs are used -- this is a combination of a master and user key. When you buy copy protected content from the iTunes Store, a 'user key' is generated. This is needed to decrypt a 'master key' inside your downloaded file.

As well as the user key being stored on Apple's servers, it is also pushed down to the iTunes software -- QuickTime has FairPlay built-in and is used to play DRM'd files.  

When the master key is unlocked by the user key it is then possible to play the protected file -- this is an MP4 container that has an encrypted AAC stream inside it. When you transfer FairPlay encrypted content to your iPhone, iPod, or iPad, the user keys are also synced in order for the decryption process to successfully complete on the device.

What Methods Can Be Used to Remove DRM From Songs?

There are several ways you can do this which includes:

  • Subscribing to iTunes Match The iTunes Match service converts any copy protected iTunes songs you have in your library to DRM-free ones. You first have to delete them from your computer's library and then download iTunes Plus versions from iCloud -- this also results in your songs being upgraded to a higher resolution (from a bitrate of 128 Kbps to 256 Kbps).
  • DRM Removal Software You can purchase specialized software programs that record the output of your soundcard in order to create DRM-free versions of songs. This technique takes advantage of the Analog Hole which doesn't directly hack the original files.
  • Burn Protected Songs to Audio CD By using the iTunes software it's possible to burn copy-protected songs to a standard audio CD. You can then rip the tracks back into your iTunes library as DRM-free audio files. This can be a slow process if you have lots of FairPlay encrypted songs but is still a good solution that doesn't require any third-party software.
  • DRM Hacking Software These are applications that directly strip out the encryption from a file.

The law regarding DRM removal is by no means clear. However, as long as you respect copyright and don't distribute the content you have purchased, then this usually falls under 'fair use'.