What Is DRM? Digital Rights Management Explained

Are all of the files on your computer really yours?

Most people at least sort of understand that there are restrictions placed on how many kinds of digital files can be used. What people may not know, though, is how those unauthorized uses are prevented. There are many different technologies used to do this, but they all fall into the general category of DRM, Digital Rights Management.

What Is DRM? Digital Rights Management Explained

Digital Rights Management is a technology that creates and controls conditions about how digital media files like music, movies, and ebooks can be used and shared.

The specific Digital Rights Management rules that apply to a given file are created by the owner of that digital media. For example, a record company chooses the DRM applied to the music it offers digitally.

DRM is encoded into the file in an attempt to make it impossible to remove (though there are tools to remove a lot of DRM). The DRM then controls how the file can be used on end-users' computers. DRM frequently prevents things like sharing MP3s or to make sure that people buy the songs they download from the Internet.

Digital Rights Management is not present in all digital files. Generally speaking, it's only used in items purchased from online media stores or software developers. It's not used in scenarios in which a user created the digital file, such as ripping music from a CD. Digital audio files created from ripping do not have DRM in them. 

digital rights management
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How DRM is Used With the iPhone, iTunes, and Other Apple Devices

When Apple introduced the iTunes Store to sell music for the iPod (and later the iPhone and iPad), all music sold there included DRM. The Digital Rights Management system used by Apple allowed users to play songs bought from iTunes on up to five computers — a process referred to as authorizing. Installing and playing the song on more computers was (generally) not possible.

Some companies use more restrictive DRM, such as making downloaded songs play only while the customer subscribes to a certain music service. This cripples the file and makes it unplayable if the user cancels the subscription. This approach is used by Spotify, Apple Music, and similar services.

Digital Rights Management has rarely been popular with consumers and has only been widely supported by media companies and some artists. Consumer rights advocates have argued that users should outright own items they buy even if they're digital and that DRM prevents this.

Apple used DRM for years at iTunes. But in Jan. 2008, the company removed DRM from all songs sold at the store. DRM is no longer used to copy-protect songs purchased at the iTunes Store, but a form of it is still present in the following types of files offered through iTunes:

  • Audiobooks
  • iBooks
  • Video
  • Apps
  • Apple Music songs.

How DRM Works

Different DRM technologies work differently, but DRM generally works by embedding terms of use in a file and then providing a way to check that the item is being used in that way.

Let's use the example of digital music. An audio file might have DRM embedded in it that allows it to only be used by the person who bought it. When the song was purchased, that person's user account would be connected to the file. Then, when a user tries to play the song, a request would be sent to a DRM server to check to see whether that user account has the permission to play the song. If it does, the song would play. If not, the user would receive an error message and the song would not play.

One obvious downside of this approach is if the service that checks the DRM permissions isn't working for some reason. In the case, legitimately purchased content may be unavailable.

The Decline of Digital Rights Management

DRM is, for some people, an extremely controversial technology. These people argue that it takes away rights that consumers have in the physical world. Owners of media who employ DRM argue that it is necessary to ensure that they are paid for their property.

In the first decade or so of digital media, DRM was common and popular with media companies, especially after the popularity of services like Napster. Some tech-savvy users found ways to defeat many kinds of DRM and freely share digital files. The failure of many DRM schemes and pressure from consumer advocates led many media companies to change their approach to digital rights.

As of this writing, subscription services like Apple Music which offer unlimited music as long as you keep paying a monthly fee are among the most widely used services that still employ DRM. DRM is also used on things like Blu-ray discs.