What Is Digital Rights Management? DRM Explained

Are the files on your computer really yours?

digital rights management
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Most people at least loosely understand that there are restrictions placed on how they can use many kinds of digital files. For instance, most people don't expect that they should be able to copy a movie off of a DVD or Blu-ray and then upload the movie to the Internet for free.

What people may not know, though, is how those kinds of unauthorized uses are prevented. There are many different technologies that are used to do this, but they all fall into the category of Digital Rights Management, also known as DRM.

Digital Rights Management Explained

Digital Rights Management is a technology that creates and enforces certain conditions about how some digital media files — such as music, movies, and books — can be used and shared.

The terms of the Digital Rights Management attached to a particular item are generally created by the owner of the piece of digital media (for instance, a record company determines the DRM attached to the music it makes available digitally). DRM is encoded into the file in an attempt to make it impossible to remove. The DRM then governs how the file behaves and how it can be used on end-users' computers.

DRM is frequently used to prevent things like the sharing of MP3s on file-trading networks 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. The digital audio files created in that instance would not carry DRM in them. 

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

When Apple introduced the iTunes Store to sell music to be used on the iPod (and later the iPhone and iPad), all music files sold there included DRM. The Digital Rights Management system used by Apple there allowed users to install and 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, crippling the file and making it unplayable if they cancel the subscription. This approach is used by Spotify, Apple Music, and similar services.

Perhaps understandably, 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.

While Apple used DRM for years at iTunes, on 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 some form of it is still present in the following types of files that can be downloaded or purchased on iTunes, including:

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

How DRM Works

Different DRM technologies use different approaches, but generally speaking, DRM works by embedding terms of use in a file and then providing a way to check that the item is being used in compliance with those terms.

To make this easier to understand, 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, in some areas, an extremely controversial technology, as some 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 disruptive 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.