What Is DRM?

Everything you need to know about Digital Rights Management

There are probably lots of files on your computer and devices you can't control. From music to ebooks and more, these files are controlled by DRM. Short for Digital Rights Management, DRM is a technology that lets the companies that provide these files control how you use them. While this is a restriction, it also has some benefits.

digital rights management
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What Is DRM? Digital Rights Management Explained

DRM, or Digital Rights Management, control how you can use certain files. DRM is usually applied to media—music, movies, ebooks—as well as software. It's designed to stop piracy and ensure the companies that own the files are paid for them.

It's easiest to understand DRM by thinking about digital music. If a song doesn't have DRM, anyone could share the song with anyone else, for free, and the music company wouldn't be paid for it. With DRM, only the user who bought the song can listen to it, which prevents other users from listening unless they pay, too.

Not every digital file uses Digital Rights Management. Usually, only items bought from online media stores or software developers have DRM in them. Digital audio and video files you create, like music ripped from a CD, don't have DRM. 

How DRM Works

There are many different DRM technologies, which work in slightly different ways. The basic idea of DRM, though, is that it's embedded into a file. Then, when a user attempts to use that file, the DRM system checks to make sure that user is authorized.

For example, when you buy a song from a digital music store, the store's DRM connects the file you download to your account. The DRM authorizes you to play the song on devices you own. The next time someone tries to play that song, the music player software checks the DRM to see which user account can play the song. If the account has permission, the song plays. If it doesn't, an error message displays and the song doesn't play.

There are third-party software tools to remove some DRM from files. This doesn't always work, and you shouldn't engage in piracy, but the tools exist if you need them.

One obvious downside of DRM is if the software that checks who can and can't use a file stops working. In that case, you could run into problems with media you own and should be able to use.

One smart way to use DRM to protect files while still allowing for some sharing is Apple's Family Sharing. This lets members of the same family all share media purchased from Apple stores.

How Apple Uses DRM

All of the music sold in the iTunes Store originally had DRM controlling it. That was because music companies would only let Apple sell their music if it tried to stop unauthorized sharing.

Apple's Digital Rights Management let users play songs bought from iTunes on up to five computers. Setting up a computer to play these songs was done in a process called authorization.

While Apple used DRM for years, the company removed all DRM from iTunes songs in January 2008. A type of DRM still controls how the following kinds of media sold at iTunes are used:

Other Common Kinds of DRM

The most common way people encounter DRM is in streaming music. DRM ensures you can only listen to songs while your streaming music subscription is valid. Spotify, Apple Music, and similar services use this approach. This DRM makes songs unplayable if you cancel your subscription, even if you've downloaded them to your device.

DRM is also often used with software. When you buy software, it may be licensed only to you, for use on one device. If you try to install it on a second, it won't work unless you buy a second license.

The End of DRM?

Digital Rights Management is supported by media companies and some artists, but has never been popular with consumers. Consumer rights advocates have argued that users should outright own items they buy even if they're digital and that DRM prevents this.

In the early days of the internet and digital media, piracy and services like Napster drove the use of DRM. Some tech-savvy users still found ways to defeat many kinds of DRM and freely share files. Ultimately, a growing comfort with digital media and the failure of some DRM systems led to less invasive DRM and a decreased use of the technology.