Understanding Digital Rights Management

What is Digital Rights Management?

Digital rights management a.k.a DRM is a set of technology standards that enable the manufacturers of software applications, digital media to enforce access controls on their product(s), such as restriction on the usage, reproduction, modification, and distribution of the product.

Why is DRM tech used?



Software companies and digital media houses spend a huge chunk of their money and time in the research, development, and marketing of their products. However, in this age of technology and connectivity, it is not difficult for elements with illegitimate interests to produce and distribute unauthorized/pirated copies of the application/multimedia, which could otherwise, only be used through paying for it. The piracy results in a major revenue loss. There are several copyright protection laws (vary from country to country) that forbid such acts, but even they’ve failed to prevent piracy.

This is exactly where DRM comes into play. The various technologies that come under this category, establish mechanisms that make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to steal the product. It prevents unauthorized copying, distribution and the usage of the product, due to the access control it enforces.

What are the different types of DRM technologies used?

The various digital rights management technologies are as follows:

  • Limited Install Activations
    This tech restricts the number of users in whose systems, the software application/video game can be installed. This is done by requiring an online activation through the vendor’s server, after the installation of the product. For example, suppose an anti-virus software is a ‘3 user only’ product. This would mean that every time it is installed on a computer system, the user would have to activate it online. The user can only install the product in only 3 computers at the same time because the server would check the number of computers from where it was activated. This limits the number of users who can use it.
  • Persistent online authentication
    Persistent online authentication a.k.a always-on-DRM requires to user to remain connected to the online server in order to use the product. This is popular mostly with video games, which require the user to connect to the server to play, even when the user is playing in single-player mode. This, however, has a major disadvantage: the product becomes unusable when there’s a problem with the internet connection.
  • Software tampering
    Many vendors deliberately introduce dormant bugs into their applications and video games which would be activated whenever the product is suspected to be pirated. For example, the game would deliberately start crashing as soon as the computer is connected to the internet and the product covertly establishes a connection with the server. Microsoft Windows too, implemented this feature in Windows XP and Windows 7 that whenever the OS was found to be pirated, the desktop wallpaper would turn black and volume icon would be locked.
  • Product keys
    This has been, by far, the most common way of authenticating a product. While purchasing the application, the user would be provided with a product key which he/she would have to put while installing the application. It would later be checked by the server to find a match as every copy of the application has a different key. If a match is found, the product is not activated.
  • Enterprise digital rights management
    It’s a combination of identity and access management and encryption. The content is encrypted and coupled with the protection that allows different access and modification policies for different entities. The protection is independent of the device and access location. It is mainly used to secure documents such as MS Word docs, PDF, Autocad files etc.
  • Content Scrambling System
    It is an encryption system which is used in commercially produced multimedia discs to secure them from unauthorized copying and distribution. It uses a 40-bit stream cipher algorithm. It is, however, now been replaced with ‘Content Protection for Recordable Media’ and ‘ Content Protection for Record-able Media’ systems which use 56-bit and 128-bit encryption standard respectively, and are compatible with Blu-ray and HD-DVDs.
  • DRM In Streaming Services: Streaming services like Netflix, Comcast, Amazon prime etc use products such as Microsoft PlayReady, XInfinity etc, which are media file copy prevention technologies which include the concept of domain(group of devices belonging to the same user which can share the same licenses), embedded license (the licenses embedded with the contents of file0 etc. They’re mostly portable and platform independent.
  • What are the shortcomings of DRM technologies?

    The shortcomings of DRM technologies are as follows:

    1. Internet Connectivity Issues: Many DRM-enabled products require online authentication. However, when there’s a problem with the server or the Internet, there are problems with using the product.
    2. Bypass Methods for Audio and Video Content: The process called ‘ripping’ extracts audio and video files from DRM protected files, and puts them into DRM-free files. Thereby, the whole thing of protecting copyright fails here.
    3. Short product life for paying users: Mostly non-transferable to other technologies, platforms, and some are even gone forever after basic operating system updates, therefore leading to the product becoming unusable.
    4. Watermark Removal: Watermarks can easily be removed through third party software.
    5. Purpose Built Hardware: Often the protected content requires a specially built hardware to decrypt and show the content to the user, which is done in order to protect the decryption key. However, the system is prone to failure.
    6. Reference:
      Digital rights management: Wikipedia



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