Digital Rights Management and Society


DRM is an issue which has attracted much attention in recent years. The abbreviation DRM stands for Digital Rights Management, a euphemism for a mechanism that places technical restrictions on distributed content that may control its use or distribution. This has led some to label DRM as Digital Restrictions Management instead [F2006].

The Motivation for DRM

The very point of copyright law was to provide a way to compensate creators for their intellectual creations. In short, copyright grants the creator a significant amount of control over how his creations are used and distributed.

Recent developments have made the enforcement of copyright law extremely difficult. In practice, copyright holders are often compensated by royalties, a small charge for creating or distributing copies of the work. Until recently, infringement was a civil matter and so it was the responsibility of the copyright owners to find and bring copyright violators to the court.

Traditionally, creating copies has been an expensive job. Because of this, it has been left to a small number of large publishers who had the resources to buy the necessary equipment. Since these copies were created in centralized locations, enforcement of copyright was straightforward.

The introduction of electronics and electronic data brought about an crucial change: copies could be created at no cost. The importance of this change should not be overlooked. On one hand, the rather powerful publishing industry stood to be completely obliterated. One the other hand, individuals could now create and distribute large numbers of copies on their own; and on a practical level, it was very difficult to enforce royalties.

To answer these threats, publishers used two responses. First, they produced advertisements to convince people that making free copies of software was illegal. Second, they introduced technical limitations in the software to make it difficult to copy. These were the first implementations of DRM; and while the details of modern DRM systems are rather different. The idea is still the same.

How DRM works

The whole idea of putting roadblocks into software to make it impossible to use sometimes is counter-intuitive. In the same way, these restriction mechanisms are ofter quite obtuse and are generally not technically sound.

Early attempts where rather interesting. They were widespread, and are generally known to any old gamers. One common trick was to ask a question about what word appeared at a particular place on a particular line on a particular page in the user’s manual. This was rather annoying, especially if the user lost their manual. Eventually, users started photocopying manuals and other methods had to be sought.

Another common tactic was to require certain media to be in the computer at startup. Usually this ended up being a CD. The success of this tactic was short lived as CDs could be easily copied. Even without CD burners, the contents of the CD could be copied to the hard drive, stored in an “ISO image”1 and mounted as a CD drive. Moreover, these sort of checks were trivial to bypass by modifying the executable and adding the right JMP instruction in the right place, the modified executable is called a “no-CD crack”.

Yet another mechanism is to prompt for a serial key (which is usually shipped with the packaging of the software. Still this is (at least theoretically) trivial to bypass, since the information of what constitutes a valid serial is stored in the executable itself. A good programmer and a handy debugger can write a program to generate random, valid serials (such a program is called a “keygen”).

These different methods of copy restrictions all have one thing in common. They all have straightforward and well understood ways of being bypassed. Recent developments have done little to change this. In an interview with Rolling Stones, Steve Jobs admitted that the DRM Apple used was never expected to be secure. The DRM had been mandated by the music labels, and Apple warned them:

None of this technology that you’re talking about’s gonna work. We have Ph.D.s here, that know the stuff cold, and we don’t believe it’s possible to protect digital content. [JG2003]


Activity involving DRM has come on several fronts. In 1998 the United States Congressed passed the DMCA. The DMCA has been the subject of serious controversy. Similar bills have been brought up in other countries as well: the DADVSI in France (passed in 200x) and Bill C-61 in Canada (proposed).

The Dangers of DRM

Because of how DRM systems work, they tend to rely on obscurity in order to succeed. This can lead to bad practices if it is not controlled. In one such case Song BMG sold so-called “protected audio CDs” which contained root-kits that would install themselves onto computers with Microsoft Windows. [BS2005] A root-kit is malware that is designed to install itself onto a computer so that it is undetectable. Typically, a root-kit will install a driver that modifies the kernel and gets the kernel to hide any traces of it from the process lists or the file system. In this case the root-kit exploited the Microsoft Window's auto run feature with CDs.

To make matters worse, the root-kit was also spy-ware – reporting various bits of personal information back to Sony. Mark Russinovich discovered the malware in 2005. After it became public knowledge, Sony offered a patch that didn't actually remove the spyware. Then they lied, saying that the software didn't “phone home.” Later on they updated their patch so that it removed the spyware, but left a gaping security hole instead.

DRM and the People

Keeping Honest People Honest

As it has already been demonstrated, DRM systems are not technologically sound. As a result, legislation has been put into effect to legally enforce that which is not technologically enforceable. The problem with this is that legislation is only effective among those who follow the law.

Cory Doctorow brought up this argument in a speech to the Microsoft Research Group [CD2004]. As he points out, DRM is not aimed at organized criminals like “Ukrainian pirates who stamp out millions of high quality counterfeits,” they can easily bypass the restrictions and they couldn’t care less about the law. Instead, the DRM is targeted at normal people.

The Gap between Law and Practice

When DVDs started being produced, media corporations wanted control over their usage. The result was a DRM system known as CSS (Content Scramble System). It used a particular encryption algorithm which required the DVD player to have a decryption key to work. The DCCA (DVD Copy Control Association) who created CSS, licensed these keys with the requirement that the DVD players were crippled in certain ways.

One rather infamous requirement was the DVD region code. In short, DVD players from one region (such as Asia) could not play DVDs in made in another region (such as North America). CSS, however, was not technically sound. Since the encryption key is stored in the DVD player, the only thing keeping a consumer from seeing the key was a small amount of technical difficulty. In 1999, Jon Johansen and two anonymous programmers on IRC cracked the encryption system and created DeCSS. The DCCA subsequently sued Johansen under the DMCA for distributing tool to bypass the DRM [C2001].

During the trial, one of the witnesses was asked by the defense about the practice of buying cracked DVD players in Norway. The point of the question was to get the witness to admit to the fact that many Norwegians buy DVD players that have been cracked so they can play American movies as well as Norwegian ones (America is in region 1, Norway is in region 2). It seems that a significant section of society does not agree with the laws that have been set in place.

A Stumbling Block for the Naïve

Perhaps more disturbing is the actual people who are really effected by DRM. At it has been shown, DRM systems are being constantly circumvented.

DRM and Loss of Freedom

Violation of Fair Use

Copyright Law in the United States has a number of limitations built into it including something called Fair Use (a similar thing called Fair Dealing exists in Canada). Fair Use is an integral part to many things that are commonly done. For example, the citations in this paper are covered under Fair Use.

Few people would argue that Fair Use is wrong; it has been the foundation for many creative works which build off each other. However, DRM Law threatens to make the practice of Fair Use impossible. Let’s say Alice wrote a journal article about some topic (say, Constituent Order in French Noun Phrases). Bob is writing an a article on a similar topic (say, Noun Phrase Universals). Bob wants to cite a small section of Alice’s journal article; however, the journal is published in a PDF document that has restrictions set that make it unable to be printed or have the text copied.

Now under Fair Use, there should be no problem with the citation. To do so, Bob would have to circumvent the copy restrictions (i.e. read and re-type the text). If it were a paper document, this would be perfectly legal, but because it is an electronic document and because of the DMCA, Bob can not legally use this quotation.

Other Licensing Problems

A similar problem has arisen with public domain and Free Software. Certain software is licensed with the intention that anyone who receives the software should have the freedom to modify it and use those modifications.

One current example is the digital video recorder TiVo. The software on the machine runs Linux, an operating system licensed under version 2 of the GPL. The TiVo hardware incorporates a system that ensures that only software made by TiVo Inc. may be run on the device. As a result, TiVo can use the software without providing its customers with the freedoms that the license requires them to provide. Since TiVo was originally released, the GPL has been updated to version 3 which makes this behavior illegal. However, software that has not moved to the GPL 3 (including Linux at the moment) is still vulnerable to this sort of abuse.

This problem also extends to the public domain. One tenet of copyright was to give creators a temporary monopoly on their work. The idea is that a copyright should only last for a particular amount of time and then the work is put into public domain so that society as a whole can benefit from it. However, work that is protected by DRM can be locked up even though the work has passed into the public domain.

Control of Personal Data

The potential danger of DRM goes further as well. Documents that are created in software can be encrypted so that only other versions of the same software can read them. In fact, by default, that is how DRM works. Unless the particular technology is shared with others only the original software is able to read the document. Furthermore, according to the DMCA it is illegal to reverse engineer software with DRM. In the event that the software stops working, the user is completely helpless. Even if they knew enough to fix it, or could pay someone who could, it would be illegal.

In essence, who ever controls the software, controls the documents. As technology rapidly changes, software that once worked becomes unsuported, and unless the support is available to transfer documents to a format other software can read. In an essay on the preservantion of written data, Dr. Brad Stone notes:

If DRM becomes commonplace and widely used, I expect that it will be a serious impediment to preserving course papers, since access to documents protected by such a system depends on the continued existence and operability of the software and hardware under which they were created, on remembering or having recorded the passwords that secure them, and so on. Another possible scenario is moving from College A to University B and discovering that documents created on College A's computers cannot be opened or read on University B's computers, because College A claims to hold the copyright of all documents created by its employees and has programmed the DRM software on its computers to enforce this claim [JS2005].

Giving Publishers a Monopoly on Distribution

Apple and Fairplay

When Apple first went to the media conglomerates for permission to sell music over the Internet, they came across an agreement contingent on Apple protecting the content of the music with DRM. According to Apple [JG2003], the media conglomerates were warned that the DRM would not work. Nevertheless they plan went forward. It is difficult to say if this was Apple's plan from the start, but Apple has taken advantage of the control provided by the DRM to disable other companies from competing on an equal footing.

In 2003, Apple opened its online store (then called the iTunes Music Store). At that time access to all the music on iTunes was controlled by FairPlay, a DRM system that encrypts AAC audio files. These files were only playable within Apple's media player, iTunes, and their portable media player, the iPod. Because of this, consumers who purchase music from Apple are forced to use Apple's products and are unable to play their music on third-party media players.

One media corporation, RealNetworks, saw the problem with this. At first they tried to license the software from Apple, but Apple refused citing fears that licensing the DRM software might make it easier for people to find ways to circumvent the DRM.

Eventually, in 2004, RealNetworks reverse engineered Fairplay so that music from their media player could be played on the iPod as well. Apple retorted, claiming that RealNetworks had “adopted the tactics and ethics of a hacker to break into the iPod®” [P2004]. In the end RealNetworks had to back down because DRM law did not allow them to inter-operate without Apple's consent.

Concerns over this monopoly has caused several countries to raise their eyebrows. In Norway, a group in charge of investigating the case has declared Apple's DRM illegal [O2007]. Since then, Apple has done nothing to comply with Norway's mandates. In February 2008, Norway gave them a deadline of November 3 to comply. As of November 7, however, they have done nothing [KB2006].

Microsoft PlaysForSure/Zune

In response to Apple's Fairplay technology, Microsoft developed a similar system called PlaysForSure. The chief difference from Fairplay is that Microsoft licensed PlaysForSure to third-party vendors. In theory, someone could buy music from any of the licensed vendors and play it as long as they had a certified player.

Everything gets to work together. It sounds like a great solution – too good to be true. It was. The same company who created PlaysForSure abandoned it in 2006 when they came out with their new portable media player, the Zune. For reasons which are unknown, the Zune uses a separate DRM system that is incompatible with PlaysForSure [GD2008].


The primary argument in support of DRM has been economic: that DRM is necessary in order to prevent copyright infringement and piracy. However, the basis of this argument is rather shallow and it does not appear to be backed up with solid empirical evidence. In fact, in the past few years, several publishers have backed away from using DRM because it hurt their bottom line.

Random House Audio is one such publisher. Their original foray into DRM was motivated by preventing piracy. After a time, they tested the assumption by releasing some of their audio books without DRM and then monitoring file sharing networks. In the end, they came to the conclusion “that D.R.M. is not actually doing anything to prevent piracy” [BS2008].

In some cases DRM has caused significant backlash. EA's recent game Spore is one example. The game requires activation over the Internet. Once the game has been activated three times, it is unable to be installed again. Unhappy users flooded Amazon with grips about the DRM based restrictions [BK2008]. The end result? Well, Spore may very well be the most pirated video game to date [BJ2008] in spite of the fact that significant parts of the game are inaccessible in the pirated versions.

So what motive is there for DRM? Jim Griffin summaries the situation:

Lawyers and technologists continue to sell this snake oil of control, whether it's from the court and the police [RIAA legal jihad], or whether it's coming from technology [DRM] ... When I was 14, I told girls I loved them to sleep with them too. It was a fiction. Steve Jobs just leaves a little money on the table. > > We see Jobs and Gates making promises to the content industry that they have no intention of keeping. It's the promise you make to move forward. The content owner wants to hear it [AO2004].