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Digital Rights Management: More Trouble Than It’s Worth?

Over the last few years, nearly every type of media has gone digital–even books, much to our convenience. This digitization has made media far easier to store and move. However, just like any form of technology, digitization of media has also brought with it certain unique problems, the most notable of which is internet piracy. Annual global revenue losses from digital piracy in the film industry alone are estimated to be between $40 and $97.1 billion.

Obviously, steps are being taken to control online privacy, and digital rights management (DRM) is one such measure. DRM is a way for software publishers or other copyright holders to control who can access the content they own, thereby preventing piracy (at least on paper). The impact of DRM is twofold: supporters argue that this technology is necessary to protect intellectual property, while critics claim there is no evidence that DRM prevents copyright infringement.

Benefits and use cases for DRM

Provides Improved Access Control
DRM enables a publisher to control who has access to the software and how frequently they can use it. DRM also allows the publisher to place restrictions on usage to prevent unauthorized access. Examples of usage restrictions include preventing a file from being opened, edited, shared, or having its contents screen captured. Typically, the content owner can provide or revoke access as they like. These controls and restrictions greatly help secure intellectual property.

File Privacy
Digital rights management can help companies control access to sensitive business-critical information and allow authorized viewers to share this data securely. Activity logs for DRM-protected data can make it easier for auditors to investigate leaks. When used in a business context, digital rights management is also known as information rights management or enterprise rights management.

Helps Combat Piracy
DRM provides an additional layer of security that protects against piracy. Most piracy is done on peer-to-peer (P2P) networks and file-sharing sites. In these cases, encryption alone is not effective for securing data since anyone with a decryption key can do as they please. While not completely foolproof, DRM provides much more protection than encryption and can greatly inhibit illegal file sharing as ownership of the software is constantly authenticated and validated.

Income Protection
Content creation involves a significant investment of resources, such as time, money, and talent. DRM technology helps ensure that content isn’t shared illegally and unauthorized use is curbed, meaning content owners can reap the full rewards of their work and losses due to unauthorized usage are kept at a minimum.

Issues with DRM 

Product Ownership
In most cases, when purchasing DRM-protected assets, you don’t own the software you paid for. You’ve only paid for a right to use the product and are subject to the DRM implemented by the software publisher. This usually means the publisher has total control over the product; and despite paying for it, you may not have the freedom to use the product the way you want.

Usage Restrictions
Some critics of DRM describe its restrictions as a violation of private property rights. Bypassing DRM is illegal under the DMCA; and Cory Doctorow, an author, and activist in favour of liberalising copyright laws says that it has given publishers the power to unfairly restrict private property rights. In 2000, a US appeals court found that breaking DRM was illegal, even if you were trying to do something that would otherwise be legal. This allows a copyright holder to create unfair restrictions that are protected by law. This is why Cory Doctorow said, “DRM isn’t the right to prevent piracy: it’s the right to make up your own copyright laws. The right to invent things that people aren’t allowed to do—even though the law permits it—and to embed these prohibitions in code that is illegal to violate.”

Privacy Issues
DRM programs try to restrict or control file access. In order to exercise such controls, DRM programs need to reside within a user’s computer, either within the operating system or as a non-removable program file on your device. Some DRM tools may also make unauthorized changes that make your device vulnerable to malware and online security threats.

It Isn’t Wholly Effective
While DRM does help protect intellectual property, it isn’t foolproof. Bruce Schneier, a well-respected privacy expert, describes digital copy prevention as futile. He argues that attempting to make software “uncopyable” will only hurt the customer experience. For video games, in particular, DRM can affect the accessibility and playability of a game, which is why the popular videogame developers CD Projekt RED announced about a decade ago that they would completely stop using DRM in their games saying, “DRM does not protect your game,” and “there are complications with legit users.”

There’s no denying that DRM works as intended in most cases, but it definitely isn’t foolproof, and to claim so is disingenuous. What most organizations fail to understand is, you can never completely get rid of illegal file sharing no matter how advanced the protection techniques are. There are online communities dedicated to developing more sophisticated means of breaking DRM. What an organization should do, is accept this and make sure its DRM is not causing issues for legitimate customers.

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Chris Fernando

Chris N. Fernando is an experienced media professional with over two decades of journalistic experience. He is the Editor of Arabian Reseller magazine, the authoritative guide to the regional IT industry. Follow him on Twitter (@chris508) and Instagram (@chris2508).

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