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What Is Digital Rights Management (DRM)?

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Learn more about DRM — digital rights management.

Digital rights management (DRM) is the use of technology and systems to restrict the use of copyrighted digital materials. DRM tools are designed to protect the rights of the copyright holder and prevent unauthorized modification or distribution.

Stealing or copying other people’s ideas or work is an age-old phenomenon. But modern technology has made piracy exponentially easier. With a few clicks of a mouse, many copyrighted images, videos, and audio files can be shared or downloaded from the Internet — often without proper permission. From Napster to bootlegging and “borrowing” art, this activity is widespread and costly. A recent report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates that online piracy costs the US economy almost $30 billion a year

One well-known example of digital piracy is Shepard Fairey’s Hope poster for Barack Obama’s election campaign. Mr. Fairy based his design on a photograph from The Associated Press, without authorized permission. AP brought a lawsuit against Mr. Fairey, resulting in a settlement that requires the two parties to share the rights to create materials with the Hope image, along with an undisclosed financial award to AP. DRM tools are designed to prevent this kind of unlicensed use of digital media.

How digital rights management works 

Although digital content is covered under copyright laws, monitoring the web to catch illegal activity is challenging. So DRM takes a proactive approach to protecting digital content by creating barriers to stealing it in the first place.  

There are numerous approaches to DRM and continual efforts to develop new methods. Many DRM tools operate through encryption, or computer code embedded in the digital content, to limit access or use. These tools can control the number of times, devices, people, or time periods that the content can be accessed or installed.

In his article What is Digital Rights Management?, Frederick W. Dingledy outlines the following DRM tools and processes that deter illegal use of copyrighted material:

  • Copy protection. These strategies control access by preventing users from making copies of a work. They are typically implemented through encryption, which writes the digital content in a code that can only be read by devices or software with the key to unlock the code. This approach is also sometimes referred to as scrambling. Other examples of copy protection include digital watermarks, fingerprinting, and restricting copying features — such as rootkit software.

  • Permission management. This form of control limits who has permission to use a certain work. Examples of these DRM strategies include software licenses and keys, user authentication and IP authentication protocols, proxy servers, virtual private networks (VPNs), regional restriction or geoblocking, and designing products to only work on specialized hardware or software.

Many creators of digital content employ multiple DRM strategies to restrict or control the use of their works. 

DRM use cases 

DRM technology appears on a range of digital materials, from videos, music, and ebooks, to proprietary business information, database subscriptions, and software. The creators of these works are interested in DRM not only to impede unauthorized copying, but also to prevent people from changing their works or using them in ways they didn’t intend.

Here are a few examples. The Apple iTunes Music Store uses DRM to limit the number of devices that songs can be played on. Audio files downloaded from the iTunes music store include data about the purchase and usage activity, and the songs will not play on unauthorized devices. Apple's iBooks are protected by Apple’s FairPlay technology, which requires iBooks to be read on Apple devices. 

Microsoft users must agree to a user license and input a key before installing Windows or Office software. Further, their DRM technology called PlayReady is used to make the distribution of audio/video content over a network more secure, to help prevent unauthorized use.

A wide range of businesses use DRM technology to protect sensitive documents, from contracts and strategic plans to confidential employee data. DRM tools can control who can access files and how they can be used. They can prevent files from being altered, saved, duplicated, or printed; and track when they are viewed.

And individuals who purchase digital content can help prevent unintended unauthorized use by tracking and abiding by the related licensing information. Stock imagery, videos, or audio files that aren’t royalty-free often come with restrictions around how, when, and even where that content can be used. Knowing how purchased assets are being used is critical in upholding the copyright laws agreed to when the content was legally purchased.

DRM controversy

Content creators and owners have financial and artistic reasons for including DRM in their work and products. And legislation like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) in 1998 adds authority to DRM’s technological controls. This copyright law criminalizes the creation or use of technology, devices, or services designed to circumvent DRM.

But some consumer rights groups, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, feel that the limitations imposed by DRM are too severe. They argue that DRM can stifle innovation in the marketplace, hide product flaws, and inconvenience consumers. While these groups are not pro-piracy, they believe that current DRM technology and related legislation infringe on consumer rights. 

As we advance into the digital age, this balance between the rights of creators versus consumers will continually evolve. But no matter where the debate lands, it will always be important to have a system in place to understand how and where your proprietary content is being used. 

DRM software

DRM technology can be implemented as a software and/or hardware solution. These tools can help prevent deliberate piracy efforts, as well as unintended unauthorized use. 

Widen’s digital asset management (DAM) platform, the Widen Collective®, can help control access to and use of copyrighted material in several ways. An integration with Digimarc places a graphic file on top of an asset or asset preview to alter its appearance and signal it is not approved for use. 

Digimarc also embeds an invisible ID in the asset, that makes it possible to find and track unauthorized online use. The watermark stays with the file as its manipulated, copied, or transformed from one format to another. 

Additionally, all asset records in the Collective include metadata fields to capture licensing and copyright information. This data can be added manually for each asset, automatically ingested during upload through embedded metadata, or included in a document attached to the asset record. In the case of stock photography, videos, or audio files, tracking this licensing information is critical in preventing unauthorized use. 

Further, the Collective offers embed codes to control how and where assets are published online. If an image needs to be updated or replaced because of an expired license or change in the terms of use, the updated file in the DAM system will be pushed to every location the related embed code is posted. This process is known as COPE — or create once, publish everywhere — and can be a valuable piece of a larger DRM strategy. 

And finally, the Collective makes it possible to require users to read and agree to an End User License Agreement (EULA) the first time they login to the site, share files, or download content, to legally protect assets against unauthorized use.  

As you can see, digital rights management plays an important role in today’s digital world. It educates users about copyright and intellectual property by clarifying what they can and can’t do with certain content. And it helps the authors and owners of digital material protect the financial and creative investment in their work.

Implementing a DRM tool at your organization will help ensure that your content is distributed legally and appropriately. Request of demo to learn more about how the Widen Collective can help with your digital rights management strategy. 

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