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What is Digital Rights Management?

by Juliana De Groot on Monday October 15, 2018

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Learn about digital rights management and why it is important in Data Protection 101, our series on the fundamentals of information security.

Digital rights management (DRM) is a way to protect copyrights for digital media. This approach includes the use of technologies that limit the copying and use of copyrighted works and proprietary software.

In a way, digital rights management allows publishers or authors to control what paying users can do with their works. For companies, implementing digital rights management systems or processes can help to prevent users from accessing or using certain assets, allowing the organization to avoid legal issues that arise from unauthorized use. Today, DRM is playing a growing role in data security.

With the rise of peer-to-peer file exchange services such as torrent sites, online piracy has been the bane of copyrighted material. DRM technologies do not catch those who engage in piracy. Instead, they make it impossible to steal or share the content in the first place.

How Digital Rights Management Works

Most of the time, digital rights management includes codes that prohibit copying, or codes that limit the time or number of devices on which a certain product can be accessed.

Publishers, authors, and other content creators use an application that encrypts media, data, e-book, content, software, or any other copyrighted material. Only those with the decryption keys can access the material. They can also use tools to limit or restrict what users are able to do with their materials.

There are many ways to protect your content, software, or product. DRM allows you to:

  • Restrict or prevent users from editing or saving your content.
  • Restrict or prevent users from sharing or forwarding your product or content.
  • Restrict or prevent users from printing your content. For some, the document or artwork may only be printed up to a limited number of times.
  • Disallow users from creating screenshots or screen grabs of your content.
  • Set an expiry date on your document or media, after which the user will no longer be able to access it. This could also be done by limiting the number of uses that a user has. For instance, a document may be revoked after the user has listened ten times or opened and printed the PDF 20 times.
  • Lock access only to certain IP addresses, locations, or devices. This means that if your media is only available to US residents, then it will not be accessible to people in other countries.
  • Watermark artworks and documents in order to establish ownership and identity.

Digital rights management also allows publishers and authors to access a log of people and times when certain media, content, or software was used. For instance, you can see when a particular e-book was downloaded or printed and who accessed it.

Digital Rights Management Use Cases

In today’s digital world, digital rights management is increasingly important, not only for digital content creators but also for companies and individuals that make use of digital assets licensed or purchased from third-party creators. Here are a few common use cases for digital rights management:

  1. Digital rights management allows authors, musicians, movie professionals, and other creators to prevent unauthorized use of their content. It can also protect their bottom lines and control the distribution of their products.
  2. Digital rights management can help companies control access to confidential information. They can use these technologies to restrict access to sensitive data, while at the same time allowing it to be shared securely. Furthermore, having DRM technologies makes it easier for auditors to investigate and identify leaks. When used in a business setting, digital rights management may be called by a different name, such as information rights management or enterprise rights management. Healthcare organizations and financial services companies turn to DRM to meet data protection regulations such as HIPAA or GLBA.
  3. Digital rights management ensures that digital work remains unaltered. Creators often want their work to be distributed in its original form to serve its intended purposes. The FDIC uses digital rights management to prevent the unauthorized redistribution of sensitive digital information, for example.

Challenges of Digital Rights Management

Not everybody agrees with digital rights management. For instance, users who pay for music on iTunes would love to be able to listen to the song on any device or use it in whatever way they wish.

On the other hand, businesses that pay thousands of dollars for a high-value industry report are willing to use DRM so that their competitors are unable to get the same report for free. Some critics of DRM have pointed out that this creates an unfair advantage for businesses that have money to burn because smaller operations may not be able to afford the information that they need to grow their businesses.

However, DRM technology is not a perfect solution. Even if copywrite holders incorporate digital rights management code into their product, the public may discover a way to work around it. For instance, if they make their content playable only on one player, some users will inevitably try to figure out the decryption keys and then create another player that can play the copyrighted content. Users then download the new player in the hopes of circumventing the DRM encryption. There are also free tools to remove DRM codes, which – while unethical – are readily available online.

Benefits of Digital Rights Management

Digital rights management can protect copyright holders from piracy, but when tools that can easily remove DRM code from digital works are readily available, why do content creators continue to bother with it? Despite its shortcomings, digital rights management still offers numerous benefits.

  1. Digital rights management educates users about copyright and intellectual property. Most people are not concerned with copyrights and are passive when it comes to DRM. As long as they can access the content they like, they have no issue with smaller details. With DRM in place, companies can communicate to users what they can and cannot do with respect to digital content.
  2. DRM helps make way for better licensing agreements and technologies. Digital rights management technologies are aimed at restricting the ways in which users interact with content, such as listening to music on multiple devices or sharing content with friends with family. Users who do not want to be restrained by DRM codes are able to support vendors who offer and sell DRM-free content, thus encouraging vendors to look for other technologies that are better at licensing than DRM.
  3. Digital rights management helps authors retain ownership of their works. It is very easy for a company or user to copy content from someone else’s e-book and rebrand it as their own. With DRM, it is possible to stop anybody from altering content. This also applies to scientists who rely on DRM to protect their inventions.
  4. Digital rights management helps protect income streams. Video and moviemakers spend money to create their videos in the hopes that they will be able to recoup their investments once it hits screens, or when it streams or is distributed online. DRM can help ensure that only paying users are able to watch the video or movie. It also ensures that the video is only accessible to a certain audience. For instance, videos with adult-oriented content should only be accessible to adults who can verify their age.
  5. Digital rights management can help secure files and keep them private. DRM effectively prevents unauthorized users from seeing or reading confidential files.

Digital assets comprise a substantial portion of the content that people consume and interact with on a daily basis. The digital world opens up the door to a whole new realm of possibilities when it comes to protecting sensitive information, including intellectual property. Far gone are the days when authors needed to be concerned only with consumers running a book through a copy machine. In today’s digital world, digital rights management is imperative for companies spanning every industry to protect their information assets.

Tags: Data Protection 101

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Juliana de Groot

Juliana is a Marketing Operations Specialist at Digital Guardian. Prior to joining DG, she worked at Dell and CarGurus. She graduated Bentley University with a Bachelor of Science in Marketing with a minor in psychology.