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Information in this page was reviewed and approved by legal counsel. Please see disclaimer. Review date: January 2009 .

Digital Rights Management (DRM)

Topics Covered

Introduction and Background

Digital rights management (DRM) refers to the use of technology to restrict copying or re-distribution of digital files, usually audio and video. The ease with which individuals can create perfect electronic copies has led copyright holders—or commercial content providers—to use DRM as a means to retain control over, and preserve the value of, their works or economic interests.

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Fair Use, DMCA, and Other Concerns

The protections to copyright holders offered by DRM can conflict with fair-use provisions articulated in U.S. copyright law. The Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) prohibits bypassing DRM technologies, even if the intended use could have been considered to be fair use under law. The DMCA does provide exceptions that allow one to copy DRM-protected works, but it is still illegal to use software or hardware to unencrypt works, which makes those exceptions rather meaningless in many cases.

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Controversy

Use of DRM has caused considerable controversy, especially in the context of audio files. Some digital music providers, most notably iTunes, incorporate restrictions into most of their music files. For example, iTunes’ FairPlay technology limits the number of computers on which purchasers may copy their songs. Napster and other services use a different DRM scheme to make all downloaded songs unplayable when individuals’ subscriptions lapse.

Record labels have experimented with DRM technologies on otherwise conventional CDs. In 2005, Sony / BMG added anti-piracy software to dozens of titles. The software installed automatically on users’ PCs, and opened security vulnerabilities that hackers subsequently exploited. Eventually Sony pulled remaining DRM-protected CDs, but the company faced lawsuits brought by angry customers and state attorneys general.

Frustration by end users and criticism in the press has led digital music vendors to experiment with DRM-free files. In February 2007, Apple CEO Steve Jobs called for the elimination of DRM on music downloads in Thoughts on Music. Shortly thereafter, iTunes began selling unprotected tracks for a slightly higher fee. Amazon.com has launched a new music download store that offers only higher-quality, DRM-free mp3 files. (Note that DRM-free does not mean "copyright free" or "free downloads." It just means that the file is no longer subject to protective technologies.)

Debates over DRM have come from other sectors as well. Some argue that by protecting their works through physical or digital means, content providers (who may or may not be the copyright owners), are, in essence, creating digital “contracts” that trump fair use and other legal exceptions, and that are neither based on negotiation nor the prevailing sentiment of “open access” in academia.

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Further Reading

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Did you know...

”DRM-free” does not mean “copyright free” or “free downloads.” It means that the file is not subject to protective technologies.

There is some debate that by protecting their works through physical or digital means, content providers (who may or may not be the copyright owners), are, in essence, creating digital “contracts” that trump fair use and other legal exceptions, and that are neither based on negotiation nor the prevailing sentiment of “open access” in academia.

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