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What is DRM Protected Content? Definition, How It Works & More

by Chris Brook on Monday May 8, 2023

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What does it mean when digital content is DRM protected? We explain how DRM works and protects intellectual property in this blog.

While the internet remains a great place to share and promote creativity, there will always be an inherent risk involved. As a content creator, you may not wish to have your work freely distributed, as it can open the door to piracy and copyright theft. In this article, we’ll look at DRM protection and how it can safeguard your work and the work of others.

What is DRM Protected Content?

DRM protected content is content with certain restrictions on how it can be used.

Digital Rights Management (DRM) handles the authorization and use of copyrighted material. This copyrighted material may include movies, music, books, shows, games, and other digital assets. Before someone uses DRM protected content, they must be authenticated in some way. For example, if someone wants to copy a particular DRM protected file, they might need to enter their username and password.

Some other DRM restrictions apply to media files. DRM protection is coded into the protected file, so its simplicity or complexity depends on the content creator. For example, a content creator might allow their media file to play for only a limited number of times on a device. Or they might want the file to play only on a particular application.

Other types of DRM protection might ask a user for a password before they can copy or edit a file.

How DRM Works

There are four main stages of the DRM protection process:

  • Encryption: The content is encrypted so that if anyone gets hold of it, they still can’t use it because it’s scrambled. Only the decrypted content is usable.
  • Management: A set of rules apply to the encryption key so not everyone can access it.
  • Authorization: A user must be verified (generally with a username and password) to ensure they are authorized to get the key.
  • Regular verification: The authorization of a user is verified regularly to ensure they still have the right to hold the key.

Essentially, here’s what happens when you view DRM protected content: 

  1. Digital content is encrypted. 
  2. The key is tied up with a digital license that contains rules on how to use the content. 
  3. When a user makes an access request, the DRM client authenticates the user and gives them the right key. 
  4. This key is used to decrypt the content so they can view it.

What are the Rules of DRM?

As mentioned earlier, the DRM license contains certain rules and requirements that must be met before allowing access to a specific user. Here are some rules that can be built into the license:

  • Is the user subscription valid?
  • Is the content being accessed from a valid location?
  • On how many simultaneous devices can the content be displayed?
  • What’s the maximum number of hours a user can view content?

When you play a movie or a show on a DRM protected platform, the DRM client checks all the rules in the license and plays the content if everything is correct.

DRM Protected Content Examples 

Streaming or hosting services are an excellent example of DRM protected content. Content creators release their content on DRM protected websites to monetize their work. Common applications of DRM include: 

  • Online video players: These players don’t allow users to download files on their devices. Users can view the videos in the browser or application upon entering their username and password.
  • Video games: When you install a video game, you’ll be asked to enter a unique code that you’ll receive from the website where you registered.
  • Music players: An online music player may not let users download files on their devices. If a player does allow downloads, the file will be in an encrypted format to prevent being copied to other devices.

For example, Spotify has DRM built into its platform. While it’s possible to download digital libraries, most users don’t do it. Even when someone downloads the files, it’s not easy to play those files from another device. In contrast, playing music directly from Spotify is easy, which enables Spotify to protect its content and pay the content creators.

Benefits of DRM Protected Content

DRM lets content creators decide what should be done with their content, and it offers many advantages, such as:

  • Revenue protection for content creators
  • Prevents unauthorized use or sharing of digital content
  • Creates multiple levels of access control according to user preferences
  • Prevents plagiarization and piracy

DRM doesn’t need any effort from the user, and there are numerous devices, set-top boxes, and web browsers that support DRM. The three major DRM platforms are Google Widevine, Apple FairPlay, and MS PlayReady, but since the decryption happens in the background, users are unable to see which DRM service was used.

On the user’s end, it all happens seamlessly. Compare this with the Sony rootkit disaster of 2005 when Sony secretly installed “security software” on their discs that prevented users from burning the CDs. It also allowed malware to infiltrate their PCs, leading to a big scandal. In comparison, DRM is a much better way to secure intellectual property.

While DRM protects a creator’s work, it cannot completely eliminate piracy. For example, the screen that’s playing a video can be captured by another device. This new video file will not be DRM protected and can be illegally copied and shared. However, DRM does reduce piracy to a great extent.

Conclusion

DRM allows content creators and distributors the ability to protect their intellectual property, and is frequently applied in the following mediums:

  • Music
  • Movies
  • Books
  • Images

By protecting content, DRM reduces the risk of both piracy and copyright theft, thereby helping to prevent any loss of income that might otherwise be incurred. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the purpose of DRM?

The purpose of Digital Rights Management (DRM) is to protect the creators and owners of intellectual property (IP) in the digital age. DRM was considered necessary due to the emergence of the Internet and the ease with which digital copies of copyrighted materials can be made and distributed. Media companies rely on DRM to protect their financial interests which enable them to make many creative works possible.

What is an example of digital rights management?

Digital rights management can be implemented in multiple ways. Examples of DRM in action include:

  • Setting limits on the number of times content can be accessed
  • Limiting the number of users who can share a digital distribution account such as Netflix
  • Limiting the types of devices that can access or play a work
  • Distorting the content if it is copied
  • Requiring some type of authentication to access content
  • Preventing users from taking screenshots of protected content
  • Watermarking items to establish ownership
  • Setting expiration dates after which content cannot be accessed

How is DRM different from copyright?

Copyright protection is primarily concerned with offering legal remedies to the creator of an original work to prevent its use by unauthorized entities. DRM focuses on preventing copyright infringement by making it difficult or impossible to illegally copy or distribute copyrighted works. A creative work is first copyrighted and then subjected to DRM techniques to protect the rights of its creators. Another difference is that DRM can be removed from a work by the entity that implemented it. You cannot remove the copyright from a creative work.

What US law states that only the company that put the DRM on a copyrighted work can remove it?

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is the law that restricts the removal of DRM protection. The DMCA was passed in 1998 to address piracy and illegal sharing of digital assets. Only the entity that put DRM on a copyrighted work has the authority to remove it. This means that individuals should not be removing DRM protections to make copies of protected works that they have purchased.

Tags:  Data Protection IP Protection

Chris Brook

Chris Brook

Chris Brook is the editor of Digital Guardian’s Data Insider blog. He is a cybersecurity writer with nearly 15 years of experience reporting and writing about information security, attending infosec conferences like Black Hat and RSA, and interviewing hackers and security researchers. Prior to joining Digital Guardian–acquired by Fortra in 2021–he helped launch Threatpost, an independent news site that was a leading source of information about IT and business security for hundreds of thousands of professionals worldwide.

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