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What’s DRM?

October 27, 2009
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Digital rights management (DRM) is a generic term for access control technologies that can be used by hardware manufacturers, publishers, copyright holders and individuals to try to impose limitations on the usage of digital content and devices. The term is used to describe any technology which inhibits uses (legitimate or otherwise) of digital content that were not desired or foreseen by the content provider. The term generally doesn’t refer to other forms of copy protection which can be circumvented without modifying the file or device, such as serial numbers or keyfiles. It can also refer to restrictions associated with specific instances of digital works or devices. Digital rights management is being used by companies such as Sony, Apple Inc., Microsoft and the BBC.

The use of digital rights management is controversial. Proponents argue it is needed by copyright holders to prevent unauthorized duplication of their work, either to maintain artistic integrity [1] or to ensure continued revenue streams.[2] Some opponents, such as the Free Software Foundation, maintain that the use of the word “rights” is misleading and suggest that people instead use the term digital restrictions management. Their position is essentially that copyright holders are attempting to restrict use of copyrighted material in ways not covered by existing laws and should not be covered by future laws.[3] The Electronic Frontier Foundation, and other opponents, also consider DRM systems to be anti-competitive practices.[4]

In practice, all widely-used DRM systems are eventually defeated or circumvented.[5] Completely restricting the copying of audio and visual material is impossible due to the inevitable analog hole.

Introduction

DRM technologies attempt to control use of digital media by preventing access, copying or conversion to other formats by end users. Long before the arrival of digital or even electronic media, copyright holders, content producers, or other financially or artistically interested parties had business and legal objections to copying technologies. Examples include: player piano rolls early in the 20th century, audio tape recording, and video tape recording (e.g. the “Betamax case” in the U.S.). Copying technology thus exemplifies a disruptive technology.

The advent of digital media and analog/digital conversion technologies, especially those that are usable on mass-market general-purpose personal computers, has vastly increased the concerns of copyright-dependent organizations, especially within the music and movie industries. While analog media inevitably loses quality with each copy generation, and in some cases even during normal use, digital media files may be duplicated an unlimited number of times with no degradation in the quality of subsequent copies. The advent of personal computers as household appliances has made it convenient for consumers to convert media (which may or may not be copyrighted) originally in a physical/analog form or a broadcast form into a universal, digital form (this process is called ripping) for location- or timeshifting. This, combined with the Internet and popular file sharing tools, has made unauthorized distribution of copies of copyrighted digital media (so-called digital piracy) much easier.

Although technical controls on the reproduction and use of software have been intermittently used since the 1970s, the term ‘DRM’ has come to primarily mean the use of these measures to control artistic or literary content.[citation needed] DRM technologies have enabled publishers to enforce access policies that not only disallow copyright infringements, but also prevent lawful fair use of copyrighted works, or even implement use constraints on non-copyrighted works that they distribute; examples include the placement of DRM on certain public-domain or open-licensed e-books, or DRM included in consumer electronic devices that time-shift (and apply DRM to) both copyrighted and non-copyrighted works.

DRM is most commonly used by the entertainment industry (e.g. film and recording). Many online music stores, such as Apple‘s iTunes Store, as well as many e-book publishers, have imposed DRM on their customers. In recent years, a number of television producers have imposed DRM mandates on consumer electronic devices, to control access to the freely-broadcast content of their shows, in connection with the popularity of time-shifting digital video recorder systems such as TiVo.[6]

Technologies

DRM and film

An early example of a DRM system was the Content Scrambling System (CSS) employed by the DVD Forum on film DVDs since ca. 1996. CSS used a simple encryption algorithm, and required device manufacturers to sign license agreements that restricted the inclusion of features, such as digital outputs that could be used to extract high-quality digital copies of the film, in their players. Thus, the only consumer hardware capable of decoding DVD films was controlled, albeit indirectly, by the DVD Forum, restricting the use of DVD media on other systems until the release of DeCSS by Jon Lech Johansen in 1999, which allowed a CSS-encrypted DVD to play properly on a computer using Linux, for which the Alliance had not arranged a licensed version of the CSS playing software.

Microsoft‘s Windows Vista contains a DRM system called the Protected Media Path, which contains the Protected Video Path (PVP). PVP tries to stop DRM-restricted content from playing while unsigned software is running in order to prevent the unsigned software from accessing the content. Additionally, PVP can encrypt information during transmission to the monitor or the graphics card, which makes it more difficult to make unauthorized recordings.

Advanced Access Content System (AACS) is a DRM system for HD DVD and Blu-Ray Discs developed by the AACS Licensing Administrator, LLC (AACS LA), a consortium that includes Disney, Intel, Microsoft, Matsushita (Panasonic), Warner Brothers, IBM, Toshiba and Sony. In December 2006 a process key was published on the internet by hackers, enabling unrestricted access to AACS-restricted HD DVD content.[7] After the cracked keys were revoked, further cracked keys were released.[8]

The broadcast flag concept was developed by Fox Broadcasting in 2001 and was supported by the MPAA and the FCC. A ruling in May 2005 by a US Court of Appeals held that the FCC lacked authority to impose it on the TV industry in the US. It required that all HDTVs obey a stream specification determining whether or not a stream can be recorded. This could block instances of fair use, such as time-shifting. It achieved more success elsewhere when it was adopted by the Digital Video Broadcasting Project (DVB), a consortium of about 250 broadcasters, manufactures, network operators, software developers, and regulatory bodies from about 35 countries involved in attempting to develop new digital TV standards.

An updated variant of the broadcast flag has been developed in the Content Protection and Copy Management (DVB-CPCM). It was developed in private, and the technical specification was submitted to European governments in March 2007. As with much DRM, the CPCM system is intended to control use of copyrighted material by the end-user, at the direction of the copyright holder. According to Ren Bucholz of the EFF, which paid to be a member of the consortium, “You won’t even know ahead of time whether and how you will be able to record and make use of particular programs or devices”.[9] The DVB supports the system as it will harmonize copyright holders’ control across different technologies and so make things easier for end users. The CPCM system is expected to be submitted to the European Telecommunications Standards Institute in 2008.

DRM and music

Audio CDs

Discs with digital rights management schemes are not legitimately standards-compliant Compact Discs (CDs) but are rather CD-ROM media. Therefore they all lack the CD logotype found on discs which follow the standard (known as Red Book). Therefore these CDs could not be played on all CD players. Many consumers could also no longer play purchased CDs on their computers. PCs running Microsoft Windows would sometimes even crash when attempting to play the CDs.[10]

In 2002, Bertelsmann (comprising BMG, Arista, and RCA) was the first corporation to use DRM on audio CDs.[citation needed] In 2005, Sony BMG introduced new DRM technology which installed DRM software on users’ computers without clearly notifying the user or requiring confirmation. Among other things, the installed software included a rootkit, which created a severe security vulnerability others could exploit. When the nature of the DRM involved was made public much later, Sony initially minimized the significance of the vulnerabilities its software had created, but was eventually compelled to recall millions of CDs, and released several attempts to patch the surreptitiously included software to at least remove the rootkit. Several class action lawsuits were filed, which were ultimately settled by agreements to provide affected consumers with a cash payout or album downloads free of DRM.[11]

Sony’s DRM software actually had only a limited ability to prevent copying, as it affected only playback on Windows computers, not on other equipment. Even on the Windows platform, users regularly bypassed the restrictions. And, while the Sony DRM technology created fundamental vulnerabilities in customers’ computers, parts of it could be trivially bypassed by holding down the “shift” key while inserting the CD, or by disabling the autorun feature. In addition, audio tracks could simply be played and re-recorded, thus completely bypassing all of the DRM (this is known as the analog hole). Sony’s first two attempts at releasing a patch which would remove the DRM software from users’ computers failed.

In January 2007, EMI stopped publishing audio CDs with DRM, stating that “the costs of DRM do not measure up to the results.” [12] Following EMI, Sony BMG was the last publisher to abolish DRM completely, and audio CDs containing DRM are no longer released by the four record labels.[13]

Internet music

Many online music stores employ DRM to restrict usage of music purchased and downloaded online. There are many options for consumers wishing to purchase digital music over the internet:

  • The iTunes Store, run by Apple Inc., allows users to purchase a track online for $0.99 US. The tracks purchased use Apple’s FairPlay DRM system. Apple later launched iTunes Plus, which offered higher quality DRM-free tracks for a higher price. On October 17, 2007, iTunes Plus became available at the usual $.99 price, replacing the non-Plus tracks.[14] On January 6, 2009 Apple announced at its Macworld Expo keynote that iTunes music would be available completely DRM free by the end of the month. Videos sold and rented through iTunes, as well as mobile software sold through the iTunes App Store for the iPhone and iPod touch, continue to use Apple’s FairPlay DRM to inhibit casual copying.
  • Napster music store, which offers a subscription-based approach to DRM alongside permanent purchases. Users of the subscription service can download and stream an unlimited amount of music transcoded to Windows Media Audio (WMA) while subscribed to the service. But when the subscription period lapses, all of the downloaded music is unplayable until the user renews his or her subscription. Napster also charges users who wish to use the music on their portable device an additional $5 per month. In addition, Napster gives users the option of paying an additional $0.99 per track to burn it to CD or for the song to never expire. Music bought through Napster can be played on players carrying the Microsoft PlaysForSure logo (which, notably, do not include iPods or even Microsoft’s own Zune). As of June 2009 Napster is giving DRM free MP3 music, which can be played on iPhones and iPods.
  • Wal-Mart Music Downloads, another online music download store, charges $0.94 per track for all non-sale downloads. All Wal-Mart, Music Downloads are able to be played on any Windows PlaysForSure marked product. The music does play on the SanDisk‘s Sansa mp3 player, for example, but must be copied to the player’s internal memory. It cannot be played through the player’s microSD card slot, which is a problem that many users of the mp3 player experience.
  • Sony operated an online music download service called “Connect” which used Sony’s proprietary OpenMG DRM technology. Music downloaded from this store (usually via Sony’s SonicStage software) was only playable on computers running Windows and Sony hardware (including the PSP and some Sony Ericsson phones).

The various services are currently not interoperable, though those that use the same DRM system (for instance the several Windows Media DRM format stores, including Napster and Yahoo Music) all provide songs that can be played side-by-side through the same player program. Almost all stores require client software of some sort to be downloaded, and some also need plug-ins. Several colleges and universities, such as Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, have made arrangements with assorted Internet music suppliers to provide access (typically DRM-restricted) to music files for their students, to less than universal popularity, sometimes making payments from student activity fee funds.[15] One of the problems is that the music becomes unplayable after leaving school unless the student continues to pay individually. Another is that few of these vendors are compatible with the most common portable music player, the Apple iPod. The Gowers Review of Intellectual Property (to HMG in the UK; 141 pages, 40+ specific recommendations) has taken note of the incompatibilities, and suggests (Recommendations 8—12) that there be explicit fair dealing exceptions to copyright allowing libraries to copy and format-shift between DRM schemes, and further allowing end users to do the same privately. If adopted, some of the acrimony may decrease.

Although DRM is prevalent for Internet music, some online music stores such as eMusic, Dogmazic, Amazon, and Beatport, do not use DRM despite encouraging users to avoid sharing music. Another online retailer, Xiie.net, which sells only unsigned artists, encourages people to share the music they buy from the site, to increase exposure for the artists themselves. Major labels have begun releasing more online music without DRM. Eric Bangeman suggests in Ars Technica that this is because the record labels are “slowly beginning to realize that they can’t have DRMed music and complete control over the online music market at the same time… One way to break the cycle is to sell music that is playable on any digital audio player. eMusic does exactly that, and their surprisingly extensive catalog of non-DRMed music has vaulted it into the number two online music store position behind the iTunes Store.”[16] Apple’s Steve Jobs has called on the music industry to eliminate DRM in an open letter titled Thoughts on Music.[17] Apple’s iTunes store will start to sell DRM-free 256 kbit/s (up from 128 kbit/s) AAC encoded music from EMI for a premium price (this has since reverted to the standard price). In March 2007, Musicload.de, one of Europe’s largest online music retailers, announced their position strongly against DRM. In an open letter, Musicload stated that three out of every four calls to their customer support phone service are as a result of consumer frustration with DRM.[18]

Computer games

Computer games sometimes use DRM technologies to limit the number of systems the game can be installed on. Most games with this restriction allow three or five installs. This limits users who have more than three or five computers in their homes (Seeing as the rights of the software developers allow them to limit the number of installations). Other software (such as FADE) slowly remove and degrade the protected software over time, eventually rendering it unplayable. In 2008 the DRM scheme backfired and a large number of users decided not to pay for the game, seeking a pirated version instead. The most prominent cases involving the DRM technology SecuROM include Spore, BioShock, Mass Effect and Gears Of War. The backlash against SecuROM was a significant factor in Spore becoming the most pirated game in 2008.[19][20]

E-books

Electronic books read on a personal computer or an e-book reader typically use DRM restrictions to limit copying, printing, and sharing of e-books. E-books are usually limited to a certain number of reading devices and some e-publishers prevent any copying or printing. Some commentators believe that DRM is something that makes E-book publishing complex.[21]

Two of the most commonly used software programs to view e-books are Adobe Acrobat and Microsoft Reader.[22] Each program uses a slightly different approach to DRM. The first version of Adobe Acrobat e-book Reader to have encryption technologies was version 5.05. In the later version 6.0, the technologies of the PDF reader and the e-book reader were combined, allowing it to read both DRM-restricted and unrestricted files.[22] After opening the file, the user is able to view the rights statement, which outlines actions available for the specific document. For example, for a freely transferred PDF, printing, copying to the clipboard, and other basic functions are available to the user. However, when viewing a more highly restricted e-book, the user is unable to print the book, copy or paste selections.[22] The level of restriction is specified by the publisher or distribution agency.[23]

Microsoft Reader, which exclusively reads e-books in a .lit format, contains its own DRM software. In Microsoft Reader there are three different levels of access control depending on the e-book: sealed e-books, inscribed e-books and owner exclusive e-books. Sealed e-books have the least amount of restriction and only prevents the document from being modified.[22] Therefore, the reader cannot alter the content of the book to change the ending, for instance. Inscribed e-books are the next level of restriction. After purchasing and downloading the e-book, Microsoft Reader puts a digital ID tag to identify the owner of the e-book. Therefore, this discourages distribution of the e-book because it is inscribed with the owner’s name making it possible to trace it back to the original copy that was distributed.[22] Other e-book software uses similar DRM schemes. For example, Palm Digital Media, now known as Ereader, links the credit card information of the purchaser to the e-book copy in order to discourage distribution of the books.[24]

The most stringent form of security that Microsoft Reader offers is called owner exclusive e-books, which uses traditional DRM technologies. To buy the e-book the consumer must first open Microsoft Reader, which ensures that when the book is downloaded it becomes linked to the computer’s Microsoft Passport account. Thus the e-book can only be opened with the computer with which it was downloaded, preventing copying and distribution of the text.[22]

Amazon.com has remotely deleted purchased copies of George Orwell‘s 1984 and Animal Farm from customer’s Amazon Kindles.[25] Commenters have widely described these actions as Orwellian, and have alluded to Big Brother from Orwell’s 1984.[26][27][28][29][30] After an apology from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, the Free Software Foundation has written that this is just one more example of the excessive power Amazon has to remotely censor what people read through its software, and called upon Amazon to free its e-book reader and drop DRM.[31]

DRM and documents

Enterprise digital rights management (E-DRM or ERM) is the application of DRM technology to the control of access to corporate documents such as Microsoft Word, PDF, and AutoCAD files, emails, and intranet web pages rather than to the control of consumer media.[32] E-DRM, now more commonly referenced as IRM (Information Rights Management), is generally intended to prevent the unauthorized use (such as industrial or corporate espionage or inadvertent release) of proprietary documents. IRM typically integrates with content management system software.

DRM has been used by organizations such as the British Library in its secure electronic delivery service to permit worldwide access to substantial numbers of rare (and in many cases unique) documents which, for legal reasons, were previously only available to authorized individuals actually visiting the Library’s document centre at Boston Spa in England.[citation needed]

Watermarks

Digital watermarks are unobtrusive features of media that are added during production or distribution. Digital watermarks involve data that is arguably steganographically embedded within the audio or video data.

Watermarks can be used for different purposes that may include:

  • for recording the copyright owner
  • for recording the distributor
  • for recording the distribution chain
  • for identifying the purchaser of the music

Watermarks are not complete DRM mechanisms in their own right, but are used as part of a system for Digital Rights Management, such as helping provide prosecution evidence for purely legal avenues of rights management, rather than direct technological restriction. Some programs used to edit video and/or audio may distort, delete, or otherwise interfere with watermarks. Signal/modulator-carrier chromatography may also separate watermarks from original audio or detect them as glitches. Use of third party media players and other advanced programs render watermarking useless. Additionally, comparison of two separately obtained copies of audio using simple, home-grown algorithms can often reveal watermarks. New methods of detection are currently under investigation by both industry and non-industry researchers.

Metadata

Sometimes, metadata is included in purchased music which records information such as the purchaser’s name, account information, or email address. This information is not embedded in the played audio or video data, like a watermark, but is kept separate, but within the file or stream.

As an example, metadata is used in media purchased from Apple’s iTunes Store for DRM-free as well as DRM-restricted versions of their music or videos. This information is included as MPEG standard metadata.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. ragowidgigo permalink
    April 28, 2010 7:24 am

    Checking in here from my Ipad. Cool toy for sure. But thought I’d mention that I can’t read the right edge Is there a setting to fix?

  2. ragowidgigo permalink
    April 28, 2010 8:40 am

    Having fun with my Ipad. Good stuff, for sure. One problem is that the navigation buttons are flaky. Maybe it’s just me?

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