Digital Rights Management

Overview With the popularity of digital "content," such as books, software, music, and movies, concern about illegal copying and pirating is growing. Although copyright laws, such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, clearly define acceptable and unacceptable use, they have done little to curb digital pirates. In response to rampant pirating, companies are turning to a group of technology solutions referred to as digital rights management.

Whatis.com defines digital rights management (DRM) as " a systematic approach to copyright protection for digital media. DRM's purpose is to prevent illegal distribution of paid content over the Internet." You’ll find an excellent introduction to DRM at Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_rights_management. To get a quick idea of the current headlines and events surrounding DRM, go to the DRM Watch page www.drmwatch.com.

Many attempts to protect content are fairly simplistic. The popularity of music downloads require more complex approaches that provided legitimate customers with flexibility to transfer files to portable devices and burn CDs, but prevent unlimited copying and distribution by pirates. Microsoft and Apple have two of the most sophisticated DRM technologies for music and movie content.

Windows Media DRM Microsoft developed technology called Windows Media DRM, which offers flexible content access and control. Windows Media DRM allows content providers, such as online music stores, to encrypt a digital media file, lock it with a "key," and bundle additional information that allows the file to be played only by a licensed subscriber.

An extension to Windows Media DRM targets portable devices. HowStuffWorks.com offers an overview of DRM technology: "Digital rights management is a far-reaching term that refers to any scheme that controls access to copyrighted material using technological means. In essence, DRM removes usage control from the person in possession of digital content and puts it in the hands of a computer program. The applications and methods are endless." For more read. Windows media DRM is used on several online music stores including MSN music and Walmart Music Downloads.

Apple DRM Apple’s DRM system, called FairPlay, is used at its iTunes music store. It allows customers to download a track for a small fee, play it on a limited number of registered computers, and burn it to CDs. According to iTunes policies, Music is stored in a protected AAC format that requires compatible player software or a sanctioned portable device, such as an iPod.

Rights declaration languages You know from learning about the Web and HTML that XML is a markup language, which allows content authors to incorporate structured fields into HTML documents. XrML (Extended Rights Markup Language) is a set of XML-based tags that can be used to define rights for digital content. Additional rights declaration languages include drl and MPEG21.

DRM in business DRM is big in the entertainment field because companies want to protect books, software, music, and movies from piracy, but DRM has also entered the radar screen of businesses that want to protect corporate data and client privacy. For example, e-mail about a new product could be assigned "rights" that prevent it from being forwarded or copied. A Wireless magazine article provides a good summry of digital rights management in a wireless world.

DRM has been compared to an intelligent envelope that doesn’t prevent unauthorized access, but can limit access to intended recipients and minimize casual spying. In addition it can specify more complex usage rules, such as "this file can be read once but not copied or moved" or "this file will self-destruct twenty-four hours after being opened, or 30 days after being received, which ever comes first." For confidential business information, such usage rules could be critically important. Server and client software for digital rights management can be obtained from several software publishers.

DRM controversy Digital rights management has far reaching and sometimes unexpected effects. For example, people with visual impairments who use computers depend on screen readers to verbalize information and controls displayed on the screen. The American Foundation for the Blind is worried about DRM technologies that disable e-book screen readers.

A report from the Free Expression Policy Project states "Few of us would want to live in a world where corporations or government agents monitor and control what we do with every book, computer program, or CD that we buy." Consumer advocates caution that DRM can impose extreme limitations with a chilling affect on free speech and other rights. The Truth About Digital Rights Management presents some of DRM’s disadvantages. Additional points can be found at this Research Information article titled "Digital Rights Management: Busines saviour or content enslaver?" The Electronic Frontier Foundation maintains an archive of articles related to controversial aspects of DRM. You’ll also enjoy a narrated slide show about DRM produced by Northwestern University staff member, Claire Stewart.