Digital Rights Management (DRM) is a broad descriptor applied to the many technological methods utilized by copyright holders to restrict unauthorized access to and use of a creative work.
DRM is not restricted to a single means of copyright owner control, nor is it a single technological method of achieving this goal. For example, a movie studio may utilize DRM to prevent a user from skipping through advertisements shown at the beginning of a DVD, or a music company may use DRM to prevent a customer from listening to an MP3 on multiple computers. Although the motives at play in these two cases are different (advertising additional products vs. preventing an unauthorized copying of a work), both examples involve the use of DRM to achieve the aims of a copyright owner. Because DRM may be used for different ends but always in service of preventing an unauthorized use, it may best be defined as technological limitations put in place by IP owners to restrict the full and unfettered use of a work by consumers.
DRM is utilized by content creators for a host of reasons, not all of which are at the expense of consumers. Listed below are some examples:
Ensuring distribution of unaltered works – some content creators may use DRM to ensure that their work is disseminated in its original, intended form. For example, a programmer may use DRM to ensure that her freeware program is used only for its originally intended purposes. Or, a writer who makes his work available as a free e-book may use DRM to ensure that his writing is distributed unaltered.
The “Digital Ticket Taker” – DRM may be useful in limiting access to certain performances or content to those that meet a specified criteria, be it monetary or otherwise. One example is the streaming of a concert or play behind a pay wall. The product being sold is the opportunity to view a creative work, and “use of DRM to limit the audience only to those who have paid is as benign as posting a guard at the theater or museum door to check admission tickets… . [T]his use is equally helpful in encouraging more public performances without regard to whether the work being performed publicly is copyrighted.”
Privacy and Security – DRM may be used to restrict access to private documents. A law firm may use DRM to allow a client to view their own file, while blocking them from accessing files of other clients. Or the US military might supply contractors with access to some classified information, while employing DRM to prohibit access to other sensitive data.
Copy Protection – perhaps the most commonly encountered and by far the most controversial use of DRM, a content creator may employ technologies to limit a consumer’s ability to copy, transfer, or otherwise duplicate a work. DRM used to this end may range from entirely unobtrusive to down-right abusive: for example, some software has DRM that allows the user to install the program on up to 5 computers simultaneously, while others allow only one installation and require a constant internet connection to use.
DRM, Electric Frontier Foundation, https://www.eff.org/issues/drm (last visited Mar. 23, 2012).
Brett Glass, What does DRM really mean?, PC, http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,1164012,00.asp (last visited Mar. 23, 2012).
John T. Mitchell, DRM: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Colleges, Code and Copyright: The Impact of Digital Networks and Technological Controls on Copyright: Publications in Librarianship no. 56, American Library Association (June, 2004), available at http://interactionlaw.com/documentos/DRM_good_bad_ugly.pdf.