Understanding DRM

tech talk

By Adam Barber

As we very rapidly transition into a digital world, the content that we consume — our entertainment — has gone from a physical copy you can hold to something that you access via a device or platform. I’m talking about music, movies, TV shows and video games. The concept of owning a movie or a video game has gone from having the disc in your hands to having access to a file on a server. Sure, you could download it, but many times you can only use the piece of entertainment through a designated platform or a certain number of times. Sometimes you need an internet connection to access the content, or you are unable to make a backup copy of the media you have purchased. What stops these downloads from being downloaded and pirated throughout the internet? Why can I only watch my movie or play my music through designated platforms?

This is where Digital Rights Management (DRM) comes into play. DRM is essentially a protection for copyrighted material. It’s a method of securing content released digitally to prevent piracy and unauthorized use. DRM is a set of access control technologies that control the distribution, modification and use of the above-mentioned software and digital multimedia content, as well as devices and systems. If you were going to protect physical goods by putting a lock on them, then DRM is the digital equivalent of the lock.

It works by encrypting the digital content that is stored and transmitted so only authorized users can use it. Before the content is streamed or downloaded, it must be encrypted using multiple DRM schemes for device compatibility. Let’s say you just bought a movie from Amazon. So when a user tries to play back a video, the video player requests a key to decrypt the content from a license server. The server then determines whether the user and the device are authorized for playback. If they are, then the license server issues a decryption key. The video player can then decrypt and play the content for the user.

Is this a good thing, though? Some say yes, some say no. The general idea of DRM is to protect copyrighted material and to thwart would-be software pirates. This is to ensure that only someone who has purchased the media is able to use it, protecting the owners of the intellectual property and hopefully keeping sales numbers where they should be. There are several downsides, though.

Let’s take the computer-game industry as an example and how they implement DRM. They use several methods, but one is limited install activations. This is where the owner of the game is only allowed a limited number of installs. It’s usually about three or five. That number may seem fair, but what if a computer is reformatted or upgraded? This can be an issue for someone who is planning on playing this game for years to come on multiple computers. Another method is persistent online authentication. This is where a game must always be online to play. This is also intrusive as it forces someone to be online to play their game. What if their network is down, or the servers that are enforcing the DRM are not accessible some day?

So DRM is a complicated issue. I am all in favor of a digital future and in favor of paying full price for entertainment because I like supporting the industries and people that create it. It bothers me that a game I love, which I am totally willing to pay the full price for, may not make its money back or get a sequel because of lost sales due to piracy. I’m not sure if DRM is the answer, but it does attempt to protect the industries that create content.

Some are saying that relaxing the restrictions of DRM may actually be beneficial. Look at the content that is available on YouTube. Some artists are happy to get the word of their art out even if it means losing a few sales. What is lost at first may be gained via new revenue through an unofficial copy. DRM-free is actually regarded as a good thing to many, and even is looked at as good marketing. If the price is right, some people are happy to support DRM-free media and play video, music, or a game through any medium they see fit. It’s an interesting argument and one that affects us all in some form or another.

Adam Barber is a member of the Information Technology Senior Seminar course and is planning a career in network and systems administration.

Categories: Uncategorized

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