Cryptography has been used for thousands of years to protect important information. While the ancient Romans might have used simple letter shifting ciphers, our current age of mass digital content distribution requires a more complex method of keeping assets secure. This is known as digital rights management (DRM). But what is DRM, why is it necessary, and how does it work? Let’s have a closer look.

The Problems with Pirates

Rather than just a never-ending source of material for scriptwriters, modern-day digital pirates are actually a grave threat to the entertainment industry. The proliferation of internet piracy is estimated to cost the industry between $6-8 billion annually. It also presents serious risks for content creators and distributors if they don’t have the revenue security they need to guarantee ROI on their projects.

Take for example a content project from a Hollywood movie studio or an OTT streamer like Netflix. They will have invested a huge amount of money in an asset, such as a blockbuster movie or a new series. If that asset gets pirated it can be shared everywhere online for free, meaning that the people who actually worked on it won’t realize the full ROI potential of their asset. They may even end up losing money on the project.

It’s understandable then that the owners and creators of content will want to ensure their digital media is extremely well-protected at all times. However, that’s where a number of challenges arise, such as:

  • The solution itself slowing loading times and complicating user access
  • Defining the difference between permanent and temporary usage of content
  • Providing different levels of access to the same encryption keys and content
  • Preventing people from purchasing their digital content in cheaper jurisdictions
  • Maintaining full control over encryption keys for media files that are shared with users

To overcome all of these challenges, it is not enough to simply encrypt the content. That encryption solution must also provide the flexibility and capability to enable rights owners to maximize the revenue of their digital assets. Enter digital rights management, which was created as a specific solution to meet the needs of digital content distributors.

What is DRM Like in Action?

As such an integral part of both the security and business model of digital content providers, the burning question on all our minds is understandable: what is DRM actually doing that makes it so important?

There are several elements that go into creating a functional DRM system that can be broken down into:

Key management: Most modern encryption works on the basis of cryptographic keys being exchanged. This means that the owner of the material can encrypt it and the holder of the correct key can decrypt it. Key management is about making sure that only the right people have the keys to access the encrypted material.

Policy and key usage management: In the modern digital world, a single unencrypted file of a movie, episode, or album could be downloaded illegally tens of millions of times in the space of a few days if the wrong people manage to get access to it. Considering OTT streamers alone have over 600 million subscribers, content providers must take great pains to ensure that the people who have cryptographic keys only use them the way they are supposed to.

Trust management: Content creators rely on a wide array of distribution channels in different countries and across various mediums to bring their assets to market. The millions of distribution points in this massive content ecosystem are not just the customer-facing point of consumption, but also include editing and news media organizations. Each of these points is a potential leakage source, so it’s essential that content creators are able to trust how content providers (e.g., streamers) are implementing security policies and monitoring key usage and storage.

How DRM Works

Digital rights management seeks to address all of the concerns listed above by wrapping the encryption key in a set of policies. To access the content, you need the key, and to access the key, you must satisfy the conditions of the policy.

So, for example, every time a subscriber to Disney+, Hulu, or Netflix wants to view content, their device checks the licensing rules. If the rules are met, the user receives a validation token that allows them to use the encryption key and view the content.

The business rules or policy requirements that DRM contains can vary greatly and can assist companies in collating data to improve algorithms and customer experience and segregating markets successfully.

What is DRM checking for?

  • Has the content been purchased from the appropriate source?
  • Is the device approved for use and compatible with the distributor?
  • Has the user reached the time limit for their usage of the content?
  • Is the subscriber’s account in order? (E.g., are there age restrictions on the account? Have they paid their subscription fee?)
  • Are they in the appropriate locality relative to the content’s rules? (For example, a movie might not be approved for release in a certain country or a series might have been sold to network TV rather than a streamer.)

The integrated process of using business rules to define cryptographic key usage creates a flexible and adaptable security solution for digital content providers. It bolsters their revenue security and also improves how they conduct their business. With improvements in broadband speeds and the lightweight nature of leading DRM systems, this is all achieved without inconveniencing customers, slowing down streaming speeds, or otherwise affecting their entertainment experience.

DRM: Essential to Any Business

Digital assets make up a substantial portion of the content that people interact with and consume on a daily basis. This popularity makes digital content vulnerable to those looking to exploit it, making digital rights management imperative for companies in every industry to protect their most valuable assets.

DRM is the next logical step, after encryption, for enabling publishers and content producers to retain control over their intellectual property and protect their revenue streams no matter where their content is published.