If you’ve been paying attention to news about online piracy, like the reaction to the PIPA and SOPA bills and the court-ordered blocking of popular torrent site The Pirate Bay in the UK, you’ve probably seen a few references to DRM.

Of course, that might not leave you any wiser as to what DRM actually is. While it has received quite a lot of attention in recent years with the increasing ease of downloading media, it is actually quite an old concept.

DRM – The Basics

DRM stands for Digital Right Management. Basically, it is the means and methods that companies use to prevent people from copying digital media like films, ebooks, music, computer games and software, or using them in a way the company does not wish.

If you have ever inputted an authorization code for a piece of software or a video game, then you have participated in a DRM method. If you have bought a DVD abroad and found that it will not play in your home DVD player, that is because of DRM.

One early form of DRM for video games would require users to input a particular phrase from a random page in the manual, like ‘industrial monitors’, in order to continue with the game. As people would often copy the disc but neglect to copy the manual, this would leave them unable to continue play.

Today methods include encryption, use of authorization codes and requiring a constant internet connection to use the software.

What is the Controversy?

The intention of DRM as put forward by companies is to prevent copyright infringement and protect the profits of the company and the rights of content producers. However, as most people know, it is still possible to acquire copies of media that have been modified or ‘cracked’ so they can be used without DRM.

According to opponents of DRM, all that it does, therefore, is inconvenience those that purchase the software legitimately, and may even drive them to seek out pirated versions simply to avoid the DRM.

Examples of this inconvenience are widespread. They include restrictions on which devices can use the media, such as songs from the iTunes store being restricted to Apple devices, and limitations on copying such that users cannot make back-ups of software they have purchased or transfer it to their other devices.

What is the Future?

Individual companies are going in different directions with regard to DRM. Some companies are imposing more and more restrictive DRM with more advanced technologies in an attempt to prevent the ‘cracking’ of the protection. By contrast, others are choosing to dispense with DRM altogether, reasoning that mitigating pirating is not worth the inconvenience to legitimate customers.