DRM is Here to Stay

Techies make a lot of noise about its negative effects, but digital rights management still has plenty of fans.


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Overall, I’m a pretty optimistic kind of guy. I generally believe that things will turn out for the best in the long run. But no matter how optimistic I’m feeling on a particular day, I just can’t see a future where all digital content is set free and DRM (Digital Rights Management) becomes a thing of the past. True, some content will be set free from the digital shackles, but there will always be content that’s secured by DRM in one form or another.

Although schemes to control duplication of software have been around since the 1970s, over the past decade companies have been increasing their use of DRM to protect digital content from duplication. An early example of DRM is the Content Scrambling System used on DVD movies which was introduced around 1996. Since then music and movie studios have enthusiastically embraced DRM, using it to protect all kinds of media across numerous platforms (CDs, DVDs, HD-DVD, Blu-ray, web downloads, pay-per-view movies, and TiVo recordings are just a few of the many examples of how DRM is used).

Many believe that DRM exists solely to prevent pirates from making perfect copies of digital media and selling this off for a profit. To be honest, while this might have been the goal of DRM in the beginning, I’m pretty sure that the scheme has experienced significant “feature creep” since its inception. Despite nearly a decade of DRM, you can still find and download pretty much anything you want. Movies, music, audiobooks, you name it. In fact, if the goal of DRM was to prevent piracy, it’s failed —- and failed dismally.

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When I look at the way that the music industry and the movie studios are using DRM, I don’t see a secure digital lock designed to keep the pirates at bay. Instead I see it as likened to a chastity belt. Rather than being truly secure, DRM is more of a symbolic security system that’s designed to prevent casual wrongdoing, but which is useless against any kind of serious attack. If an individual isn’t motivated to defeat the lock, then the system works. If an individual is determined, then the security of the lock depends on how motivated the individual is to get the better of it.

There are other potential upsides to having a system of DRM, even if it is weak and imperfect. This is because it acts as a stumbling block that gets in the way of average users casually distributing copyrighted content. Stop a good kid turning bad and all that. How effective is DRM at doing this? Who knows, but you can be sure that the effect is small given that “ripping” CDs and now DVDs is becoming commonplace.

To show just how determined hackers can be to bypass RM, take for example the AACS (Advanced Access Content System) access restriction scheme used to secure high-definition movies. This is a very tough, high-tech scheme that took many years and millions of dollars to develop, but hackers armed with little more than memory dumps and a lot of patience found weaknesses in the system within days, and came out with working hacks within weeks.

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