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Written by: Joshua Garcia
Written on: September 1st, 2005
Tags: entertainment
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About the Author
Joshua Garcia was a senior at USC majoring in Computer Engineering & Computer Science. He enjoys spending time with his girlfriend, listening to punk rock, watching Japanese animation, reading science fiction/fantasy novels, and exercising.
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Volume VII Issue II > Rescuing or Imprisoning Digital Media
Because the Internet makes digital media easily accessible, copyright infringement is a more serious risk than ever before. At the same time, great creative and educational opportunities arise from the unparalleled availability of so much creative work. A system called Digital Rights Management (DRM) has been developed to enforce and protect copyrighted digital media and intellectual property. DRM aims to ensure creative and educational opportunity through availability of digital media while reducing the risk of copyright infringement.

An Alternative to Suing

Much has been made in the press recently concerning the increasing risk of individual lawsuits against those illegally downloading music online. In fact, any media capable of being converted into a digital format brings risks for not only digital bootleggers, but also for the creators of the content. With this risk, however, comes opportunity for creators and consumers alike. The creative possibilities are virtually limitless when taking into account the different ways music, videos and print can be combined to create entertaining or educational works. Anyone who can manipulate basic images and edit sounds or music can create a funny online cartoon. Up-and-coming bands can use peer-to-peer (P2P) networks to make their music easily available to a much wider audience than a homemade CD could reach. Online books, articles and journals give students access to a variety of reliable resources that can enhance their education. The abundance and accessibility of digital media due to the Internet make these opportunities possible. On the other hand, the creators of digital media risk losing compensation and having their work abused when their creations become available without restriction. File sharing across the Internet, especially through P2P networks, has brought these issues to the forefront of today's technology news.
Several different methods of dealing with the copyright issues of file sharing have emerged. The Record Industry Association of America (RIAA) has filed many high-profile lawsuits to curtail file sharing of digital music on P2P networks. Many of these lawsuits have been against the organizations responsible for running P2P networks, such as the original Napster. Seeing a potential to legalize and capitalize in this situation, online subscription services, such as iTunes and the new Napster, have recently become a popular way of dealing with the issue of sharing digital media across the Internet. Software engineers have developed a key tool, called Digital Rights Management (DRM), used in online subscription services to deal with copyright issues regarding digital media. Although no standard definition of DRM exists, DRM may be thought of as a system for protecting and enforcing copyrighted digital media or intellectual property in digital formats.

How DRM Works

DRM operates as a system of parts with special features that allow the protection and distribution of digital media. DRM systems may vary between different online subscription services; however, most DRM systems share a common model [1]. The common DRM model works like a virtual shop with different people helping to keep the shop in business.
The key to the DRM system is the use of one or more software-based protection technologies that prevent misuse of the copyrighted digital media. These protection technologies act similarly to the types of security measures people take to protect their valuables or money. However, protection technologies are coded into computer programs rather than being physically tangible. In a survey given to content providers in the music, film and print industry, encryption, copy detection systems, and digital signatures were perceived as the most capable protection technology of a DRM system.
Encryption, a preventive technique, operates like a lock for digital media. Online subscription services use encryption to control who may use and access distributed content [2]. These services can choose among different sets of instructions, called algorithms, in order to add encryption to digital media. Encryption on most online subscription services uses a symmetric key algorithm [1]. A symmetric key algorithm uses the same key to encrypt or decrypt a piece of information. This algorithm can be thought of as using the same key to lock and unlock a door. In this example, the room behind the door is the digital media and the lock is the encryption. While encryption is a passive technology, copy detection systems actively use search engines to find illegal copies of digital media over networks [2]. These systems act like drug-sniffing canines sent out to find illegal substances on criminals. While copy detection aims to catch offenders, digital signatures aim to identify authentic digital media.
Digital signatures use additional code in the digital media in order to verify its origin. These signatures are the digital equivalent of a distinctive watermark or seal attached to a letter from an organization. The symbol serves to verify the authenticity of the letter.

The Ideals Behind DRM

DRM aims to be a compromise between copyright owners and consumers when exchanging digital media for monetary compensation. DRM aspires to provide maximum freedom for consumers while the owners maintain an acceptable level of control. This means DRM must be able to abide by fair use laws. If DRM is too restrictive, people will not want to purchase digital media online. At the same time, DRM intends to provide the protection and management capabilities needed to give copyright owners reasonable control over their work. DRM strives to provide copyright owners and content providers the means to control the digital media they created or own to satisfy their interests.
These interests need not be monetary, but may also involve preventing any other kind of abuse when using copyrighted digital media. This process of fair exchange between copyright owners and consumers must serve the general public's interest and must be legally enforced. The impact of DRM on the general public must be determined to ensure that outside parties are not adversely affected by the DRM process. DRM must operate in accordance to laws so that all parties involved are protected. Although DRM aims mainly at protecting copyright owners and consumers, the enforcement of the law and the general public's satisfaction play important roles in determining whether DRM truly achieves its goals.

DRM Requirements

Three main requirements greatly determine whether the ideals behind DRM are met. The first requirement is that content providers must be able to manage the copyrighted works over the content's lifetime. This is achieved through the protection technologies outlined above. The protection schemes allow digital media to be unmodified and remain authentic even when moved among different devices and software systems. Arrangements between different parties in the DRM system must be flexible and allowed to change in some manner depending on circumstances. The second requirement is that consumers must be allowed to use digital media in varying ways in order to make purchasing digital media an attractive option. Copyright owners and content providers need to be able to choose among suitable alternatives regarding how the digital media they own can be used. Finally, DRM must provide a neutral technology-enforced environment [3]. This means that all parties must be aware of the different advantages and disadvantages held by the other parties. Online subscription services earn consumers' trust through such neutrality.

You Can't Make Everyone Happy

A major debate regarding DRM involves its implications regarding fair use. Fair use allows people who have purchased any kind of digital media to legally make a backup copy of the media [4]. For example, most online music services allow consumers to burn to CD any songs they download. All of the intricate protection technology described above becomes easily circumvented by taking that burned CD and ripping the songs on the CD to MP3s, which makes content providers wary of allowing this option. On the other hand, consumers see less value in purchasing media to be played on the computer upon which it was downloaded. This is a difficult situation to balance.
Another problem arises regarding the desired flexibility requirement for DRM. The flexibility requirement suggests that general fair use be found in DRM systems. Two difficulties arise when attempting to implement general fair use into any system [1]. General fair use requires the system to be able to know under what circumstances the media is being used. Different usage rights would be accorded, for instance, depending on whether the setting is academic, commercial, personal or even be a combination of the three. Determining all the necessary information needed to answer such a question tends to be difficult enough for a well-trained person. Trying to determine the necessary input into a DRM system to circumstantial use is extremely challenging. Software engineers continue their effort to allow such precise data to be inputted into software systems.
The second difficulty of implementing general fair use involves how to interpret all the circumstantial data assuming it can all be inputted into the DRM system. The artificial intelligence (AI) required to analyze all the data involved does not exist yet. Imagine attempting to reconcile the effect the copyright infringement will have on society compared to the monetary value of the impact. A well-trained sociologist with a law degree may even find such a problem difficult. The current state of AI cannot deal with these problems. Researchers in AI continue to battle these issues of interpreting varying circumstantial data where certain effects are difficult to measure. Inputting circumstantial knowledge and AI problems prevent true flexibility with DRM systems.
These problems demonstrate that DRM systems walk a fine line between being too permissive and too restrictive. Possible algorithms that seek to determine fair use would make both overly permissive and overly restrictive errors [1]. An example of such a dichotomous problem for DRM involves digital books. Digital bookstores that use DRM systems may require payments or identification before the digital print can be read. This may be too restrictive for consumers because it would not allow them to open and preview a book, as in a bookstore, before purchasing [5]. However, allowing people to preview the book online runs the risk of the book being copied before it is purchased. This risk would be like allowing customers to bring copy machines into the bookstore. This kind of bookstore ends up either being too permissive by letting people copy books for free or too restrictive by not letting people preview books at all. DRM needs to be able to address this issue of being too restrictive or too permissive.

The Bigger Picture

Picture your favorite band breaking up because they do not make enough money to justify touring eleven months out of the year. Such a risk presents itself if digital media becomes too permissive and creators do not get properly compensated. However, consider what might happen if major record labels no longer have a monopoly over music because it becomes more widely accessible. This accessibility provides people with a wider variety of music, some of which has never received attention before. DRM may help determine whether major record labels continue their monopoly over mainstream music and whether greater musical variety will flourish.
Although DRM may stifle major record labels, its excessive restrictiveness or permissiveness may also stifle creative work for individual people. The funny digital cartoons made online that you enjoy for free may not even exist anymore if people are not free to make them. Conversely, if DRM is too restrictive, imagine a similar situation in which your favorite author's online book is delayed because there are too many restrictions placed on the purchase of the online book. The success or failure of DRM will partially determine whether these possibilities become reality.


The effects of DRM do not start and stop between the content provider and the consumer. The problems facing DRM systems will help determine the direction of intellectual property law and software protection technology which will, in turn, affect the flow of new ideas in the future. Society's continued advancement is dependent on ideas being able to flow freely. DRM will potentially play a significant role in ensuring or preventing the free flow of ideas in this digital era.


    • [1] Q. Liu, et al. "Digital rights management for content distribution." Conferences in Research and Practice in Information Technology Series, vol. 21, pp. 49-58, 2003.
    • [2] M. Fetscherin. "Comparing the usage of digital rights management systems in the music, film, and print industry." Proceedings of the 5th international conference on Electronic commerce, pp. 316-325, 2003.
    • [3] N. Garnett. "Digital Rights Management, Copyright, Napster." ACM SIGecom Exchanges, vol. 2.2, pp. 1-5, 2001.
    • [4] E.W. Felten. "A Skeptical View of DRM and Fair Use." Communications of the ACM, vol. 46.4, pp. 57-9, April 2003.
    • [5] C. Russell. "Fair use under fire." Library Journal, vol. 128.13, pp. 32-4, August 2003.