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What Is DRM?

Question: Looking at a book online it said: “At the Publisher’s request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.” – What’s that about?

DRM, or Digital Rights Management, is software that prevents you from copying digital purchases and giving them to others.

Naturally, it’s complicated, and can be used for more fine-tuned control, but put another way, at its core it simply prevents theft of copyrighted material.

Unfortunately, it’s rarely bullet-proof, and in doing its job, it’s the innocent who pay the highest price.

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DRM in action

The fact that you can’t easily make a copy of a DVD or Blu-ray disk is probably the most common example of DRM in action.

The fact that you can find software that breaks or bypasses the DRM used on DVDs or Blu-ray disks is the best example of why DRM so often fails.

In your case, I would guess that most books from the seller you’re visiting have DRM applied in such a way that you can only view those books on devices you have registered with that seller. You might copy the file to someone else’s device, but because of DRM and your copy being locked to your account, they’re unable to read it.

Amazon’s Kindle is a good example. The native Kindle file-format is “.mobi” — a format specifically designed for ebook readers. On top of that, Amazon places a layer of DRM that locks the books you buy to your account. Without that DRM, you could give the digital book to anyone to read: something publishers typically don’t appreciate.

DRM is encryption

LockedFor all its complexities and differing implementations, DRM is nothing more than a form of encryption. The content you’re provided is encrypted in such a way that only authorized agents can decrypt and view it.

DVD and Blu-ray players have decryption keys built in. Your Amazon account includes a Kindle decryption key of some sort. Other DRM techniques not only control and limit distribution of the appropriate decryption key or technique to authorized players, but also make sure all content is distributed in an appropriately encrypted format.

Perhaps the simplest way to think of DRM is as an encrypted file for which only authorized parties have the password. And, indeed, some very simple DRM is exactly that: a password you must enter before being allowed to view a locked document.

The “management” in DRM

As I said, DRM can be more complex than simple encryption. A good example I run into is Kindle books that are limited, not just to your account, but to a specific number of devices within your account.1

For most people, that’s probably not an issue, but I’m an outlier: my wife and I have something like eight Kindle devices or applications installed on our computers or mobile devices. Naturally, the mix of devices we have changes from time to time.2

In attempting to download a book recently, I was informed I’d reached the limit of the number of devices I could read it on (five in this case, but it’s the publisher that sets the number, not Amazon). They would, of course, be happy to sell me an additional copy. I had to “de-register” one of the older devices in order to free up one of those slots before I could download to the device I wanted to read it on.

For every DRM, there is an equal and opposite…

One of the frustrations around DRM is my old adage: when it comes to digital material, “if it can be seen, it can be copied”.

In order to legitimately consume DRM-protected content, it somehow has to be decrypted. Therefore, one way or another, it can be copied.

As I mentioned above, there are utilities that remove DRM from DVDs and Blu-ray disks, Amazon Kindle books, and probably just about anything else you can think of. If someone is dedicated or knowledgeable enough, most DRM is simply a minor speed bump.

DRM keeps honest people honest … and annoyed

The real issue I have with DRM is that it hurts the honest consumer while only inconveniencing the thief. It’s not an effective deterrent, and it gets in the way of what I consider valid and morally appropriate actions, like backing up.

This is why the digital books I sell have no DRM. I don’t believe in it.

Yes, I’m sure my books are stolen regularly, but I’m not going to further inconvenience my paying customers because of it.

Other publishers feel differently. Many — usually older, traditional publishers — like to lock DRM down tightly, so you can have one and only one copy of whatever you’ve purchased, like that DVD or Blu-ray disc.

DRM and the law

I am no lawyer, and this is in no way legal advice.

When it comes to DRM, things get complicated.

For example, in the United States, it’s apparently currently illegal to break or bypass DRM. Yes, that means making a backup copy of a DVD or DRM’ed ebook you own is against the law.

In other countries, that’s not necessarily true. In fact, many of the utilities used to bypass DRM originate in countries with less draconian rules relating to digital content.

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Footnotes & references

1: Actually, I appreciate Amazon’s approach. Their technology allows for digital books to be shared individually, or entire libraries of books to be shared between accounts. Any limits are generally there to appease publishers.

2: This was recently exacerbated when I went through three mobile phones in the course of a couple of months, due to the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 debacle.

12 comments on “What Is DRM?”

  1. All of these problems that I am talking about are with digital library books.

    I have never been able to use my Kindle devices to read “PDF/EPUB” formats. (except your books) I have unsuccessfully tried using Adobe Digital Additions along with Calibre, but I finally had to give up frustrated. The only thing that works on my Kindle devices is the Kindle format (which you just told me is “MOBI”), so I’ve been sticking to that. (There are slightly more books in PDF/EPUB format than in Kindle format)

    The librarian told me to bring in my device and she would show me how to get it done. I am skeptical but maybe someday. I can read these formats on my PC, I think because I registered it with Adobe once. Seems to me I’d have to cart my PC down to the library for her to do that. I am trying to read on two devices which your article says can’t be done with DRM coded formats. I’ll just live with that I guess and forget about PDF/EPUB.

    • The Kindle should be able to read PDF without any modifications. Maybe your librarian can help you with that. EPUB is another story. It is simply incompatible with the Kindle. You should, however, be able to convert from EPUB (or most other formats) to MOBI or PDF using Calibre.

    • Kindle does not support “epub” format. It supports “mobi”. SOME PDFs will work, but many will not or will not work well. You can try emailing them to your Kindle email address – I believe Amazon will process them to make them appear better on your device.

      You can try using the program “Calibre” on your PC to convert from epub to mobi. (Warning – it’s pretty geeky). Calibre also includes a reader that will read all the formats we’re discussing on your PC.

  2. I have moved to The USA last year……and brought with me my large collection of DVD’s CD’s….etc …..Films and music bought Legally in England……..BUT many of the Films will not play in our US drives………saying something like…….”.Out of legal area”…..Whats this all about Leo……………..???

    • Due to licensing (licencing in your language :-) ) rights, there are area codes set up for videos which only allow those DVDs to be played on machines licensed for those areas. There are programs which can bypass those restrictions. Their legality is questionable, so I won’t post any recommendations here, but Google should be glad to oblige.

    • DVDs are “region coded”, meaning that they will only play in players coded for the same region. It’s another example of piracy prevention hurting the innocent.

  3. A little off topic as this does not relate to DVD or CD copying.

    We use Adobe LiveCycle DRM to deliver protected printable materials to our clients (proprietary training materials). It works really well. However, you are correct, managing the DRM on the back end takes a lot of time and effort and our client are frequently flummoxed by the steps required to open a document (use an Adobe product, enter a user name and password). In our case, the biggest challenge is explaining to users that third-part PDF viewers are not able to open these encrypted files.

    We enjoy the ability to control access virtually, track usage, modify rights and permissions at will and track IP addresses of anyone accessing the files. This tool plus the basic assumption that most people are honest allows us to feel like our materials are not getting freely passed about all over the world.

    • With screen shots and optionally an OCR program, your documents can be easily copied and distributed. You’re only keeping the honest people honest.

  4. Just FYI, on having a collection of cds/dvds from a different region or in a different format (PAL, for example): we have a small collection of such movies that were never released in the United States. Usually an external drive will give you a small number of chances (5?) to switch the region code before it “locks in” on the final one. You’ll have to read (usually) pretty deep into manual to find out how to do it because, even though it’s perfectly legal, they don’t really WANT you to know.

    While the cost of tech has come so far down, we simply have a dedicated external drive set to the region we need for our European and Australian dvds. This isn’t illegal in the slightest; we bought the products legally, from legal sources in a different “region”, and in my non-lawyer opinion, it is of questionable legality to prevent us from the fair and legal home viewing use of these digital resources. They aren’t pirated and we’ve done nothing wrong.

    So, if you have a collection of dvds from a different region, go splurge $50 on a separate drive or dvd player that you can set to that rehion. Make sure when you buy it that it has the ability to change regions; not all of them do, but this information is usually pretty prominent in customer reviews on the larger sites. And then remember that even if it says “region-free”, my experience is that this only means that you get to reset the region a limited number of times before it “locks in” (I guess designed for people who will be traveling with it a couple times, like if you’re deployed military or something).

    Yes, as the author says, there are free and easy software versions of “region-free players” that we’ve also used with great success, but if you’re looking to be absolutely within the letter of the law, it’s not a crime to have a dedicated machine to play your legitimately purchased foreign films that were never available in your own region.


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