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Digital rights management (sometimes referred to as "digital restrictions management" or "digital rights mangling", especially among detractors, and usually abbreviated "DRM") is a general term for access control mechanisms implemented on digital media to limit what a user can and cannot do with it.

If you hear the word in general conversation, it's most likely specifically referring to the Copy Protection placed by copyright holders on digital audio and video files — restrictions on converting from one format to another, how many and what kinds of different devices the media can be played on, and so forth. One widespread example of this type of DRM is DVD Region Coding, which restricts playback of a DVD to a player marked with the same region code as the disc.

In the United States, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act outlaws the use of mechanisms for bypassing or circumventing DRM; other jurisdictions' laws vary.

The use of DRM is, to say the least, highly controversial. On the one hand, many large content groups (chief among them the RIAA, MPAA, IFPI, and video game distributors) argue that by preventing unauthorized copying, they ensure that artists are fairly compensated for their work and reduce the availability of illegal pirated content. On the other hand, a significant number of individuals and smaller entities (a number of indie record labels, for example) revile DRM as an infringement upon the user's own rights, such as fair use, and a counterproductive effort, as paying customers are burdened with inconveniences or worse while pirated versions simply lack any DRM that was originally present. Opponents seize on missteps like the infamous Sony "rootkit", which attempted to implement DRM on audio CDs by automatically installing software that opened computers to potential exploitation by malware.

Needless to say, reasoned discussion can be... difficult to come by, and much like the Console Wars, DRM as a subject of conversation is best avoided if you're not wearing a nice flame-proof jacket. An important issue with Digital Distribution, since there's no "physical" copy in the first place.

Not to be confused with "Direct Rendering Manager"[1] in Linux.

Types of DRM include:

  • Copy Protection - wherein measures are created to prevent users from copying floppies, CDs, DVDs, or other media.
  • Content Scrambling System (or CSS) - a measure on the software level to provide the same sort of Copy Protection.
  • Region Coding - a piece of software from another locale can't be run on your machine.
  • User Operation Prohibit Flag - a user can't skip past certain portions of a video CD or DVD.
  • Downloadable Content - in this case, in the sense that if you purchase a game pre-owned, you miss out on various portions of the game which were available to the original owner, unless you pay an 'access fee'.
Examples Of DRM In Use:

  • Gears of War 2 was the largest game to initially implement the lattermost 'DLC' variety, with a pack of 5 remade multiplayer maps from the first game, but developers have irritably joked about doing the same thing with the endings of other games - which also, of course, makes them Unwinnable to anyone without the ability to download the missing vital content.
    • Rock Band 2 is doing something similar — the manual includes a code that can be used to download 20 additional free songs (beyond the game's 84 on-disc), but the difference is that using this code is the only way to get the songs (as far as this troper knows). (Unfortunately, this also means there's no way to get them in the Playstation 2 version of the game, which doesn't support DLC.) The same exact code (NOT the DLC code recieved after submitting it to Harmonix, the 20-character code on the back of the manual) is also used to get most of the licensed RB 2 songs in Rock Band 3 (the ones from Harmonix-fronted bands were later released for free on the X360 and PlayStation 3)
      • Got Guitar Hero World Tour or Guitar Hero Smash Hits used? There's a good chance you won't be able to get any songs from them in Guitar Hero 5 (WITH all the new stuff added like Expert+ for GHWT drum charts) as a result of that, and you're guaranteed not to get them if you lack a manual. oh, and you still have to pay for the re-licensing, but that's the least of the worries here.
    • The Nintendo Wii Speak microphone includes a single-use code to download the Wii Speak channel. Bought it used? No software for you!
    • Forza Motorsport 3 has an extra set of classic cars and test/benchmark circuits that you can download with the supplied code in the box.
    • SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs Fireteam Bravo 3 is the worst offender as of this writing. Bought it used? Pay an extra 20$ to PLAY ONLINE!
    • EA has been doing this too, most recently with the BioWare games Dragon Age and Mass Effect 2, which each come with a code for an extra party member if you buy them new (you must pay $15 for them if you buy it used). Mass Effect 2 however has a little extra value with its Cerebus Network, which has various free bits of content, with more on the way, but you must either buy the game new or pay $15 for access to the network.
    • The Nintendo Wiiware release of Mega Man 10 was hacked right after its release by dedicated fans, who discovered that several DLC packs (that constituted an extra character, returning bosses from previous games and special stages) were already part of the coding (and that these DLC packs were already downloaded to your system when you bought the game). This meant that customers who bought the game had to pay an extra $10 to unlock content that was already made and on their systems. Naturally, this led to debates about the ethical nature of making customers pay for already-downloaded DLC.
      • Pokemon does the same thing.
        • Except it is free DLC.
      • Ditto Mass Effect 3 with its release-date DLC that you had to pay to unlock. A vocal segment of the fanbase views this as a blatant cash-grab on the part of EA and BioWare.
  • One of the earliest types and by far one of the most ineffective is the CD Key.
  • Microsoft Windows' Protected Media Path, to work with DRM-enabled media players.
  • Installation Limits, which prevent the game from being installed from the disk after it has been installed a few times.
  • SecuROM, which requires the CD to be in at all times when playing the game, although this can be defeated by either using a crack or making an ISO image of the game and mounting it.
    • Not really. Crack works, but an ISO image doesn't since Secu ROM depends on purposely flawed sectors to be present on a physical disc. IS Os tend to lack these sectors. However, there are proprietary image file types that would emulate flawed sectors to allow Secu ROM protected games to run.
    • These fake flawed sectors would also slow the drive to a crawl and could cause Windows to permanently lower the drive's access mode (and hence, speed). Tarring and feathering is too good for these people.
      • Repeatedly forcing a drive to read a bad track can't be good for it either...
      • It's not: forcing a drive to read bad sectors, tracks, and the like over and over again have had very detrimental consequences. See also...
  • By far the most infamous one before SecuROM is StarForce. To sum it up, it installs a device driver with the highest security privileges (a Ring 0 driver), disables any SCSI device on your computer (most image mounting tools create a virtual SCSI drive), had a tendency to be unstable (which could crash the OS), Windows Vista was terribly allergic to it in normal mode (or even Safe Mode), and left a huge security hole in your computer. This is all when it wasn't simply destroying your CD drive as a result of careless device commands [2]. It also didn't uninstall even if you uninstalled the game that came with it. Ubisoft was actually sued for using this.
    • Need more proof the StarForce developers are pond scum? When Stardock Software, creators of Galactic Civilizations and Sins of a Solar Empire, posted an article on their website stating how they felt that using DRM was bad customer relations and how they intended to abstain from DR Ming any of their titles, Star Force responded by publishing torrent links to Stardock's games. That's right, they actively aided people in pirating the games of a company who refused to use their product. Whatever your feelings about piracy, to do something like that against a company who refuses to use your product out of a desire to please their customers just to teach some kind of warped lesson smacks of pettiness.
      • As if that wasn't enough, they threatened the first two parties that raised awareness of the damage Starforce can cause with a lawsuit, claiming that the FBI has already been notified. Because it's the FBI you usually call when somebody's defaming you.
      • Even better, it's becoming an established (and even accepted) practice for people to torrent a game as a sort of informal demo, and fork over money if they like what they see. All StarForce has provided is free advertising.
  • One of the earliest types of DRM is the infamous "What is word 20 on line 5 in page 30 of the instruction manual?" checks. If you lost the manual or obtained the game without one? You don't get to play!
    • Sierra spoofed this a bit with an age check "DRM" for its Leisure Suit Larry games.
      • All of which has been undermined by the Internet, of course. And the fact that the Leisure Suit Larry questions were topical about twenty years ago.
  • One notable failure to enforce DRM in the music industry: Save an additional track to the disc, programmed and juxtaposed to convince computers the disc was blank. In order to render the disc playable on a computer, you'd have to render the track unreadable. Easier than it sounds, as the track was on the outermost edge, where it could easily be scratched or, more commonly, drawn over with a marker. That's right, America, possession of anything capable of marring a disc surface is now a federal offense.
    • Sony attempted a disastrous DRM scheme in 2005 that upon inserting the disc into your drive, installed a rootkit onto computers and opened them up to much nastier computer problems. Soon, Sony was up to its ears in lawsuits and wound up having to recall all affected CDs. One affected Sony band, My Morning Jacket, encouraged fans to bypass the software and offered to replace affected CDs free of charge. That was months before Sony's full blown recall.
    • By late 2006-early 2007, the major labels eventually abandoned DRM on CDs because they wound up agreeing with critics that claimed it was punishing paying customers, who in many cases had decided to illegally download music when they otherwise would not because of DRM protection.
  • The FADE system uses fake scratches on the disc, which most copying programs automatically fix. The master program of the game itself checks for the bogus scratches' presence, and if they aren't there it cripples that game's features one by one.
    • Some floppy disk games used similar systems, either by using non-standard formatting or having laser-burned holes in the medium's surface. Direct copying of these disks left out the discrepancies which were detected by the program.
  1. a component supporting hardware acceleration
  2. Protip to device driver programmers - Most computer CD-ROM drives do not take step-down commands very well while they're actively writing data.