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Digital Rights Management – Boon or Bane?


With the increase in technological advances, the world as we know it is drifting towards a digital space and this space has resulted in the production and distribution of digital content. The term ‘content’ broadly refers to any processed and packaged digital information, such as digital audio, video, graphics, animation or any combination of these types. The increase in the generation of digital content has raised several questions about the rights of the content creators and, in an attempt to protect these rights, the Digital Rights Management (DRM) systems came into existence.

DRM is a way to protect copyrighted work. It is used to protect the proprietary software and prevent users from replicating the programming codes. It’s also been increasingly used in the literary field especially when it comes to e-books. DRM influences user rights to access the same ebook over multiple platforms and also governs ebook sharing between users and devices. Currently there are three basic DRM systems that are in use: Adobe DRM, Amazon Kindle DRM, and Apple FairPlay DRM. Ebooks in any one of those DRM systems are incompatible with the others.

kindle e-reader and book

How Does DRM Work?

DRM was essentially developed to regulate and manage appropriate and fair use of digital content. It allows a user to restrict others from editing or saving digital content, prevents others from sharing content, and prohibits others from downloading the content that they can access. For authors and publishers, DRM allows an author to keep a track of the number of people who have accessed/purchased a copy of their book. In addition, in order to avoid any unauthorised usage it sets an expiry date on a document that limits the number of downloads or uses a user has for that book or document.

In order to successfully perform all these functions there are a few steps that are undertaken by the system in the background.

  • Step 1: The devices make a request to the content server for the desired content.
  • Step 2: The digital content has a header that consists of content ID which uniquely identifies the content and other metadata that are used for appropriate rendering of content.
  • Step 3: In order to consume the digital content a request for license is made, wherein the device sends information about its characteristics, credentials, intended usage and payment information.
  • Step 4: The license server uses the above information received from the device together with relevant information to generate rights for the particular combination of content and intended usage.
  • Step 5: It then packages the rights and the key, produces the license and sends it to the device, after which the device shall be allowed to consume the content based on rules specified in the license.

Negotiating Between Authors and Reader Rights

Many people implement DRM in order to add an extra layer of protection to their content because of a variety of advantages. Firstly, DRM raises awareness about copyright and intellectual property, although the users consuming the digital content are not really bothered about the IP aspects governing the content as long as they get what they have paid for. Secondly DRM helps in regulating the way the users interact with the content that they have purchased. Thirdly it helps content creators to retain their ownership over their creative content, which in turn secures their revenue stream that is generated from the consumer who have paid for their content. Finally, it helps to keep the files private and confidential, preventing unauthorised access. This is particularly significant in the era of mass-reproducible, easily shared digital content.

It can be seen that DRM as a system does offer extra protection and prevent people from producing copies of the creator’s works. However, it also does pose many challenges that not only hinders the consumer’s experience of utilizing the purchased content, thereby reducing the chances of the creator to capitalize on his work. Authors and Publishers who resort to self-publishing, in particular, have found that the cons outweigh the DRM.

Self-publishing, with its comparatively smaller marketing budget and comparatively lower overhead costs, rely heavily on word of mouth and easy access to make their works profitable. Platforms like Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing that offer self-publishing services to its customers provide an option of DRM for the user to protect their book from unauthorised use. While authors may initially see this as a good thing, they often miss the point that by enabling DRM as a feature for their book, they are regulating the consumer’s use of their content.

DRM comes with several restrictions and safety mechanisms that are installed to protect the content from piracy but this hinders the experience of the genuine user who paid money for the content. For example: If a user has two devices enabled to access digital content, the DRM system will prevent that user from sharing it further or downloading the content more than once and this irks many honest consumers who have paid for books and who wish to access the content from multiple devices. DRM, ultimately, changes the purchase of books into a limited license given on the same book, and it’s evident how many readers may see this as unfair.


The implications of DRM are quite controversial, the argument of first sale rights and how those are affected by potential for misuse not being the least of them. Authors, publishers or content creators in general have widely differing opinions on the subject.

While DRM does, in theory, have many benefits and actually serves the purpose of preventing piracy, it is in reality it’s a feeble mechanism that can be circumvented with ease. In addition, there is no point in having an extra layer of protection if it tends to demotivate a client base from accessing your content.

As it stands, DRM as a system isn’t doing justice to what it stands for, but there is scope for improvement in future. If it is developed keeping in mind both the content creators as well as the general public it has the potential become an effective tool to combat piracy.

Author: Nihal Raj, Legal Intern at PA Legal.

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