Digital Rights Management (sometimes referred to as "digital restrictions management" or "digital rights mangling", by 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. 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.

What's perhaps proven the most relevant objection, though, is that DRMed files are usually just plain less useful. For instance, it's often impossible to transfer them from one device to another. That means it's actually more convenient to have an illegal file that some nice pirate has already stripped the DRM off of. All moral arguments one way or another aside, it became increasingly clear throughout the '00s that letting the pirates beat you on quality is just not good for business. This pure market logic is what has finally gotten many big companies who otherwise wholeheartedly embrace the thought behind DRM— like Apple and Amazon— to start migrating away from it. Not to mention the people who knew of this fact ten years before it even became so widespread.

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 "DRM " 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'.
  • Online Authentication - The software needs to connect to an authentication server or else it will refuse to launch.


  • So far the only DRM schema to avoid a ton of flak is Steam, but it's not without its vocal opponents and it launched to a shaky start. But aside from the initial online activation, Steam is fairly transparent and even comes with an "Offline Mode" in case there's no network connection so you can still play your games. The only problem is that Valve still allows third party DRM on top of Steam, but this is only a problem from the usual suspects.
    • A major point in their favor is the daily, twice-weekly, and quarterly sales, where games get marked down anywhere from 25-90% off, depending on the title.
    • However, Steam is also unforgiving if you forgot to activate "Offline Mode" before going somewhere where getting Internet access is a pain, since offline mode must be activated while the PC or laptop still has internet access. Steam does offer an option to activate offline mode if it's started without an Internet connection, but that button only causes Steam to quit immediately for some reason.
    • Some games available on Steam are DRM-free, and thus can be played by launching the game executable directly regardless of whether Steam is running or even if you have an Internet connection at all. Examples include Ether Vapor, La-Mulananote , and Satazius. However, you are never given official indication as to whether the game you're purchasing is DRM-free, so the only options are to ask other players (e.g. on the game's corresponding Steam forum) or to find out the hard way.
  • 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. (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 received after submitting it to Harmonix, the 20-character code on the back of the manual) is also used to get most of the licensed RB2 songs in Rock Band 3 (the ones from Harmonix-fronted bands were later released for free on the X360 and PS3)
      • 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 also a possible offender, depending on your point of view. Bought it used? Pay an extra $20 to play online!
      • However, this could also be viewed as an attempt by the publisher to actually get some semblance of a profit from used games sales, since most used games purchased have all the profits going to the seller (eg. Gamestop) and none going to the people who made or published the game.
      • On the other hand, it could be argued they indirectly profit from used games because the original buyer wouldn't have spent $60 on a game if he didn't know he'd be able to sell it for $40 in a couple of months.
    • 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 Cerberus 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 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.
      • 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 BioWarenote .
  • 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 (in some cases) making an ISO image of the game and mounting it.
    • Later versions of SecuROM added the above-mentioned Installation Limits in the worst possible ways. Multiple users on the same computer each counted as separate installs, and despite what marketing intended uninstalling the game would NOT raise your install limit number.
  • 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 it 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. It also didn't uninstall even if you uninstalled the game that came with it.
    • 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 adding DRM to any of their titles, StarForce 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.
  • Egosoft, the developers of the X-Universe series of space simulators, typically bundles the game with some form of DRM which is later removed, usually a year or two after release. X3: Reunion came with the infamous StarForce which was removed in the 2.0 update, and the same was repeated with the Tages DRM in X3: Terran Conflict. X Rebirth was the first game to be STEAM exclusive and therefore lacks traditional DRM.
  • 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! See the Copy Protection article for more information on these "feelies". If you have a copy of the manual's text that does not preserve the exact format of the original (i.e, a transcript instead of a scan of the original pages), then it will be a tedious trial and error ordeal to figure out which word it is.
    • Sierra spoofed this a bit with an age check "DRM" for its Leisure Suit Larry games, which simply asked a pop culture question that only an adult would probably know
  • The Keurig 2.0 line of coffee machines has a "feature" that will only allow it to work with Keurig-branded coffee pods. Of course, there are workarounds.
  • Some brand of printers are designed to accept ink cartridges that match the brand of the printer. Other printers go the extra mile by refusing to work if you try to refill the ink yourself since the manufacturer wants you to spend more money by purchasing a new ink cartridge when the old one runs low on ink. Info 
  • Some arcade boards, such as Capcom's CPS-2 hardware, have what are known as "suicide batteries" that are required for the hardware to run. When the batteries run out, the effects may vary from loss of sound or scrambled graphics to straight up preventing the game from running (usually since the ROM is encrypted and the battery is connected to the part of the hardware that decrypts it for use). It is presumed that these batteries exist to curb piracy or as a form of planned obsolescence. More info on suicide batteries can be found here.
  • Games For Windows Live was universally hated when it was in use, being seen as a poor attempt at competing Steam that only clogged the launching of the games it had under its banner, like Grand Theft Auto IV and the Gamebryo Fallout games (3 and New Vegas). Add to that GFWL's restriction on running Game Mods of any kind, and the prolific mod fanbase for both the GTA and Fallout series, and the end result is you'll hardly see a soul under the sun that doesn't go around GFWL.

Alternative Title(s): Digital Rights Management