Digital Rights Management (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 (as illustrated in this xkcd comic). In addition, especially in regards to video games, it has been found that some DRM files slow down the product so much that it significantly hampers their performance, which unintentionally incentivizes piracy by making pirated copies objectively superior in terms of performance. 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.
- 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 also standardised the "Offline Mode" so you can still play your games if you lose connection, which other launchers followed suit in adding. The mode only lasts two weeks, so if you're going to go without internet for much longer than that, make sure you can arrange to get access to the internet before the two weeks are up. The only issue people take in terms of their DRM Policies is that Valve still allows third party DRM on top of Steamworks, (which is not just for DRM, but also includes native support for Steam achievements and other features), which people aren't too happy about. However, some games are available on Steam that 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; Ether Vapor, La-Mulananote , and Satazius are such games, though indie developers are more likely to do DRM-free games than others from larger studio's. Unfortunately, you are never given any official indication as to whether the game you're purchasing is protected by DRM, or if it's DRM-free, so the only options are to ask other players on social media, or on the game's corresponding Steam forum... or to find out the hard way. Thankfully sites like PC Gaming Wiki have compiled a list of DRM-free games available on Steam to make things easier for people to know what they're purchasing on Steam is DRM-free or not, as well as any features disabled without running the game through Steam.
- Electronic Arts's Origin service requires users to be online to play any game installed through it, including old school games downloaded for free from its "On The House" offers.
- GOG.com averts this, by not including DRM on their services. And they even started an anti-DRM initiative (now dismantled) — FCK DRM.
- Epic Games has its own store, but unlike Steam, and much like GOG, Epic doesn't enforce any of their own DRM onto the customer (the closest thing they have to this is EOS; Epic Online Services SDK, which is also DRM-Free), and so leave it up to the publishers to add in DRM if they see fit. Games as small as Untitled Goose Game and as big as Batman: Arkham Knight are DRM-free. As with Steam, PC Gaming Wiki maintains a list of games that are DRM-Free. As with Steam, offline mode only lasts two weeks, so plan accordingly.
- SafeDisc was one of the earliest and least intrusive "standardized" methods for CD-based games. Essentially, a "signature" was printed on the disc that would be difficult to copy (and it progressively got more difficult with each revision of the program), and if it failed to notice it, the game would not be able to run. Ironically, despite being the method that people tended to mind the least, Microsoft eventually found out there was a major vulnerability in the driver it used that could potentially allow unauthorized programs to run on elevated privileges. With the program no longer being used or actively updated, Windows has blocked programs from using it since 2015, forcing users to find other ways of playing their old games.
- The now-discontinued SecuROM, which was developed by DigitalWorks, a subsidiary of Sony Digital Audio Disc Corporation, requires the CD to be in at all times when playing the game, although this can be bypassed 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.
- A management buyout of DigitalWorks would result in the formation of Denuvo Software Solutions GmbH, who would develop the below-mentioned Denuvo Anti-Tamper.
- By far the most infamous one before SecuROM is StarForce. To sum it up, StarForce 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.
- The StarForce developers have gotten themselves into a few controversies regarding their DRM.
- In 2006, StarForce published torrent links to Galactic Civilizations after Stardock Software, creators of the aforementioned game 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, an action that was heavily criticized and seen as an incredibly petty move. Ironically, 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, so all StarForce provided with this move was free advertising.
- The developers also threatened the first two parties that raised awareness of the damage StarForce can cause with a lawsuit, additionally claiming that the FBI was notified.
- The StarForce developers have gotten themselves into a few controversies regarding their DRM.
- One controversial DRM that was released in 2015 is Denuvonote , though Denuvo insists on calling it "Anti-tamper Technology", which was supposedly uncrackable. Naturally, it's been cracked in a number of games, with the main complaint being "What if the authentication servers go down?", as well as rumors that it might ruin the lifespan of SSDs by constantly reading/writing to it, which hasn't gained much traction (and has been completely disproven by Denuvo themselves as well as experts). It gained a lot of unpopularity when it suddenly showed up in modern games like Sonic Mania and later, Sonic Forces.
- PlayReady is a whole DRM system meant to appease the movie and television industry. It requires both hardware and software support. When Netflix started hosting 4K content, in order to play it on Windows, only one processor family was compatible with it (Intel's 7th gen Core processors), it had to be Windows 10 version 1607 (the latest version at the time), and it could only play on Microsoft's Edge, as Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox did not have plugins for the DRM.
- Games For Windows Live was universally hated when it was in use, being seen as a poor attempt at competing with 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, versus 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 — most games that used it have since been updated or rereleased in some form to remove it, most commonly just running them through Steam.
- The Nintendo Entertainment System used a chip in both the cartridge and the console that would communicate with each other on boot and, if the chip in the cartridge wasn't there or the chip in the console didn't like what it was hearing, it would repeatedly reset the console. Infamously, this is what caused the NES's characteristic "blinking", when crud in the console or cartridge would interfere with this communication and was the cause of tons of legal battles between Nintendo and other companies who attempted to circumvent this chip to make unlicensed games, such as by making their own bootleg lockout chips, using voltage spikes to knock out the chip in the console, or in one desperate case attaching a legitimate game to a dongle on the back of the unlicensed game to piggy-back off of the legitimate game's chip. Later revisions of the console changed how the chip behaved slightly to try and circumvent these unlicensed games (if you ever saw a game with a "use mode b if mode a doesn't work" switch on it, that was to get around these newer revisions) while the top-loader removed the chip altogether for improved functionality. A common and very easy mod for an NES is to open it up and cut pin #4 on the lockout chip, effectively preventing it from sending the reset signal to the console.
- The Super Nintendo used a much better lockout chip that lacked the annoying flaws presented by the Nintendo Entertainment System and also did a much better job at preventing unlicensed or pirated games. Such a good job, in fact, there was only a single unlicensed game ever released on the console in the day, and it had to use the same tactic as Little Red Hood where you attached a licensed game to it and it piggy-backed off of the licensed game's chip. The lockout chip in the SNES was eventually cracked and cloned, but only toward the end of the console's lifespan and nowadays bootleg SNES cartridges and mods to disable the chip are cheap and readily available, even on sites like Amazon.
- The Nintendo 64 took the lockout chip protection to the next level in that it integrated the lockout chip controller into the ASIC that controlled the main parts of the system and knocking it out would outright kill the console. Additionally, games could now poll the console to find out what lockout chip the cartridge has, allowing them to trap potential flash carts and piggyback carts. It took over a decade for the chip to be cracked and cloned.
- Sony used a copy protection system on the PlayStation that deliberately stamped imperfections into the CD. When the disc was read, the laser would have to compensate for these errors. The system could read how much the laser pickup had to compensate. By stamping a specific imperfection, the laser pickup would compensate in a predictable manner. If someone tried to copy the CD by using a CD burner, the CD burner won't copy these imperfections and when the copied CD was read back, the system detected no compensation was done and assume the CD was a copy. This was later bypassed using various tricks but for some time, it did thwart pirates.
- Rather (in)famously, the Xbox One was originally going to have always-on authentication checks (to the point you would need the internet to play single player games) and a content system that essentially blocked people from playing used games. Gamers protested mightily, culminating in Sony's E3 2013 conference where they basically just said "we're not going to do that stupid crap they're going to do" and got massive applause. Microsoft backpedaled and reverted things to the status quo.
- 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). They were intended to make bootlegging impossible, since the game program cannot be ran without the decryption key, and the key cannot be read out without removing the chip, which will cut the power and wipe the key. More info on suicide batteries can be found here. This is why it took so long to emulate CPS-2 games, and why there were no bootlegs at all of them until after they were emulated. The company was usually willing to, for a fee that was small to an arcade operator, revive a dead board.
- Seibu Kaihatsu notably protected its arcade games behind an encryption chip. The details behind this chip were so obscure that Seibu Kaihatsu themselves now don't know how to defeat it. This led to some of their games, notably the Raiden series, being rendered unplayable in emulators for years
- Arcade games running on Konami's eAMUSEMENT Participation system must be connected to eAMUSEMENT servers upon bootup. If the hardware can't connect, the game will refuse to start. Then again, given that many games with eAMUSEMENT connectivity give you a player file with unlocks, records, and the like, playing the game without a network connection and thus a way to access your data would be a particularly crippling experience, especially if you've made a lot of progress.
- Sega's All.net-enabled arcade games such as Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA Arcade and maimai will brick themselves if they go too long without being connected to the network.
- Most modern arcade games use USB dongles similar to the types used by high-cost PC software for specific professional and industrial work. For example, DJ Max arcade cabinets also requires a license dongle to function, this is to ensure the game cannot be easily bootlegged as the game machine is otherwise made up of commodity PC hardware.
- Future Nintendo Switch games placed Denuvo as an anti-emulation protection, after the emulators like Yuzu and Ryujinx lowed the sales of unprotected games.
- 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. This form of DRM fell out of favor with the advent of people just posting the required information on the Internet.
- 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.
- Some games also used a code wheel or a decoder table printed on sheet of dark colored paper with nearly equally dark colored ink to thwart photocopying. Losing these also means you can't play the game.
- "CD Keys" gained prominence in the late 90s, which required inputting this whenever the software was installed to either install it. The idea behind this is that, while the check was purely mathematical and there was nothing stopping one user from using one key on as many computers as they wanted, if a pirated version was spread then the publisher could trace back to the original leaker (though this ended up being much harder to do in practice and became downright impossible with the use of keygens). This is still in widespread use as a means to prove you actually bought the software. The system later evolved with the rise of the Internet as an "activation key", where the copy had to be activated over an online server and was a one time use, rather than an algorithmic check. It's even taken over as physical distribution for games distributed on Steam, Origin, etc. That is, if you buy a game for one of those platforms, you don't get a DVD to install the game on, you get a download key to activate the game on your account.
- Installation Limits, which prevent the game from being installed from the disc after it has been installed a few times. One of the most infamous cases of this was that Spore came with this DRM and people quickly found out what EA meant by an "install." Worse yet, the game had a limited number of installs before the CD key a copy came with was considered invalid.
- 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.
- The Nintendo Wii Speak microphone includes a single-use code to download the Wii Speak channel. Bought it used? No software for you!
- 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.
- Speaking of Sonic the Hedgehog and DRM, a fan game was caught doing this! The fangame Sonic Gather Battle was discovered to have very malicious DRM should anyone even attempt to hack it. Or even dream of it. Or even innocently look up codes for it! This text file hailing from the website Sonic Fan Games HQ goes into detail as to what the program does, but as for why, many have learned that this was a nuclear option by the developer to protect his sprites — sprites that he ripped out of other games.
- 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 This is a Justified Trope in many cases; printers, particularly laser printers that take toner, have specific settings and, in the case of laser printers, unique fusing temperatures for each model. Refilled cartridges often get the composition wrong which can and will cause damage to printers. (Also, many printers are sold artificially cheap — as in, below cost of manufacturing — and manufacturers recover the lost cost/make their profits on the sale of inks.)
- Flexplay was a means of physical DVD distribution and rental that was intended to reduce the need for the consumer to bring back the disc at all and allowed the distributor to sell it at a cheaper price. How it did this was by literally using a chemical reaction baked into the disc that would turn the disc red or black, and thus unreadable, upon exposure to air and sunlight. The reaction would occur the second you removed the disc from the package, however over time Flexplay discs that were never opened would also often degrade due to natural chemical processes, since the reaction was merely catalyzed by oxygen and UV, not the key ingredient. The spin might have been to make it easier and cheaper for the consumer, but the real reason for it was to prevent pirated copies of the film from being made — something it really didn't do very well since the discs lasted a maximum of 48 hours out of the package anyway. Plus, if you wanted to watch the film again, you had to buy another Flexplay disc, or more likely, just go buy the full DVD to own it. In reality, all Flexplay really did was create a lot of unnecessary plastic waste and be a much less useful way to distribute home video releases.
- Among the list of controversies with Juicero, a machine that claimed to be a juicer — i.e. a machine that extracted the juice from fruit — but actually made juice by pressing pre-processed juice packs, one of them was that it required the unit to be connected to the internet. Each juice pack had a QR code that a camera inside the unit read and uploaded to Juicero's servers. Juicero claimed this was for safety reasons, such as if there was a sudden recall, as well as juice customization and supply chain management, but everyone saw past the BS and pinned it as the DRM it was. Juicero wanted its users to buy into an expensive subscription plan ($1600 per year with the cheapest options possible) which was the only way to get juice packs, and by forcing the QR codes to be read, nobody else could make Juicero-compatible packs.
- There was a very easy way to get around Juicero's DRM: squeezing the packs by hand. Hand-squeezed produced juice was nearly indistinguishable in quantity and quality from the output of the company's expensive machine, in part because the machine was ridiculously overcomplicated for what it did, requiring several expensive parts to apply force across the entire body of the juice pack to properly squeeze all the juice out. Bloomberg discovering this and demonstrating it on-video was Juicero's downfall.