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Digital rights management, or DRM, is a collective name for technologies that prevent consumers from using digital content such as movies, music, video games and software beyond the degree to which the copyright owners wishes to allow.  DRM holds a lot more power — in terms of blocking access — than the old copyright warning at the beginning of a movie someone rented.  Consumers' rights, once they buy digital content, could be at stake in this new digital world.

What Does DRM Do?

DRM technologies enable digital content providers — e.g., a broadcaster, a movie studio, or a music recording company — to control, track and protect the distribution of their digital media and content, not only during its transmission but also after it is received.  For example, DRM technologies can be used to determine, among other things:

  • How long or how many times a consumer can view a digital program
  • Whether a consumer can copy a digital program once, more times, or never, and if any copying is allowed, what other restrictions apply to the use of a copy
  • Whether a consumer can copy a segment of a digital program for noncommercial use
  • Whether a consumer can play a digital program on multiple devices–e.g., TVs only or also PCs
  • Whether a consumer that buys a digital work online can sell it or give it away to another consumer

Consequently, how DRM technologies are developed and deployed will have a profound impact on how consumers access and enjoy digital content in the 21st Century.  DRM technologies are powerful enough to dramatically change the ways that consumers use and share content.  Some types of DRM could frustrate consumers by over-restricting their uses of digital content, discouraging consumers from reaping the full benefits of many innovative networking technologies that are improving our daily lives.

Finding the Balance Between Creator's Rights and Consumer's Rights

DRM regimes could upset the traditional balance between creators and consumers that existed in the pre-digital era.  Technology has made it essential that consumers have clear information to guide them on what DRM-protected digital content will play on which devices and equipment.

One new proposal, the DMCRA -- Digital Media Consumers' Rights Act, was created as a way to protect the balance — and make consumers informed about the digital media they buy.  The bill would allow new consumer, educational and other noncommercial uses of digital content like CDs and DVDs - and it would require music companies to label CDs that include piracy blocks, because those blocks often impede personal uses too.  Consumers Union, along with Public Knowledge and Consumer Federation of America, endorsed this bill in an April 2005 letter to Congress.

Consumers Union's former Legislative Counsel Chris Murray, Public Knowledge's Gigi Sohn, American Library Association's Miriam Nisbet and Stanford Law School Professor Larry Lessig all testified to the public-interest benefits of the DMCRA before a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing.

Read more about the DMCRA on's New Legislative Fights or Public Knowledge’s page on HR 1201, the DMCRA.

What Should Consumers Know About DRM?

There are some things that every citizen should know about DRM.  Public Knowledge and the New America Foundation published a primer (PDF) on this important technology. "What Every Citizen Should Know About DRM, aka Digital Rights Management," by Mike Godwin, Senior Technology Counsel, Public Knowledge boils down the issues so everyone can understand what is at risk.