The Persistence of Digital Rights Management


Digital rights are obscure, abstract, and almost unmanageable. But new technology seeks to make digital rights management the champion of intellectual property rights that it was originally passed off to be.

Digital rights management arose from the advancement of the world wide web and digital media. Developing throughout the 1990s and into the following decades, DRM has never seemed to be able to keep ahead of encryption and licensing workarounds for any sustained amount of time. But after two decades of defining and redefining digital rights – while simultaneously trying to protect them – it is evident that digital rights management is not letting up and is advancing some very comprehensive strategies.

What is DRM?

The basic philosophy of DRM is that consumers of licensed digital content should have limited rights and control over the media to which they’ve been granted access. The technology itself is constantly evolving, as it is persistently counteracted by zealous attempts at exploiting its vulnerability. It works in many ways, with a variety of different methods that aim to protect the interests of intellectual proprietors.

Early iterations of DRM were common in the music industry, as digital audio compression and file sharing evolved around the turn of the twenty-first century. Some compact discs were even released with technology that somehow resisted if users tried to rip or illegally copy their data, often freezing up other programs or otherwise compromising computer performance. And while physical media formats (like DVD and CD) have been subject to many different DRM methodologies over the years, digital rights have become increasingly focused on intellectual property distributed over the internet. (For more on internet rights, see A Declaration of Internet Freedom.)

The world wide web is a community space for digital content interconnected through uniquely-coded data, which was conceptualized in various iterations over the course of the twentieth century. And with the introduction of the Mosaic browser in the mid-1990s, the web became a part of mainstream culture in developed nations. This surge prompted the World Wide Web Consortium (or W3C, founded in 1994 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) to compel lawmakers to outline a guide of protocols to help cultivate as well as regulate digital commerce. (For more on the history of the internet, see A Timeline of the Development of the Internet and World Wide Web.)

The document, submitted by the Clinton administration, came in the form of a Framework for Global Electronic Commerce on July 1, 1997. The outline basically addressed the role that government should play in regulating digital commerce, as well as its greater global context. It stressed the limits that ought to be placed on government’s intervention with the progress of the internet and its burgeoning economy, while addressing its global scale and implications, particularly in the realm of intellectual property rights. It covered legal issues, financial issues and technological issues regarding electronic payment, copyright, patent, trademark, domain names, standardization and privacy. It directed the United States Department of Commerce to oversee growth of business over the internet, and although it initially emphasized the importance of the private sector’s role in this expansion, this later shifted to emphasize government oversight in the Joint Project Agreement with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

Are Digital Rights Manageable?

Just as copyright has always had its detractors, digital rights management has many opponents. And much like copyleft and other organizations which question intellectual property law, anti-DRM organizations and entities have proven to be quite organized in their opposition. Philosophies range from outright rejection of the very concept of digital rights, to some overlap with DRM but with stipulation. Lawrence Lessig – a high-profile lawyer and briefly a candidate for the 2016 Democratic nomination – has been a notable critic and commentator on digital rights. Lessig founded the Creative Commons in 2001 as a response to the proliferation of media in the digital information age.


And for every one organization or outfit that seeks to oppose or work around DRM using legal means, there are probably several million pirates who simply seek to disrupt it. Digital piracy is as much a key framer of the new digital media landscape as any DRM effort or protocol. Every new tool or policy that manifests for the sake of protecting the intellectual property or monetary interests of businesses and publishers is eventually met with new means of pirating it. Some publishers, in fact, are giving up entirely on digital rights management – arguing that it in fact hurts paying customers more than it helps recoup losses.

Nevertheless, innovative means by which to implement digital rights management technology continue to develop in order to protect digital intellectual property in the new age of ubiquitous connectivity. Cisco offers cloud-based solutions that centralize and manage the diverse and expanding array of DRM schemes used to address the many vulnerabilities associated with content distribution in an Internet of Things digital ecosystem. Most businesses and corporations are not letting up in their struggle to keep the pirates at bay.


Digital rights management attempts to preserve economic models from last century in a new age of digital content by combating technology with other technology, which creates a constantly escalating virtual battle between users and content licensors. But it is very difficult to make digital information un-copyable, as its ease of transmission is one of its essential qualities. If the investment in DRM begins to exceed the return, then the very concept of “digital rights” will gradually be redefined, and new economic models will likely evolve that will change the roles of original content and intellectual property in our culture.


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Colyn Emery

Colyn is a writer and digital artist from Southern California. He writes about topics like AI, UX/UI, big data and blockchain technology. He has written articles, blogs, web copy and whitepapers for many different tech companies and organizations, and has worked in digital media professionally since 2007. He is a graduate of Chapman University and Art Center College of Design.