Digital Rights Management (DRM): Access Control Tech Defined

Learn how User Migration with Okta reduced unexpected password resets and reduces helpdesk calls and support issues.

Digital rights management, or DRM, involves access control technologies that serve to control the use of copyrighted digital media. This is done to protect the authors and publishers from unauthorized use of their material.

DRM manages what a user can and cannot do with hardware or media they have purchased. For example, DRM can restrict the type of access you have to a particular product, not allow it to be copied or distributed, only allow access from a certain device or devices, and quantify how many views a user can have.

DRM is intended to protect copyrighted material and keep content from being pirated or viruses from being proliferated.

Critics of DRM report that this type of strict access control can impede legitimate use of digital products as well as stifle competition and innovation. However, digital rights management is protected by laws against its circumvention.

DRM can help to secure files, protect the intellectual property of a publisher or author and therefore their income stream, and help authors retain ownership of the digital media that they worked hard to create.

What is digital rights management?

Digital right management (DRM) is a set of tools that use access control technologies to prevent unauthorized use of digital products. DRM protects digital media and assets, limiting the way that copyrighted hardware and software are used after purchase.

With so much information and knowledge being shared online and digitally, digital piracy has been a thorn in the side of authors and publishers. They spend a lot of time and money to create digital products only to have them “stolen” and passed around on peer-to-peer file exchange services by users who have not paid for the product.

DRM technology seeks to control how hardware or software is used, limiting the type of use, copying, distribution, number of views, or modification to the digital media. DRM can make it difficult to steal or share content without consent from the author or publisher.

Understanding how digital rights management works

DRM often uses encryption technology that can ensure that only legitimate users with the decryption key can access the content. The manner in which the content is viewed and how it is used can also be managed or restricted through DRM tools. DRM often includes code written into the digital media limiting the number of views or prohibiting copying the product.

Technologies such as product keys or persistent online authentication ensure that only legitimate users have access to DRM-protected content. Anti-tampering and copying restrictions can further keep digital media from being altered or redistributed.

DRM tools can also restrict content to specific regional areas, like not allowing U.S.-based software to be run or used abroad.

DRM can protect products, software, and content in the following ways:

  • Restricts content from being downloaded, saved, copied, or edited
  • Keeps users from forwarding or sharing content or products
  • Disallows the ability to take screen grabs or screenshots of the content
  • Disallows content to be printed or limits the number of times it can be printed
  • Limits the number of uses or times digital media can be accessed or sets an expiration date
  • Uses watermarks to establish ownership of documents, files, or artwork
  • Restricts access to specific devices, locations, or IP addresses

Basically, with DRM, you do not own the product or software you have purchased. You simply have purchased the right to access it in the way and manner the company has authorized through licensing agreements.

Digital rights management laws

In 1996, a special agreement under the Berne Convention was made to help protect digital media and works called the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Copyright Treaty (WCT). This treaty is designed to copyright-protect computer programs and databases. This was meant to encourage member states and nations to enact laws preventing DRM circumvention.

In the United States, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) was signed into law in 1998. This law makes it illegal to bypass DRM technologies. In the European Union, the Information Society Directive was first implemented in 2001.

Several other countries have similar laws and restrictions in place to prevent people from attempting to get around DRM tech and penalize those who do.

Examples of digital rights management in use

DRM has a wide range of uses. It is most commonly applied to creative products, including music, video, and electronic books. These are common uses of DRM by industry:

  • Entertainment business: Movie producers, musicians, and authors regularly use DRM to prevent unauthorized distribution of their creative works. This can protect their product as well as ensure that creators are getting paid for the use or enjoyment of their movie, TV show, book, or music.

This has become increasingly important with the rise of digital media.  

  • Digital banking and financial institutions: The FDIC uses DRM tools to help protect personally identifiable information (PII) from being copied, downloaded to personal devices, or shared to protect the sensitive nature of the content.  
  • Software and application developers and creators: The use of DRM in software and application development can ensure that the products remain in their original and intended state. This means that they cannot be altered in any way.

DRM tools can help to prevent tampering and the potential for inserting malicious code or viruses, maintaining the integrity of the product.  

  • Health care organizations: Health care providers use DRM technologies to remain compliant with data protection regulations such as HIPAA. With DRM, confidential and sensitive personal health care and medical information is protected and kept private.  
  • Business organizations: DRM tools can control access to confidential information and sensitive data within an organization. In business, DRM can also be called enterprise rights management or information rights management.

These tools can help to keep proprietary information safe from competitors. When and if a leak does occur, DRM technologies can also make it easier for an investigation or auditor to identify the leak.  

Critique of digital rights management

DRM has a lot of critics who argue that these tools keep legitimate users from using what they have purchased in the way they want. For example, you buy a song on iTunes, but you are not able to listen to it on the device you want to or without the use of Apple Music.

Similar instances include the purchase of eBooks and the inability to read them across all platforms and eReader devices. Another example is the purchase of a smartphone, which is expensive, and only being able to use it with one provider and with built-in restrictions regarding which apps you can run.

Consider the amount of money that is often spent developing software and hardware products. Moviemakers, for instance, spend millions making a film. When this product is downloaded and pirated for free, they do not see any of the profits.

Critics of DRM will counter this, maintaining that it prevents competition and innovation by promoting big business and leaving smaller operations in the lurch by pricing them out.

Benefits of DRM

Digital rights management tools can be bypassed by the public. There are a variety of tools to remove DRM codes that are readily available.

That being said, DRM technology still has a lot of benefits, such as these:

  • Protection and security of confidential files and access
  • Helping authors maintain ownership of products 
  • Maintaining integrity of software and products
  • Protecting income streams from creative and digital content being pirated and distributed without payment
  • Allowing access for authorized users without needing a third-party application or plug-in
  • Controlling and managing access for authorized users only

Additional resources

There are several vendors offering DRM tools and technologies to help protect proprietary properties. 

There are also alternatives to DRM technology. Several vendors and products report to be “DRM-free” as a means of enticing users who wish to have full access to the products and services they are purchasing.

Key takeaways

Digital rights management, or DRM, is a method for keeping copyrighted software and hardware protected. It uses a set of technology tools that restrict how digital media is accessed, distributed, altered, copied, and more. Often relying on encryption methods and code being written directly into hardware or software, DRM keeps proprietary products in the hands of authorized users.

The downside of DRM to a legitimate buyer, however, is that they do not own the software or hardware they are purchasing directly. Instead, ownership is actually of the specific use of the software or product. The DRM tools specify how the product can be accessed and used.

DRM can help to keep software and products used the way the creator intended, manage the integrity of them, ensure confidentiality, and ensure that copyrighted material is safe from unauthorized replication and distribution.


WIPO Copyright Treaty (WCT). World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998. (December 1998). U.S. Copyright Office.

Directive 2001/29/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council. (May 2001). European Parliament and the Council of the European Union.

What is DRM? Understanding the Tool Publishers Use to Control Software and File Downloading or Sharing. (January 2021). Business Insider

The Cybersecurity Act of 2015- The FDIC’s Controls and Practices Related to Covered Systems. (2015). Office of Inspector General (OIG).

Digital Rights Management. (2022). Adobe.

[MS-DRM]: Digital Rights Management License Protocol. (October 2020). Microsoft.

Industry-Leading DAM Software. (2022). Bynder.