Digital Rights Management

Imagine being told that while you have paid for a magazine that you now hold, you are only permitted to read it three times. After that, you need to prove that you paid for it and go through an administrative process before you are allowed to leaf through it again. This pretty much sums up the situation that exists on the digital front, with gaming in particular being a newsworthy focus. Music and movies and the rest of the digital entertainment arena are also affected in some way by Digital Rights Management or DRM.

The merits of DRM, which exists in the form of copy protections, encryptions and online verifications at the moment, are heatedly debated. There are those who argue that the protections and checks that are in place are there to maintain the revenue that the items in question generate. This is the side taken mostly by those who implement these systems.

The other side of the coin argues that the consumer suffers when these DRM measures are used. Pointless registration and verification needs to be done by the folks who legally own the software or digital media in question. There would be a third side to this argument but the folks who pirate material of this nature have not ventured an opinion since they are generally far too busy breaking copy protections and the like. It appears that the folks who are targeted by the anti-piracy measures are largely unaffected by the measures themselves.


Digital Rights Management seeks to control access to copying and conversion of digital media by unauthorized persons. These measures often affect end users and legal owners of media as well as the targeted individuals who may pirate the software or media in question. For example, a person who owns a DVD or Compact Disc is perfectly entitled to make a copy of either disc for their own use, as the legal owner of the product. This is defined as -fair use’ of the product but any DRM implemented on the disc prevents this use, even for legal owners.

Current DRM and copyright restricting measures are vastly more draconian than they are permitted to be, strictly speaking. The access control that they contain is not really covered by any existing law and they [the access controls] are implemented on an on-the-fly basis across different media, determined by the publisher or copyright holder. As of right now, digital media may not be reverse-engineered and any and all forms of copy protection may be bypassed or cracked if the intent is to make the digital media compatible with other software. For instance, if someone has coded a media player, they are allowed to crack the copy protection of a DVD that they possess in order to make it run on said player, should the protection be preventing functionality. The laws also permit fair use, which is denied to owners of digital media by the companies that include DRM on their products.

Real life effects

On first thought, DRM will appear to do far more harm than good, at least for the folks who have legally purchased the software or digital media. Those who have obtained their software through the correct channels have to put up with the limitations that have been included to prevent illegal copying.

To be fair, it is not those who have paid for their software or similar who are being targeted but often someone who has cracked a game or downloaded an ISO from a torrent website will not have to put up with any of these restrictions. Even online games are able to be circumvented with an estimated 4-5 percent of Call of Duty 4 online players having games on cracked servers. These numbers are by no means definitive and are based on a search of server titles with the word -Crack’ in them. This is not to say that the players in these servers have all got pirated copies of COD4 but it does illustrate that pirated copies can be used online, regardless of the DRM measures.

Generally when someone goes to the trouble of cracking a game; they remove the side-effects of the DRM. Thus a DVD becomes an AVI file, which can be easily copied and distributed, has a smaller file size and often is encoded to almost DVD quality. A game’s copy protection can be removed and along with it, the need to activate several times or poll online to confirm a game is genuine or any of a host of procedures. In general pirates seem to be getting the better deal.

A country like South Africa also has a problem with constant online activations. Internet connections are sparse and online authentication is sometimes not possible. If someone has bought and paid for a game, just how ethical is obtaining a crack that bypasses online authentication? Cracking a game if one happens to own the original falls under the fair use banner, as does copying the same game. However, current DRM prevents fair use for legal owners. Only pirates benefit in this scenario.

Does DRM go too far?

With gaming in particular in mind, those that implement DRM appear to overdo things. Recently, several games have made headlines for their abuse of Digital Rights Management but there is a bit of history behind it. The infamous Starforce copy protections system was blamed for corrupting systems and causing crashes and games that were protected by Starforce and subsequently cracked were known to suffer from performance degradation. Starforce installed a driver onto computers that checked on the validity of a given disc. Warez groups have made a living out of cracking Starforce’s many incarnations and large amounts of documentation are floating around detailing how it works and how to circumvent it. One crack actually fixed a problem with Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory not being able to run on 64-bit CPUs.

Starforce has since been dropped by some of its major supporters, notably UbiSoft. The protection de jour is now SecuROM. SecuROM is known for certain compatibility issues that prevent games from running on the two major OSs. These issues arise from system settings that have nothing to do with the game and can prevent it from being played at all. There have been workarounds for these issues but again, pirates and those who cracked their legal copies of the games in question (Command and Conquer 3; BioShock, S.T.A.LK.E.R. and others) do not experience any such issues.

Specific problems with SecuROM occurred with BioShock. The game was accused of installing a form of malware onto a host computer along with the main install. This was picked up by several antivirus programs and the installation created a security hole that could be exploited. The Sims 2 series was also affected by SecuROM with reports of system damage being seen as a result of the copy protection system. Some of the problems reported included hardware failure in optical drives and general system faults that have required formats to correct, all of which have been attributed to SecuROM.

Mass Effect’s controversial activation system is now infamous. The game was originally to require online activation every ten days, failing which it would cease to function. This insane measure was later retracted after the massive volume of complaints that it generated before the game’s release but the SecuROM system was left in place and the installation limit kept at three installs. In order to install Mass Effect after that, EA has to be contacted to reset the install limit.

Spore is the subject of a court case in the USA, due to its SecuROM system and a slew of low review ratings that have nothing to do with the game and everything to do with its protection system. The installation limit for Spore has been lifted from three to five installs and installs can now be deregistered and moved to other machines. This was in response to opposition to DRM implementation by customers. Crysis: Warhead has also seen a similar reaction, but EA amended its stance on the activation scheme for Warhead, lessening the restrictions somewhat. Warhead never met with the same opposition to its DRM as Spore did due to the fast response by the publisher concerning the public’s demands.

The upcoming Sacred 2 will feature a SecuROM system but will not be restricted on installs. Like most current titles, once installed the game will not require the disc. The terms of the license will allow two players to legally LAN off one copy of the game. This set of features seems to indicate a compromise on the part of the developer which would please most owners of the game. DRM of this nature tries not to infringe too much on the rights of the legal owners while trying to combat the piracy issue.

Rise Against

There are those who argue that DRM is an infringement on freedoms that companies have no right to impose. In most cases cited, it is the everyday consumer who is harmed by the side-effects of protection systems while the pirates appear to get off scot-free. Games are generally fully cracked within hours of their official release and in the case of the PC edition of Assassin’s Creed, quite a while before the official release. DRM is sometimes seen as an immoral, greedy attempt by companies to funnel as much money as possible into their coffers at the expense of the valid consumer. This is perhaps how the average fellow on the street will view DRM but the cold truth is that it is mostly an attempt to combat rampant piracy. The customers who actually paid money for the product are simply casualties of war. Despite this, it is virtually certain that DRM issues would be far more severe if it were not for gaming and other digital publishers listening to their market.

There are however campaigns against the use of Digital Rights Management which have got the right idea. DRM is only wrong when it infringes on the freedoms of the legal consumer which essentially means that a rethink of the mechanisms being used is perhaps in order. It is one thing to try and limit the access that pirates have to an intellectual property and quite another to hurt one’s paying customers at the same time.

In its current state, DRM is missing the target that it aims for in the pirates who are stealing the digital properties. The splash damage is, however, catching their customers.

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