Copyright laws and Digital Rights Management – National Consumers League

The National Consumers League recently commissioned a survey to explore consumers’ attitudes and expectations regarding their DVD collections of backed-up or copied movies and music. Amidst the backdrop of a troubled economy, Americans believe it should be their right to copy their collections. But what about copyright laws and artists protecting their content?

Consumers’ ability to copy or save content from their movie or music collections involve issues surrounding something called “Digital Rights Management.”

What is DRM?

Digital Rights Management, or DRM for short, refers to a r ange of technologies used to control access to digital media. As entertainment content has shifted to digital media, content producers, copyright holders, and hardware makers have increasingly turned to DRM as a way to protect their content from unauthorized use, such as piracy, and to preserve traditional revenue streams.

DRM is used by many major content producers, software and hardware vendors. Some examples include:

  • Apple – until recently, iTunes’s FairPlay DRM software prevented iTunes customers from using music purchased directly from iTunes on any portable music player beside iPod, the iPhone, and a few authorized cell phone models.
  • Microsoft – Microsoft’s 3-play technology, which is integrated into its Zune portable music players, restricts music files received from other Zunes to a maximum of three plays. Song recipients also cannot re-send received music files to other users.
  • Sony – MiniDisc player usage is restricted by the company’s proprietary MagicGate DRM software.

Under international and federal law, most software that circumvents DRM restriction is illegal. In the United States, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, passed in 1998, makes it a crime to disseminate technology allowing users to circumvent DRM. However, these restrictions have not stopped a thriving trade in software that can crack most DRM restrictions.

How does DRM affect DVDs?

DRM affects consumers most often through their inability to transfer content from one medium (a DVD, for example) to another (a computer hard drive). In a recent survey commissioned by NCL, 4% of consumers reported that they had tried to save the content of a DVD to their hard drives, but failed due to DRM restrictions.

Since 1996, DVDs have generally come encoded with DRM technology called Content Scrambling System (CSS). HD-DVDs and Blu-ray discs are controlled by DRM software called Advanced Access Content System (AACS)

To legally copy a DVD to their hard drives, consumers must currently purchase an “expanded pack” edition of a DVD at an additional fee. These “expanded packs” generally contain a separate “DRM-free” disc that allows the copying of the disc’s contents. NCL’s survey found that consumers overwhelmingly desire the ability to copy DVDs to their hard drives for back up purposes or simply so that they do not have to carry around bulky DVD discs in order to watch movies while on the go. In addition, more than half of those surveyed were bothered that they can’t save most DVDs to their hard drives without cracking the encryption or having to purchase an expanded version of the DVD.

Additional Resources

HowStuffWorks: How Digital Rights Management Works

Electronic Frontier Foundation Primer on DRM

Electronic Privacy Information Center backgrounder on Digital Rights Management and Privacy, a project of the Free Software Foundation