Digital Rights Management

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Protecting valuable information from misuse, theft or misappropriation is a minefield of conflicting opinions, expectations, laws and technologies.

As new storage and distribution channels become available -- DVD and peer-to-peer file-sharing networks, for instance -- traditional rules and physical limitations no longer apply. To see why digital rights management (DRM) is so contentious, let's examine the three words individually.

Digital

When information was entirely analog in nature, distribution and publishing required physical vehicles: printing it on paper, recording it in vinyl grooves or on magnetic tape, and exposing it on photographic film or paper.

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Producing these vehicles is relatively expensive. While people could always make analog duplicates, doing so was generally complex, slow and expensive, and resulted in degraded quality. These technical and economic limitations protected publishers against unauthorized distribution. If you wanted a second copy, it was simplest and often cheapest just to buy another.

Digital technology changed everything. Today, most information, from newspaper stories to motion pictures, is available in digital form. It's quick and simple to make absolutely perfect copies of digital data. Such copying costs virtually nothing and doesn't alter the original or make it unavailable.

Digital theft made its first widescale appearance in software in the 1970s, as the fledgling Micro-Soft Corp. found that people were making paper-tape copies of its Basic program without paying for it. Software piracy is still a problem, and Microsoft is one of the more active players fighting it.

For digital information, the Internet eliminates the need to sell and move physical objects, such as books or magazines, floppy disks, cassette tapes or CDs. With high-speed networks and widely accessible broadband, we can send digital content anywhere in the world almost instantaneously and at virtually no cost.

Rights

Copyright, patent and trade secret laws give certain privileges to the holders of such rights, letting them share, sell or withhold information for a period of time. Tradition and legislation define what users can do with information they buy. For example, if I buy a book or a music recording, I can read or listen to it, pass it along to a friend, make a copy or use the original in another machine (such as a car player). I can buy a used book or CD at a reduced price. A library can lend its books to thousands.

There are rights I don't have. I can't make changes and sell the revised work as my own. I can't make and sell unmodified copies. I can't incorporate pieces of such works in something I produce without permission. I can't charge people admission to watch my DVDs.

Digital content creates rights that didn't exist for analog products. For example, I can buy an aerial photograph of a particular location, or I can buy a satellite photograph in digital form. That satellite image is limited in the size of the smallest detail it can show, but it's packaged with another image I can view at higher resolution, if I'm willing to pay a little more.

Management

We can enforce policies far more Draconian and restrictive than previously possible. If I buy an e-book, for example, I might find these limitations: I can only read it on a single machine; I can't make backup copies; I can't lend it to a friend; I can only read the book a certain number of times, or within a specific time interval, before it expires; and I can't print it out.

In the wake of Napster and declining music CD sales, several publishers have launched commercial online music distribution services. For a monthly fee, you can download and listen to a certain number of songs from their catalogs. But there's often a catch: Miss a monthly payment and you can't listen to any of the songs you previously paid for and downloaded. Or maybe you can only listen to a song for a designated period of time. You can't burn the song to a CD or copy it to a handheld MP3 player. None of these restrictions apply if you just buy the physical CD.

Microsoft has included DRM technology in its new Windows Server 2003, Office 2003 productivity suite and an add-on for Internet Explorer. This will let users designate who can open a Word document or Outlook e-mail message and whether they can print, copy or forward it.

Kay is a Computerworld contributing writer in Worcester, Mass. Contact him at russkay@charter.net.

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