What is DRM? Understanding the tool publishers use to control software and file downloading or sharing

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What is DRM? Understanding the tool publishers use to control software and file downloading or sharing
DRM controls how you use licensed media and software.damircudic/Getty Images
  • DRM, or Digital Rights Management, lets publishers control how you use the software or content you buy or subscribe to.
  • DRM is commonly seen in music, such as in downloaded tracks from streaming services like Spotify or Apple Music.

You're probably used to feeling like you own the software stored on your computer, phone, and other devices, but that's not always the case.

First and foremost, you typically don't own the software you've purchased. You've simply bought the right to use the software in accordance with a licensing agreement. That's rarely important when using Microsoft Office programs, but many kinds of software are controlled by Digital Rights Management (DRM). That can limit your ability to use the software in important ways.

In a nutshell, DRM is a way for publishers and distributors to control your access to software. If you think you might be dealing with a DRM situation, here's what you need to know before you get yourself in a bind.

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How DRM is used

DRM is most commonly applied to files like music, ebooks, video, and other creative products. When DRM software is embedded in these files, the companies which own or distribute them can limit where and how they are used, read, watched, or played.

For example, you might have a subscription to Spotify or Apple Music and take advantage of the ability to download individual tracks to your mobile device. The intent is to allow you to listen to music when there's no internet service, such as on a plane or in a remote location.

But these streaming services do not intend to let you keep the tracks after you stop subscribing or share the tracks with other people who don't have a subscription of their own. Consequently, the player checks the DRM to make sure you have the right to listen to the downloaded song in accordance with the licensing agreement.

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If you try playing the track on a different device or after your subscription expires, your file will not pass the DRM test, and it won't play, usually displaying an error message.

What is DRM? Understanding the tool publishers use to control software and file downloading or sharing
DMR can prevent you from opening or editing files.Kris Ubach and Quim Roser/Getty Images

What DRM can do

Content owners have a lot of options when it comes to how DRM affects their files. While the most common application for DRM is preventing a file from opening or playing, that's just one way DRM can appear.

DRM can:

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  • Prevent files from opening or playing.
  • Prevent a file from being edited or changed.
  • Prevent a file from being copied or moved from its original download location.
  • Prevent you from taking screenshots.
  • Only allow a file to be used for a set period, a certain number of times, or only while a subscription is active and paid for.

What files types have DRM

For the most part, files you create yourself, such as your own ebook or text documents or videos created with a personal camera or phone, are DRM-free. You can use these files and share them with anyone.

Apple's iTunes Store has sold DRM-free music since 2008. Likewise, free podcasts are not protected by DRM. But healthcare and financial services organizations sometimes use DRM to protect client data and meet regulatory requirements.

What is DRM? Understanding the tool publishers use to control software and file downloading or sharing
DRM can cover everything from apps and audiobooks to movies and financial files.FG Trade

You will find DRM commonly embedded in certain kinds of files, including:

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  • Apps
  • Audiobooks
  • Music from subscription streaming services
  • Movies and videos
  • Health and financial services files.

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