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  • DRM: A Brief Introduction

    "Digital Rights Management" is a term used for technologies that control how digital content is used. While copyright holders have exclusive rights of copyright--such as the right to make a copy or the right to distribute a work to the public--thus far they have not had the right to control how works care used (the right to see a work, for example, or to read a work). In addition, fair use, a statutory exemption to the copyright law, allows users to exercise a copyright under certain conditions. These user privileges are threatened by DRM. Copyright holders (for their part) have acted in response to the proliferation of digital content, where the 100th copy is as pure as the first, and the Internet, which enables the instantaneous distribution of digital content. The development of digital content along with the Internet has propelled content owners and users into a new arena where each is adjusting to ensure, assert and in some cases enhance their rights.

    Content owners are looking to DRM technologies as a means to control the use of their content. Many public interest organizations, however, fear that DRM technologies will be "used by copyright owners to erode capabilities that had previously been permitted to the public by copyright law under the "fair use" doctrine (or its cousins, such as first sale or limited term)" (Electronic Frontier Foundation). DRM technologies can be used for more nefarious purposes such as infringing on privacy, personal profiling, price discrimination based on personally-identifiable information and stymieing the development of open source software. For libraries, DRM technologies can additionally impact first-sale, preservation activities, and institute pay-per-use pricing.

    The entertainment industry, led primarily by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), is actively pursuing DRM-friendly policy initiatives through federal legislation and regulations, the courts and standards organizations. The consumer electronics and the information technology industries are also joining the debate because their products would need to be redesigned to meet the entertainment industry needs. Profits, business models, and the implications of technology mandates are driving this part of the debate. Meanwhile, libraries, educational institutions (K-12 and higher education), and consumers will be greatly impacted by any decisions made by the federal government, courts and standards bodies. These public advocacy groups have broadened the policy debate to include user rights such as privacy, fair use, first-sale and preservation, etc. They will continue to play a significant role as discussions continue.

    There is no one definition for DRM. In fact, depending on the outlook of the individual or group defining the term, it can have a number of connotations. Consider the following:

    § "Digital rights management technologies are aimed at increasing the kinds and/or scope of control that rights-holders can assert over their intellectual property assets." --Electronic Frontier Foundation

    § "DRM must be about the "digital management of rights" not the "management of digital rights."--W3C Workshop Report on DRM for the Web

    § "The purpose of DRM technology is to control access to, track and limit uses of digital works."--The American Library Association

    § "DRM are the technologies, tools and processes that protect intellectual property during digital content commerce..." --Publishers' Requirements for DRM, W3C Workshop Report on DRM for the Web

    § "DRM systems restrict the use of digital files in order to protect the interests of copyright holders." --Electronic Privacy Information Center


    DRM: Statement of Library and Higher Education Concerns
    April 2003

    The unimpeded flow of information is fundamental to the mission and activities of both higher education and libraries, making Digital Rights Management a complex and challenging activity in these domains. In the higher education and library arenas, DRM is interpreted broadly as encompassing much more than restricting access to content. It is recognized that a variety of DRM solutions are needed. These solutions need to implement intellectual property management in more comprehensive and sophisticated ways than current DRM implementations, including:

    These functions need to be performed without compromising computer security while enabling institutions of higher education and libraries to protect the privacy of their users. A consortium of librarians, information technologists, copyright law experts and public interest groups is currently drafting principles that will provide the foundation for this broader application of DRM. This is the first important step in the development of a DRM model to satisfy the requirements of the research, education and public information sectors.


    Prepared on behalf of American Library Association, American Association of Law Libraries, Association of Research Libraries, Internet2, and EDUCAUSE, for the Congressional Internet Caucus program on Digital Rights Management, April 2003. Based largely on work of Grace Agnew, Rutgers University, and Mairead Martin, University of Wisconsin.


    Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)

    Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC)

    Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA)

    Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA)

    World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)

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    Digital Rights Management (DRM) refers to technologies that control how digital content is used. This can impact "fair use" and "first sale" which are necessary for libraries to function.