digital rights management drm

Digital Rights Management

What is DRM, what is DRM protected & how does DRM work?

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What is DRM – Digital Rights Management?

DRM, also known as Digital Rights Management, is a term that is used to describe the processes by which the author or publisher of a work exerts their right to control what the purchaser is entitled to do with it.

DRM represents the controls by which you can prevent someone from copying, printing, editing, or otherwise making available your privileged information to other people.

  Why is Digital Rights Management used?

Traditionally, in the print industry, the author (or publisher) of a book asserts their right to be able to control what the purchaser can (or cannot) do after they purchase the work.  This typically takes the form of a copyright disclaimer on the first page.

DRM software, however, lets authors and publishers exert more appropriate digital rights over content than they were able to in the physical print era.

Over the past decade or so, there has been a major power shift in publishing due to digital transformation.  Previously, copying and re-printing a physical book was non-trivial – if you wanted to steal someone else’s work you needed to find someone willing to publish the copy, and the publisher knew they would be sued without mercy.  There were some really obvious physical controls in the physical print industry that could not be overcome on a mass scale.

But the digital age has changed all that.  Suddenly, computers can make copies at near-zero cost, and do so without detection.  The rules of the ancient world no longer apply.  The use of websites to facilitate the sharing of pirated films, music, and PDF documents demonstrates that works that do not have digital rights management applied can be copied an unlimited number of times.  Files can be shared and transmitted without any control at all.  Even print documents are threatened, with users able to scan a document, turn it into a PDF, and distribute it digitally.

So, digital rights management is a critical feature if you are making confidential information available to others – whether it is a price list, a contract specification, an analyst’s report, a newsletter, or a book.  Without DRM, you have no way of preventing people who have access to your intellectual property from doing whatever they like with it.  This is why most publishers across various industries will use DRM.

  What does Digital Rights Management do?

Digital Rights Management enables publishers to control not only who receives their digital content but what they can do with it.

Such controls include:

  • Preventing editing and saving
  • Preventing forwarding and sharing
  • Preventing printing (or limiting the number of prints available)
  • Preventing screen grabbing
  • Document expiry
  • Document revocation
  • Locking documents to devices, IP addresses, and country locations
  • Watermarking documents with unique user information to establish an identity

In addition, Digital Rights Management lets publishers log use so they can view data on when digital content was used (i.e. when documents were viewed and printed), by whom, and when.

  What are the benefits of Digital Rights Management?

Publishers can employ these restrictions and controls to not just protect their revenue but enable new forms of content distribution.

Some of the benefits of digital rights management for documents include:

  • the ability to ‘rent’ or ‘loan’, or provide subscription content to users at a lower price than a lifetime purchase.  Publishers can expire a user’s access after a certain date or when a subscription is not paid without them being able to easily bypass it.  This system provides users with more affordable pricing and publishers with a new, steady revenue stream.
  • increased revenue through anti-piracy and sharing mechanisms.
  • clearly state and enforce your copyright through a combination of irremovable dynamic watermarks and view/print logging.
  • prevent documents from leaking before publication by restricting them to specific start dates, certain devices, IP addresses, and locations.
  • stop ebooks from being accessed in specific countries (such as those with differing distribution rights).
  • stay compliant by proving proof of use of documents.
  • use DRM logging to analyze customer usage, including by country/location.

All of these benefits make an effective DRM solution well worth the investment for most publishers and companies.

  What is DRM protected?

“DRM protected” refers to any file that has DRM controls applied to it to prevent copying, editing, and unauthorized distribution of digital content.

This will also include encryption to prevent unauthorized access, and licensing controls to authorize access and permissions.

  Who uses Digital Rights Management?

  1. DRM protection is used by a number of industries to control the use of paid digital content.

    It is popular in the music, movie, and ebook industries to control digital content distribution, prevent unauthorized use, and protect revenue streams.  Whilst many end-users paying a few dollars for a song, movie, or ebook, are against the use of DRM, it is more readily acceptable in the business world, protecting high-value reports and content available to members only.  This is because if someone has paid $1000 for a report, they would not necessarily be happy if other users were to receive the same document for free.

  2. DRM is used by many organizations internally to protect confidential informationshare documents securely with third parties, and track document use to identify leaks.

    DRM within an organization is also known as Enterprise Rights Management or Information Rights Management.  Some online systems where document controls and access can be altered in real-time are sometimes referred to as Active Rights Management systems, but essentially they are all the same thing.

  How does DRM work? – DRM protection, protected content, solutions & implementation

DRM Solutions & Protection of digital content

To apply Digital Rights Management controls to content (to create DRM protected content), Publishers use a ‘Writer’ application.  This encrypts the content so it can only be viewed by someone with the correct decryption key (see document encryption), and lets Publishers choose which DRM controls they want to apply (i.e. stopping printing or making the content expire after a certain length of time).

Viewing DRM Protected Content

DRM protected content can be viewed in a number of ways:

  1. Plugins.  Users can view protected digital content in a native application by installing a plug-in (common for browser applications and music/movies) or may need to download a dedicated ‘Reader’ application.  Plug-ins have an inherent security weakness in that other plugins can be used to bypass them, and often an update to the native application can render them useless – see PDF Security Plug-ins.
  2. Installed Viewer.  Standalone reader applications are the most reliable and secure (you have total control over the Operating System environment) but mean that users must download an additional application to process the protected content.
  3. Browser Viewer.  Enforcing digital rights management in the browser (cloud-based DRM) is becoming increasingly common.  But web-based readers have their drawbacks, such as slowness and multiple security weaknesses.  Since no software is installed on the client computer, some facilities that take control over the Operating System are not available, so users can screen grab digital content using screen grabber applications and print to unprotected formats (PDF, XPS, etc.) if printing is allowed.  Browser-based viewers are also easy to manipulate with script injections and plugins, which can bypass the security controls.  Document loading times, searching and scrolling all take longer over the web.  A classic example of a cloud based DRM system using a Web Viewer is a secure data room – see why dataroom security is NOT adequate for secure document sharing.
DRM Licensing Server

A licensing system (DRM license server) ties a user to a specific account and content and is used to transparently relay decryption keys to the ‘Reader’ application.  With an installed viewer, these keys are locked to authorized devices so that they cannot be shared with other users.  Decryption keys must not be exposed to users (i.e. passwords) and must be locked to devices (so they will not work on other devices) otherwise they could be given to other users along with the protected content.

The ‘Reader’ application checks that it has the necessary decryption key to decrypt the content, and if it does, it loads the content with the appropriated DRM controls applied.  If the ‘Reader’ application does not have the correct decryption key(s) it will check with the DRM licensing server to see if the user is allowed access to the protected content.  Additional checks are made to the DRM license server as and when required, such as checking for new access rights.

  Is DRM best for ebooks?

DRM is the only effective security for stopping unauthorized sharing of ebooks.  This is because it can be used to restrict how digital content is used (stop copy/paste, disable printing, stop editing, control expiry, etc.).

Alternatives to ebook DRM include:

  • PDF password protection

    This provides limited restrictions over content use but PDF passwords can be easily removed.  Passwords can also be shared with others (and therefore your ebooks).

  • One-time download links

    These stop multiple users from downloading ebooks using the same link, but do not stop a user from sharing the ebook with others once they have downloaded it.

  • File encryption

    Great for protecting ebooks on servers or in transit, but once a user has decrypted the file they can share it with others (or share the decryption key if it is accessible).

  • Social DRM or social watermarking

    Seems like a great way to discourage pirating by identifying users, but in reality both visible and invisible watermarks can be easily removed.

Not all ebook DRM is equal.  Some formats provide limited restrictions and have been comprehensively cracked – so choose your ebook format and ebook DRM solution carefully.

  DRM Encryption: Is DRM here to stay?

DRM is here to stay for the foreseeable future – increasingly file and document sharing systems are implementing DRM to provide greater control over digital content use.

Digital Rights Management is the next logical step after encryption for enabling publishers to retain control over their intellectual property and protect their revenue streams no matter where their content is published.

Encryption can only protect content at rest or in transit – once a user opens the file, they have full control over its use.  DRM systems use encryption to control document access along with DRM controls to enforce or restrict digital content use.

For documents published in PDF format, thousands of publishers use PDF Digital Rights Management to protect their training courses, reports, confidential documents, and ebooks from unauthorized access and misuse.

Further reading on Digital Rights Management

To learn more about digital rights management (DRM), take a look at the following white papers.

Using Safeguard PDF security software to add DRM (Digital Rights Management) to PDF files

To add DRM controls to a PDF

Select your PDF file(s), then in Safeguard Secure PDF Writer, choose the PDF DRM controls to apply:

  1. Stop printing, allow printing or limit the number of prints.
  2. Add expiry – make the PDF expire on a specific date, after a number of views, after a number of prints, or after a number of days from opening.
  3. Stop printscreen and screen grabbing apps – even from remote connections.
  4. Log document views and prints to see how your documents are being used.
  5. Add dynamic watermarks to viewed and or printed pages. Dynamic variables replace actual user and system data when the document is viewed/printed so you only have to protect the document once for all users.
Safeguard’s default DRM protection
  • Stops users from editing, copying, and pasting content
  • Locks PDF files to specific devices so they cannot be shared with others
  • There are no passwords for users to enter, manage, or remove
  • Revoke PDFs at any time regardless of where they reside
  • Optionally lock user access to specific locations


Should my ebook/document have Digital Rights Management?

It depends entirely on the purpose of the text. Using DRM technology is typically a good idea if you are planning to make a profit, keep certain information out of the public eye, or ensure that your work is not attributed to somebody else.

Is DRM suitable to keep documents confidential?

A PDF DRM tool like Locklizard is designed to stop unauthorized sharing, editing, and printing, and this makes it very suitable for keeping confidential documents private.

DRM tools that rely on passwords or removable watermarks, however, offer far less protection – so choose your solution wisely.

Is DRM suitable to keep documents confidential?

A PDF DRM tool like Locklizard is designed to stop unauthorized sharing, editing, and printing, and this makes it very suitable for keeping confidential documents private.

DRM tools that rely on passwords or removable watermarks, however, offer far less protection – so choose your solution wisely.

Why are many people against DRM?

There is a small but passionate community of people who do not like DRM.  This is typically because DRM places restrictions on legitimate users (such as how many devices a digital book can be used or, whether it can be printed, etc.) in order to prevent illegitimate ones.

However, there is sadly no way to identify whether a user will infringe on a publisher’s copyright in advance.  As publishers must continue to make a profit (or users will lose access to the content they love entirely), DRM is the only real option.  To prevent friction, publishers should be proportionate with their DRM controls and ensure digital books and other content can be viewed on a wide range of Operating Systems.

Is DRM legal?

Of course.  Everybody has a right to protect their creative works.  However, you must ensure that your DRM is compliant with privacy laws – ie. GDPR and tracking.

  Digital Rights Management Solutions – Download DRM Protection Software

Download DRM software for PDF documents, reports, ebooks, files and elearning courses.  Create DRM protected PDF files to protect your information from unauthorized sharing, piracy/theft, and data leakage.

Locklizard’s DRM software prevents unauthorized use and misuse of your intellectual property.  Our Digital Rights Management solutions for PDF files uses encryption, licensing, and DRM controls to provide complete control over document access and use regardless of location.

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