What is digital rights management and how does it work? hero graphic

What is digital rights management and how does it work?

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By Bo Ferm


The world’s hunger for content can now be met with near immediate gratification. Today, you can watch or listen to almost anything you want, at any time, on any device. And you can get it delivered to you virtually instantaneously. Meanwhile, as digital media organizations gain an unprecedented level of insight into market segmentation through business intelligence analytics, and broadband speeds constantly rise, it is opening the floodgates for content providers to create unique and personalized ways to cater to the global audience.

It sounds like a perfect storm of supply, demand and a problem-free supply chain, so what could go wrong? Well, a lot of things.

Why digital rights management?


Like the most important resource on earth, air, if you can’t monetize something, it’s worthless. People rarely want to pay for what they can get for free. Whether for their own profit or because they simply don’t care about breaking copyright laws, piracy of copyrighted materials has become one of the biggest dangers to creative industries, which is where digital rights management systems come in.

But what is digital rights management (DRM), exactly? A brief digital rights management definition is that it refers to the tools, standards and systems that are used to protect and monetize intellectual property and copyrighted materials from misuse or theft in the digital sphere.

Traditionally, digital content has been protected with encryption. A DRM technology, using a secret key, encrypts content (thus makes it unwatchable) so that only somebody who has the key can decrypt and watch it. But that key, like all digital information, is easy to copy and share so on its own it is not sufficient to protect the content.

To bolster key encryption, business rules were added that define DRM policies, such as when and how the keys can be used. The enforcement of those rules upon the devices used to consume the content came next and with it arrived our current digital rights management definition.

What is DRM composed of?

DRM technology consists of two main logical components: 1) data protection, and 2) data governance. Encryption technologies are generally used to provide data (content) protection, while trust management and policy management technologies are used to allow protected information to be distributed and used by authorized entities.

How do digital rights management systems work?

Since the dawn of the digital age, copyright holders have been attempting to address the piracy problem. This was initially software-based, i.e., trying to stop people copying computer games and operating systems. As music, film, television and sports moved into the digital world, rights holders needed to find lightweight, non-intrusive and effective DRM technology solutions to protect their intellectual property.

Early forms of DRM technology included putting physical limits on how often something could be copied or required users to type in product keys, which inevitably ended up in the public domain. However, the concept of preventing people from exceeding fair use, stopping piracy and protecting content went to another level with the move to digital media and the need for digital content rights management.

Here’s a rough idea of how DRM technology works:

  1. Digital content is encrypted (part of the “packaging” process) and can only be unlocked by a secret encryption key
  2. This key is bundled with a digital license containing rules about content usage
  3. When a user requests to view content (e.g., clicks on a show to watch), the DRM client checks the license
  4. If satisfied, the user receives a token of validation
  5. This token tells the encryption key it is OK to decrypt the content

What is a digital rights management system checking for?

There are a number of different uses of DRM, meaning thatDRM technology is very flexible and can be used to create a great variety of usage policies. The same DRM principles apply for any kind of video-enabled device including smartphones, computers, tablets and gaming consoles.

The rules that the DRM technology checks for are designed to be quick and simple, such as:

  • Is the subscription in good standing?
  • Is the user in a valid location?
  • Has the user registered this device for use with their subscription?
  • Has the time-based usage rule expired?

When you tell your set-top box or smart TV to play a particular movie, the DRM client in the device looks at the policies in the license to determine if they are satisfied. If so, the client device can access the encryption key and use it to decrypt the movie for watching.

The license may also contain rules for time-based usage, for example a movie can be watched for up to 48 hours before it is disabled, or the movie may be downloaded to the user’s device for watching in an offline setting such as on a plane or train.

The flexibility of these rules allows digital content providers to tailor their user experience through their digital rights management system. Features such as differentiated pricing, special offers or limited usage can be effectively built into the provider’s shopfront infrastructure without becoming an obstacle or cause for lag.

Put simply, digital content rights management is what copyright holders and providers of digital content now rely upon to build a successful business model and get rewarded for their hard work.

Intertrust and digital rights management

Intertrust was one of the earliest firms to spot the need for DRM in the 1990s. In 2005, we became one of the founding members of the Marlin DRM technology standard, along with Panasonic, Philips, Samsung and Sony.

Marlin created an industry-wide standard for securely providing digital content to the world. Intertrust’s  current ExpressPlay™ Media Security Suite is based on Marlin but allows for easy interoperability with the rest of the big DRMs:

  • Google Widevine
  • Microsoft PlayReady
  • Apple FairPlay

For digital media and copyright holders, getting to know what is the purpose of digital rights management, what it offers to their organization and how it can cater to the specific needs of their business is essential for building a successful digital business that’s future‑proof.

For answering questions such as what is DRM, how does DRM work, and how it can help you protect service revenue, you can learn more through this link.

Now that you have read this introduction, please watch our animated video that provides a graphical illustration of the concepts introduced in this post such as DRM, what is its function and how DRM works.


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About Bo Ferm

Bo Ferm is a Product Marketing consultant for Media Solutions at Intertrust Technologies. He is a versatile technology professional with 30+ years of successful B2B positions in Europe, North America and South East Asia. He has worked extensively with pay-TV technologies, with the past 12 years dedicated to content security in various forms.

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