What is digital rights management in United States copyright law?

What is digital rights management in United States copyright law?

A copyright is a set of exclusive rights granted to the creator of a new artistic work.  The rationale behind copyright law is to reward artists and other creative professions for their hard work.  Copyright law grants the creator of a new artistic work the exclusive right to make copies and sell the artistic work.  When someone other that the copyright owner makes a copy or sells a copy of a copyrighted work that is considered copyright infringement.  Copyright law in the United States allows a copyright owner to sue a copyright infringer to stop the infringing activity and get get money damages.

Copyright law was written long before computers, the internet, and even photography.  The United States has slowly amended its copyright law to keep up with technological innovation.  Technology moves faster than the law.  In the past it would take serious investment to make copies of a copyrighted work; a printing press was needed to copy a book, a photography lab was needed to make copies of a picture or expensive computer equipment was needed to mass produce DVDs.  The internet made it much easier for unscrupulous people to infringe on the copyright of others. Once a copyrighted work is stored on a computer the internet makes it trivial to distribute hundreds of copies of the copyrighted works in minutes.

Some copyright owners take the preemptive step of protecting their copyrighted works with a digital rights management system.  The purpose of a digital rights management system is to prevent unauthorized redistribution of digital media and restrict the ways consumers can copy content they’ve purchased.  Digital rights management systems are intended to protect a copyrighted work from copyright infringement.

Some examples of digital rights management systems are:

  • Watermarks on photographs that let people know the identity of the copyright owner.
  • Encryption on DVDs which prevents copying.
  • Proprietary eBook readers which only allow confirmed purchasers to read the book.
  • Digital finger prints on MP3s so that only confirmed purchasers can listen to the music.

The common aspect of digital rights management is the use of technology to prevent unauthorized copying of copyrighted works.  But there is no perfect digital rights management system.  If someone is determined enough they will figure out a way to circumvent the technological measures that make up a digital rights management system.  You might ask, what is stopping someone from circumventing a digital rights management system?

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act makes it illegal to circumvent technical measures that prevent access to copyrighted works, such as computer software, photographs or music. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act also bans the distribution of products that are designed to circumvent a technical measure that prevent either access to or copying of copyrighted materials.  The Digital Millennium Copyright Act does not place any requirements on how complicated the technical measures of a digital rights management system need to be.  The Digital Millennium Copyright Act requires that the technical measure effectively control access to the copyrighted work, but does not require that the technical measures be impossible to break.  Technical measures that are easy to break are given just as much protection as extremely complex technical measures.   While it is in a copyright owners best interest to use the best digital rights management system available, a copyright infringer cannot use the excuse “it was easy” to defend a copyright infringement lawsuit.

It is a good idea for copyright owners to implement a digital rights management system to protect their copyrighted works because it will stop casual copyright infringement and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act gives copyright owners added protections.

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