What Is Digital Rights Management (DRM)? Everything You Need to Know

Blog 1 min read | Jul 13, 2023 | JW Player


Digital rights management (DRM) has never been more important. Content is created, shared, modified, reshared, GIF-ified (if you will), and shared again at a lightning-fast pace. Consider these figures:

With numbers like these, how in the world can you protect your digital content and ensure your copyrighted material isn’t stolen and misused?

The answer is DRM.

What Is Digital Rights Management?

Digital rights management (usually referred to as DRM) is the practice of using technology, systems, and tools to protect copyrighted works from being illegally used, modified, sold, or otherwise distributed. Think of it as a way of enforcing digital property rights to mimic physical property rights.

For example, if you bought a CD from your favorite artist, there would be nothing wrong about you listening to it a thousand times. There wouldn’t be anything wrong (well, legally wrong) with you blasting it on your stereo as you make your way down the street. There also wouldn’t be anything inherently wrong with you letting your friend borrow the CD.

However, there would be something wrong with you burning the CD and giving it out to your pals or (worse) selling it for a profit. That’s what DRM aims to prevent—the unauthorized use, duplication, or distribution of protected content.

This criminal activity always hurts the original creator, no matter how innocent it may seem at times. It doesn’t matter if the content is shared privately with family members or publicly on social media—it’s still stealing.

Remember when online users visited sites like LimeWire, FrostWire, and Napster to stream, download, and trade music? That was before the evolution of modern-day DRM. Nowadays, creators can use up-to-date DRM technology to protect their content with little-to-no fuss.

How Does DRM Work?

DRM technologies work by encrypting individual video assets with media keys during the transcoding process. These videos are packaged and transmitted in their encrypted form, which can then only be unlocked by approved viewing devices. In order to play back the protected content, the video player will ask for a decryption key from the license server, at which point the device’s authorization will be validated. Once the key is obtained, the player can then play back the video in its decrypted form.

There are three major DRM technologies for online video:

1. FairPlay by Apple: supports content playback in all Apple devices.
2. PlayReady by Microsoft: supports content playback in all major smart TV’s, Windows native apps, MS Edge, XBox, PlayStation, AndroidTV, and Chromecast.
3. Widevine by Google: supports content playback from Android mobile and TV, Chrome, Roku, FireTV, Firebox, Opera, and Chromecast.

Enabling all three facilitates coverage across the majority of platforms, browsers, and devices.

DRM aims to implement security protocols and best practices to safeguard your content. It prevents bad actors from accessing and recording your content, and it also monitors for illegal publishing and redistribution for when cybercriminals do manage to breach your systems.

DRM protected content provides the following benefits to your business:

  • Income: Earn more from your digital content by ensuring bad actors don’t steal your profits by illegally selling and redistributing your videos.
  • Ownership: Safeguard your copyrighted material to ensure nobody tries to claim your digital content as their own.
  • Secrecy: Protect your sensitive files to ensure only the right users with the correct privileges can access them.
  • Education: Let buyers know their rights (and yours) before they violate the terms. Tell your customers what they can and can’t do with your digital content upfront.

What Are the Benefits of Digital Rights Management?

At its core, DRM technologies empower content owners and distributors to set and enforce content consumption policies. Maximizing security for your studio-grade content is a necessary measure to protect ad, subscription and box-office revenue from digital piracy and unauthorized viewership.

DRM is most often used to fortify Hollywood content against duplication. For distributors of premium content, such as broadcasters and TV/film marketplaces, enabling DRM has become a common requirement for acquiring content. Film and TV studios, among other content creators, typically mandate protection by specific DRM policies. To gain licensing rights to top-shelf titles in the first place, distributors need to ensure that their streaming service is compatible with the desired DRM technologies.

Outside of Hollywood, enterprise, education and fitness companies serving up subscription-based, premium content are emerging as DRM enthusiasts as well. Doing so is a big step in delivering and growing subscription value.

However, it provides other benefits too:

  • Defend your income: Content isn’t just nice to look at—it’s an income stream for many creators. Protecting your digital content ensures you get credit where credit is due and never lose a penny to leaks or unauthorized sharing.
  • Maintain ownership: Without DRM systems, stealing content can be as simple as copying and pasting. Protect your creative work, whether that’s an ebook, film, intellectual property, or YouTube video.
  • Educate customers: Let your buyers know the license agreements before they violate them. DRM helps you communicate with customers about what they can and can’t do with your content.
  • Keep it secret: Keep it safe. DRM software lets you secure sensitive files so that only the right users can access them.

10 Best DRM Technology and Tactics

No single DRM tactic is foolproof—each has advantages and disadvantages that make it more appropriate for certain types of content.

While you don’t need to implement every DRM system on this list, it’s a good idea to use a handful of security protocols. Look for ways to provide layers of protection for each stage of the process, such as during signup, viewing, and post-viewing.

1. Blocks

Add code blocks to your website and applications to prevent end-users from doing screenshots, screengrabs, forwards, shares, and saves. These code blocks can be simple or advanced to prevent determined hackers from illegally accessing and distributing your videos.

2. User Limits

User limits set restrictions on the number of times, users, devices, locations, or IP addresses that can simultaneously access video content. You might have experienced this before when you were unable to watch videos on a family streaming service like Netflix, Spotify, or YouTube TV.

Setting user limits prevents accounts from widely sharing their password. While it’s sometimes within the terms of service to share account credentials with a handful of people, user limits stop sharing from getting out of hand and hurting your bottom line.

Communicate any user limits with your buyers beforehand during the sign-up process. Consider providing adjusted plans to accommodate families, couples, or nomadic viewers.

3. Expiration Dates

Expiration dates set a limit on how long a user can access your content. For example, you might want to let users rent a movie or TV show for a week or 24-hour period. Or you may want to give users access to your video content only while their subscription is active.

Expiration dates ensure your users don’t abuse content privileges or try to watch content offline without an active license.

4. Watermarks

Watermarks add logos to your videos and images to verify ownership. They’re not a standalone fix to pirating, though. Hackers can get creative to crop or cut these logos out, or they might redistribute them with the watermark included.

However, watermarks do act as a first-level deterrent that prevents most simple screengrabs and screenshots. While you still don’t want people stealing your content, watermarks do give you proof of ownership and spread awareness if a hacker does illegally share your videos.

We recommend adding watermarks in addition to other layers of DRM security practices.

5. Geographic Fences

Geographic fences (or IP restrictions) block specific geographic areas from getting unauthorized access to your content. Implementing geographic fences can limit your viewer pool (even your legitimate buyers), but it might be necessary for areas with high online piracy rates.

Consider adding geographic fences for areas of high piracy where you don’t believe you’ll have high viewership.

6. AES Encryption

Encryption standards can protect your digital content at rest and in transit. It uses an encryption key to ensure only viewers with the required decryption key can get access to your videos. This prevents hackers from intercepting your streams and illegally watching or downloading your content. We recommend adding encryption protocols to all your video content in conjunction with other DRM tactics.

7. Password Protection

Password protections lock your videos behind a required password. This is a simple and easy-to-bypass security protocol, but it can be effective for less premium content—and it’s an easy-to-implement deterrent that’ll likely turn away less-invested bad actors.

Since password protection isn’t the most sophisticated security protocol, we suggest using it in conjunction with other DRM technology. For example, you might use token authorization and passwords, or you might add a password requirement to your geographic fencing.

8. IP Whitelisting

IP whitelisting is like a reverse form of geographic fencing. Instead of listing areas you want to restrict, you create a shorter list of areas you want to permit. Only the IPs you whitelist will have access to your content.

IP whitelisting doesn’t usually work if you’re trying to market your content to a larger audience. However, if you’re a local church or news station that doesn’t want regular broadcast content to be stolen, you’re probably safe implementing IP whitelisting for communities in your area (or at least your state at large).

9. Token Authorization

Token authorization prevents content from being embedded in third-party players or other websites. Different DRM solutions go about this in various ways, but the most popular method is signing a token ID to the URL of your video content. This allows the server to quickly determine if an incoming request is coming from a legitimate customer.

10. Multi-DRM Integrations

Studio-level DRM lets you add integrations with other DRM platforms to deliver real-time content over Google Widevine, Apple FairPlay DRM, and Microsoft PlayReady DRM solutions. This adds additional layers of security to your video content to ensure it’s protected at rest and during playback.

How to Choose the Right DRM Technology

Not every DRM solution is created equally. Some use clunky apps and plugins that make it difficult for legitimate users to access, while others employ outdated security practices that bad actors can easily bypass. Do your due diligence before making a final decision.

Here are a few things you should keep in mind when choosing your DRM software solution:

  • Ease of use: Your platform of choice should be easy to use for both you and your end-users. If it’s too cumbersome and complicated, it might help your asset protection, but it’ll hurt your user experience.
  • Reliability: You need a platform with fast uploading and downloading speeds—plus, it needs proven uptime you can count on.
  • Adaptability: The best DRM solutions protect live streams, on-demand content, offline content, and more—which means you can protect more of your assets with fewer software subscriptions.
  • Security: Choose a platform with the latest-and-greatest technology and security best practices to ensure your content gets the protection it needs.
  • APIs: Ideally, your DRM tool will provide you with a combination of user interface dashboards and APIs to give you total flexibility and control over your content.

DRM software solutions often protect a variety of digital assets, but some are purpose-built for a specific type of content. For example, some might specialize in storing images, while another may focus on video. Choose the option that best meets your needs—more specializations isn’t always better.

Test any DRM tool before you make an investment. Most will offer a free trial or a sales demo—take advantage of these offers and get your hands dirty with the product.

Safeguard Your Digital Content With JW Player

For those needing robust DRM support, JW Player’s compatibility with Fairplay, Widevine, and PlayReady ensures reduced video workflows, comprehensive platform coverage, and pre-configured policies that can be customized to your audience needs.

Adding DRM within your streaming platform means that premium content protection no longer requires extra steps and vendors for your team – all of your video workflows are now centralized in JW Player, from upload to playback.

What If DRM Isn’t Right For My Content?

Outside of shielding enterprise and Hollywood-grade content from bad actors (no pun intended), the cost of DRM often outweighs its unique, niche benefits. Alternative content protection mechanisms will cover most video security needs.

HLS Encryption: encrypting streams using HLS encryption will protect your content delivery by preventing the ripping of those streams in transport. This is a great solution for news publishers, online education, and ad-supported OTT services.

Geo-blocking: authorizes video viewing based on the user’s geographical location. Often used by sports publishers, gaming companies, and premium OTT providers to manage entitlements based on geography.

URL token signing: a type of playback authorization to enforce a limited time to request a resource. OTT services, lifestyle publishers, and news publishers with paywalls utilize URL token signing effectively.

Content protection options in JW Player facilitate seamless viewing experiences for your audience while securing your content and keeping your team efficient. As we provide robust safeguards from upload to playback, you can focus on creating and distributing content without worrying about tackling security too. The modern security standards at JW Player are also scalable to your business- we’ll work with you to ensure that your security measures are optimized for your audience and content needs.

Don’t just take our word for it—see for yourself. Give our 30-Day Free Trial a try to get hands-on experience with the JW Player platform.