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Digital rights management

Major problems associated with distributing digital products via the internet include protecting the copyright of data and preventing illegal distribution of this data. Both of these issues are addressed by digital rights management (DRM) technologies.

In its most common form, DRM protects intellectual property by either encrypting the data so that it can only be accessed by authorised users. Alternatively, the content can be marked with a digital watermark, so that it can't be freely distributed.

Increasingly, DRM also provides tracking capabilities to identify who is using what content, where and when.

DRM can allow the release of multiple versions of a single document - each group of users is permitted to view only the version appropriate to them. In some contexts, this can be used simply to restrict disclosure on a need-to-know basis. However, where the content is itself a saleable product, it can help create new business. This could be by offering the recipients of a free summary version of a research report the chance to upgrade, for a fee, to the full report.

The digital rights that DRM can protect

DRM systems can protect against the following threats to your digital rights:

  • Render rights cover simple acts such as displaying content on a screen or playing it through an audio system. These are fairly easily protected by relatively simple encryption-based systems allowing only the appropriate users to render the content.
  • Transport rights relate to the ability to move or copy the data. Again, this involves simple forms of DRM. However, in this area it can be difficult to balance the rights owner's interests with the user's legitimate expectations, eg to make backups.
  • Derivative work rights cover the ability of users to modify or extract the content and use it in another way. Here, there will need to be flexible ways of identifying separate parts of the content, tracking the different ways in which they are used and, where necessary, collecting payment for them.

Used creatively, DRM can do much more than protect intellectual property and commercially sensitive material - it can also protect and even enhance revenue.