The Best DRM Policy May Be No Policy at All

By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2003-09-08 Print this article Print

DRM is a complex technical challenge, and the IT industry tends to assume that challenges point the way to business models.

DRM is a complex technical challenge, and the IT industry tends to assume that challenges point the way to business models. Digital rights management may be the exception—it may be a problem that cannot be usefully solved, technically or otherwise.

In many ways, DRM is the IT equivalent of chemotherapy: It tries to kill the cancer of content theft without killing the benefit of that content to legitimate users, both those who have paid for it and those who rely on traditional doctrines of fair use.

The difference, of course, is that its the content creators who suffer from content theft, while content users suffer from the remedies proposed. Not surprisingly, users resist the assumption of that burden.

Any rights management proposal that ignores or seeks to suppress this rational response is doomed to either technical failure—what people hate enough, they will find a way to crack—or commercial failure, as people seek their content from other sources.

The goals of rights management in the enterprise environment are different and somewhat more achievable than in the consumer mass-media market. There are many reasons for enterprises to limit the readership of documents, for example, or to prevent alteration of content by those who have a need to know but not permission to change.

In the big picture, however, even these reasonable purposes will be defeated by unreasonable or untrustworthy people. If a document cannot be copied, pasted and edited on a screen or even printed on paper, it can be retyped from scratch—with or without distortions, depending on a persons goals. Once bits are out of the bag, no one can prevent them from going where theyre wanted most.

Mass-media rights management reduces contents value rather than increases it. This has never been a path to commercial success. Enterprise rights management attempts to use technology as a substitute for hiring good people and for treating them in a way that promotes a sense of shared goals. Few organizations can long endure such a climate.

Finally, rights management technologies represent yet another way for the enterprise to lock crucial information inside containers defined and controlled by others. Its bad enough when physical data storage media become obsolete or when proprietary software fails to read outdated file formats. How much worse is the embarrassment of the enterprise that acquires and deploys rights management tools only to find that a DRM providers failure has thrown away the key to that corporate memory?

Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be contacted at

Peter Coffee is Director of Platform Research at, where he serves as a liaison with the developer community to define the opportunity and clarify developers' technical requirements on the company's evolving Apex Platform. Peter previously spent 18 years with eWEEK (formerly PC Week), the national news magazine of enterprise technology practice, where he reviewed software development tools and methods and wrote regular columns on emerging technologies and professional community issues.Before he began writing full-time in 1989, Peter spent eleven years in technical and management positions at Exxon and The Aerospace Corporation, including management of the latter company's first desktop computing planning team and applied research in applications of artificial intelligence techniques. He holds an engineering degree from MIT and an MBA from Pepperdine University, he has held teaching appointments in computer science, business analytics and information systems management at Pepperdine, UCLA, and Chapman College.

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