How can I deal with DRM protected material?

Q – First things first; what is DRM?

DRM, which stands for Digital Rights Management, refers to any of a number of systems that are used by producers of digital content to prevent or inhibit copying and distribution by consumers of the content they sell.

One of the most common DRM systems is the Content Scrambling System, or CSS, that prevents many DVDs from playing clearly on equipment that is not equipped with a proprietary decryption key. Another common product is Macrovision, which will cause a recording made from an encrypted VHS tape or DVD to be scrambled or faded. Also, many music CDs are sold with technological protections that prevent them from being easily copied, or “ripped,” onto a computer.

Although DRM systems are intended to prevent copying technologically, most of the systems are easy to defeat with decryption programs. The real force behind DRM systems is not technological but legal.

Q – Are DRM systems really protected by law?

Yes! The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 added provisions to the copyright law (chapter 12 of Title 17 of the U.S. Code) that make it illegal to circumvent DRM systems and to manufacture or sell technology designed to circumvent such systems. Both civil and criminal penalties are provided for by this “anti-circumvention” law.

Q – Do all digital products have DRM protection?

No. Some DVDs, CDs or VHS tapes are sold without any kind of electronic copy protection, although most such products probably do have some kind of DRM. Sometimes the packaging of the product will indicate the presence of a DRM system, such as when the name Macrovision is printed on a VHS cassette sleeve. Most of the time, however, one can be sure that a digital product is protected only by trying, and failing, to make a copy.

Q – I want to make a copy of a film that is not DRM protected. May I?

If the film is not protected by an electronic copy prevention system, it will not be a violation of the DMCA to copy it. But copying can often be an infringement of copyright, so you should only proceed with the copy if it falls into one of the exceptions to copyright like the TEACH Act or Fair Use.

Q – I want to make a copy of a film that has DRM protection. May I?

Probably not. Even if you have the software or device available to successfully circumvent the DRM make the copy, doing so is likely to violate the DMCA and could subject you to civil (money) damages and even criminal charges, if the circumvention is willful and for commercial gain.

There are several exceptions to the anti-circumvention provisions of the DMCA, and you should only proceed with the copying if you are certain that what you are doing fits within one of these exceptions, which are very narrow.

Q – What are the exceptions to the anti-circumvention rules that enforce DRM?

There are several exceptions to these rules, but only two that really are useful for educational copying.

The first is for film and media studies professors who want to make compilations of portions of video for use in the classroom. This exception applies only to film clips and only to professors who are teaching film or media studies; note that it does not allow circumvention in order to copy whole films into a course management or distribution system. The films used to make these allowable compilations must be owned by the University library system.

The second exception to the anti-circumvention rules really only benefits technology staff and researchers; it allows one to avoid copy protection systems when one is trying to make a protected piece of digital content interoperable with another, independently created software product, as long as the purpose of the interoperability is not itself an infringement of copyright.

For help deciding if either of these exceptions to the anti-circumvention rules applies to your situation, please contact the Scholarly Communications Office.