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Digital Rights Management (DRM) Explained

December 22, 2022 11 minute read
As brands create more and more digital assets, the need for digital rights management has never been greater. Learn more about DRM in this guide.
Blog header image: What is Digital Rights Management (DRM)? article.

Understanding how and when to use copyrighted materials like stock photography, logos, videos, and more can be a full-time job. Using a piece of content incorrectly could result in a fine or even a lawsuit. On the flip-side, there’s also the possibility of someone using your materials without proper permission. Neither scenario is desirable — and without consistent copyright management, you might not even know it’s happening.

With new material being created at a rapid pace, having a single gatekeeper to keep track of everything is unrealistic — but you need some way to easily see how your content’s being used. That’s why many companies are turning to digital rights management (DRM) tools to keep tabs on their digital content.

What is digital rights management?

Digital rights management (DRM) is the adoption of technology and systems to restrict the use of copyrighted digital materials. DRM tools are designed to protect the rights of the copyright holder and prevent unauthorized modification or distribution.

While stealing or copying content is an age-old phenomenon, modern technology has made piracy exponentially easier. With a few clicks of a mouse, many copyrighted images, videos, and audio files can be shared or downloaded from the internet — often without proper permission. From Napster to bootlegging and “borrowing” art, this activity is widespread and costly. Research from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Innovation Policy Center estimates that online piracy costs the U.S. economy at least $29.2 billion in lost revenue each year

We’re seeing this across industries too and it’s not just the economy losing out. It can result in loss of jobs and have corporate and personal tax ramifications. In fact, the Recording Industry Association of America reports that the U.S. federal, state, and local governments lose a minimum of $422 million in tax revenues annually due to piracy – $291 million of that representing lost personal income taxes and $131 million representing lost corporate income and production taxes. So if you’re thinking online piracy doesn’t impact you, think again.

A history of digital rights management

Before the rise of the internet in the 1990s, piracy existed but it wasn’t quite as widespread. But as digital music and online videos became popular, countries had to scramble to create legislation that would curb digital piracy. New laws were passed and new business models explored, so by the 2010s, digital rights management was a priority, not an afterthought. 

Not only did governments step in, but technology companies started building software that allowed content creators to track and prohibit digital theft. With the first example of DRM software introduced in 1983 to help enable payments to be sent to the copyright holder, new technologies have continually been introduced since then, including software to enforce copy restrictions, runtime restrictions, regional lockouts, and tracking.

How does DRM work?

Although digital content is covered under copyright laws, monitoring the web to catch illegal activity is challenging. So DRM takes a proactive approach to protecting digital content by creating barriers to stealing it in the first place.  

There are numerous approaches to DRM and continual efforts to develop new methods. Many DRM tools operate through encryption, or computer code embedded in the digital content, to limit access or use. These tools can help you:

  • Control the number of times, devices, people, or time periods that the content can be accessed or installed
  • Establish ownership and track content usage
  • Set expiration dates or view limits on content
  • Prevent viewers from creating screenshots of, editing, printing, sharing, or saving your materials
  • Restrict access based on IP addresses, locations, or devices

In his article What is Digital Rights Management?, Frederick W. Dingledy outlines the following DRM tools and processes that deter illegal use of copyrighted material:

  • Copy protection. These strategies control access by preventing users from making copies of a work. They are typically implemented through encryption, which writes the digital content in a code that can only be read by devices or software with the key to unlock it. This approach is also sometimes referred to as scrambling. Other examples of copy protection include digital watermarks, fingerprinting, and restricting copying features — such as rootkit software.
  • Permission management. This form of control limits who has permission to use a certain work. Examples of these DRM strategies include software licenses and keys, user authentication and IP authentication protocols, proxy servers, virtual private networks (VPNs), regional restriction or geoblocking, and designing products to only work on specialized hardware or software.

Many creators of digital content employ multiple DRM strategies to restrict or control the use of their works. 

Why digital rights management?

Copyright infringement is rampant across everything from movies and music to software and images. This could include a bootleg copy of the latest Marvel movie or pirated use of a branded product image to mislead consumers on third-party e-commerce sites. In fact, according to Akamai’s 2022 State of the Internet report, from January to September 2021, there were 132 billion visits to piracy websites across the television, film, music, software, and publishing industries. 

A well-known example of digital piracy is Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” poster for Barack Obama’s election campaign. Mr. Fairey based his design on a photograph from The Associated Press (AP), without authorized permission. The lawsuit AP brought against Mr. Fairey resulted in a settlement that required both parties to share the rights to create materials with the Hope image, along with an undisclosed financial award to AP. DRM tools are designed to prevent this kind of unlicensed use of digital media and subsequent legal action.

It’s easy to assume that piracy only impacts large corporations, but these companies have to make up the difference somewhere. Unfortunately, that “difference” usually falls to consumers by way of increased subscription fees, limited legal sharing options, or the distribution of inferior products from illegal vendors. That’s why being able to protect proprietary information and materials is so important. 

DRM use cases

DRM technology appears on a range of digital materials, from videos, music, and e-books, to proprietary business information, database subscriptions, and software. The creators of these works are interested in DRM not only to impede unauthorized copying, but also to prevent people from changing their works or using them in ways they didn’t intend.

Here are some digital rights management examples:

  • Limit audio file access. The Apple iTunes Store and streaming services like Spotify use DRM technology to limit the number of devices that can be used to play downloaded audio and video files. Songs and videos downloaded from the services include data about the purchase (or subscription plan) and usage activity, and the songs will only play on authorized devices and platforms.
  • Prevent software tampering. Anti-tamper software allows software creators and monitors to run automated checks to ensure their software is running as expected. It can also prevent code from being modified or stolen.
  • Trace product image leaks. New product images that are leaked to the market ahead of a launch can lead to brand degradation, costly competitive disadvantages, and the creation of counterfeit products. Manufacturing companies can apply DRM technology to pre-release and embargoed product images to trace these leaks back to the source — and shut them down.
  • Eliminate counterfeit web stores. Companies that sell counterfeit products often scrape images from the web and reuse them on their website to appear authentic to consumers. If they use images that are encoded with DRM technology, they can be tracked and facilitate immediate legal action.
  • Produce content safely. When creating marketing materials or advertisements for mass distribution, DRM software can capture and manage contracts and agreements to get full visibility into the terms of use and restrictions for each image, model, and photographer, as well as music, voiceovers, and videos. The software embeds a tracking ID in each piece of content to track each use and aggregate this information in analytic dashboards. This helps ensure that teams are creating deliverables that comply with all related contracts and agreements.

Benefits of digital rights management

DRM presents a range of benefits to both businesses and individuals — here are just a few.

  • Helps protect confidential files. DRM technology can help businesses secure sensitive documents, from contracts and strategic plans to confidential employee data. It allows them to control and track access to files, and prevent them from being altered, saved, duplicated, or printed.
  • Prevent unintended unauthorized use. DRM technology helps content purchasers abide by the related licensing information that dictates how, when, and even where it can be used — and avoid financial penalties for misuse
  • Helps secure revenue streams. Content creation takes significant resources in terms of time, money, and talent. DRM technology helps ensure that content owners see a return on this investment.
  • Creates learning opportunities. DRM technology and related workflows can help people understand the importance of adhering to copyright policies — in both their professional and personal lives.
  • Accelerate content production and distribution. By clearly defining and confirming the terms for digital content, teams can quickly and confidently understand what assets are available for use without second-guessing usage rights or contract agreements.


DRM technology can also work with other software to track and control how content is used. For example, digital asset management (DAM) platforms use a configurable permissioning structure to uphold secure access to assets — and safeguard content usage across internal terms. And when this software is integrated with DRM tools, like Digimarc and FADEL Rights Cloud, it can further control access and use of copyrighted material.

Digital watermarking with Digimarc

An integration between a DAM system and Digimarc places a graphic file on top of an asset or asset preview to alter its appearance and signal that it’s not approved for use. Digimarc also embeds an invisible ID, or watermark, in the asset that makes it possible to find and track unauthorized online use. The watermark stays with the file as it’s manipulated, copied, or transformed from one format to another. 

Digimarc technology can also streamline product workflows. A barcode ID can be applied to individual items and packaging, and scanned for authentication — accelerating products through the supply chain.  

FADEL Rights Cloud

An integration between a DAM solution and FADEL Rights Cloud software tracks licensing and distribution rights for music, images, videos, and apps on specific devices. It monitors all of the rights related to a specific piece of content and can shut down a campaign that reaches its distribution or royalty limit, based on where and how that content has been used.

FADEL also aids in brand compliance by protecting the use of brand assets, product packaging, marketing content, and advertising. This DRM software can be integrated with other tools like Adobe Creative Cloud to “rights check” assets as they’re being used. And once content is distributed, it can be tracked for expiration dates, usage trends, and more.

More rights management options with DAM

There are several reasons why companies invest in DAM technology as part of their digital rights management strategy. A major benefit is its use of metadata fields to capture licensing and copyright information. This data can be added manually for each asset, automatically ingested during upload through embedded metadata, or included in a document attached to the asset record. In the case of stock photography, videos, or audio files, tracking this licensing information is critical in preventing unauthorized use.

Further, most DAM tools offer embed codes to control how and where assets are published online. If an image needs to be updated or replaced because of an expired license or change in the terms of use, the versioned file in the DAM system will be pushed to every location the related embed code is posted. This process is known as COPE — create once, publish everywhere — and can be a valuable piece of a larger DRM strategy. 

And finally, enterprise systems make it possible to require users to read and agree to an End User License Agreement (EULA) the first time they log in to the site, share files, or download content, to legally protect assets against unauthorized use.   

What's next?

Digital rights management plays an important role in today’s digital world. It educates users about copyright and intellectual property by clarifying what they can and can’t do with certain content, and it helps the authors and owners of digital material protect the financial and creative investment in their work.

Incorporating DRM software into your processes will help ensure that your content is distributed legally and appropriately. If you’re curious how our platform, Acquia DAM (Widen), can help with your digital rights management strategy, request, watch, or click through a demo today. 

Note: This article was originally published on

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