Digital Rights Management is the nice, gentle, innocent-sounding marketing term for any and all technology that prevents you from copying content. For example, if you buy a CD and want to make a copy for your brother, DRM technology might prevent it. Perhaps you bought a DVD while on vacation in Europe, but find that it won't play on your DVD player because it's the wrong "region". That's DRM too.
Imagine that you're an executive for a company who makes money by selling movies/music. For years you've had this problem of customers being able to make copies of my material and give it to friends or sell it on the black market. While law enforcement can try to stop it, there just aren't enough resources to protect your capital.
Enter DRM. Using technology built into the media, you can make it harder or impossible to copy my content beyond your original intent. Granted, this involves support from the makers of players and computer systems, but that's not hard. Since every one in the business wants DRM, you can practically force the manufacturers to support any scheme you want put in.
For an executive who looks at every illegal copy as a lost sale, this technology is enticing to say the least. You will definitely be willing to put some of my customers through inconvenience to stop this leakage of profits.
Why We Hate DRM
DRM prevents me from making backup copies of my movies, playing games and movies I imported from another country, and copying a CD so I can have on in my house and car.
Every instance of copy protection causes inconvenience to us, the users. Consider the "region code" issue with DVD players. If I buy a movie from Japan, I can't play it on my DVD player that was bought in America. Nevermind that it's a completely legally purchased disc; it just won't work.
Also look at the Windows Genuine Advantage tool for Microsoft Windows. All this tool does is take a profile of your system and send the results to Microsoft. Think of it like a secret, forced registration. Anyway, if the system can't validate, your access to updates will be blocked and, in the case of Vista, some of the functionality of your system will shut down.
And that's assuming that it works in the first place. Even if the data abuse and secretly contacting Microsoft servers on a regular basis doesn't bother you, there are still instances where people are flagged as having stolen copies when they don't (called false positives). And don't forget that any outage of the WGA service on Microsoft's end will automatically deny service to any and all computers that check in during the outage (as we saw in a recent incident).
As an honest, non-infringing user, why should we suffer any difficulties in using our legally bought and owned copy of a movie/song/piece of software?
There's NO benefit to the user
When was the last time companies lowered prices because of all the money they're saving with their DRM? When did the addition of DRM make it easier, faster, or better for you to use your media? Is there a single benefit to the user that can be attributed to the use of DRM in a product? Certainly none I can think of.
DRM doesn't stop piracy
The most important thing you can know about DRM is that it does. not. work. DRM doesn't, and never will, work.
That means that any frustrations you have, any complications, any difficulties you see in using your media are for nothing. You probably always knew this, but couldn't articluate it or perhaps you didn't have any hard evidence. Well, let me help you with that so the next time you're in dinner conversation over the copyright control practices of the American media conglomerates, you'll have something witty to say.
The analog hole – All media must eventually be transmitted to you in light and sound. That means that it has to be converted from it's DRM protected state into analog where it can be copied by any number of available devices.
No matter what clever DRM system someone comes up with, you can just plug a recorder into your speaker jack or video tape your TV when the DVD is playing. Granted the quality will be lower, but that doesn't always matter.
The important thing is that until they find a way to feed data directly to your brain (god help us all when that happens), there will always be an intermediary analog connection that can be recorded.
Hackers always win – For a player to play your media, it has to know how to break the encryption/undo the DRM. Hackers can buy players just as easily as the next guy. As soon as the world's hackers get a hold of the devices that play the media, they can being working on extracting or replicating the process in order to bypass it. Thus is the case with DVD's, iTunes music, and the new HD-DVD as well. There's no reason to believe this trend won't continue far into the future (like inifinity).
Media hackers share – As soon as any hacker in the world finds a crack, the rest of the world will know too. The thing of it is, with today's connected society, it only takes one hacker, anywhere in the world to break an encryption or copy protection scheme and make it available on the Internet. Attempts to control the distribution of this information have ended very badly for some sites.
Take Digg for example. Digg.com is a website where users post interesting news stories for other users to vote and comment on. One day, the decryption key that defeats HD-DVD showed up on Digg. In response to a legal threat, Digg removed the post.
If there's a better way to instantly publicize information, I can't think of it. The digg community was so angry that they openly revolted by posting article after article containing the key as well as spreading it across the web in blogs and on other sites. Not only did the entire first page of Digg get flooded with stories containing the number, The key is now features on t-shirts, songs, art, and wide-spread news coverage.
Besides being extremly funny, this situation highlights the mentality of the Internet community and how big companies are seen as the enemy while the hackers are heroes.
What this means is that, at the inconvenience of all, some casual copying has lessened. Grandpa might have made a copy of a CD for a dying friend in the hospital before, but now his friend will die cold and music-less thanks to the wonders of DRM making it too hard for the technologically naive to bypass it.
But on the other hand, any organized pirate groups already have the cracks and are cranking out bootleg copies just like the did before. It's business as usual.
For all other people with at least basic computer/Internet knowledge, they have the option of downloading whatever they want and can find online with the only thing stopping them being harsh litigation by copyright owners.