Music Copyright in the Digital Age

       A legal, economic, and cultural analysis of music piracy and its implications

Digital Rights Management

Digital rights management (DRM) utilizes technological measures to restrict the playback or duplication of music in order to protect its copyright. It is software that is not only distributed with digital music but also other forms of media like videos (TV shows and movies) and video games. Because its task is to reduce the usability of the content by either making it more difficult to duplicate or playback on other types of devices, it has been enormously unpopular with consumers.

DRM can make legal uses of music--such as sharing music across computers or playing it on certain MP3 players lacking DRM software--a hassle, if not impossible. In even worse cases, like the Sony scandal described below, it can make your computer vulnerable to viruses. It is because of results like these and consumer backlash that music distributors have started to abandon DRM.

Ultimately, DRM is an exercise in futility. The nature of digital files, the fact that they consist of ones and zeros, makes them inherently easily copyable. Cryptographer and computer security specialist Bruce Schneier calls this a natural law of the Internet that will not let itself be contradicted. In his words: "Digital files cannot be made uncopyable, any more than water can be made not wet."[1]

Sony BMG Extended Copy Protection Scandal

In 2005 Sony BMG put MediaMax Extended Copy Protection (XCP) on 50 titles that sold a collective 5.7 million copies. The software on the CDs installs itself on the listener's computer when inserted to prevent consumers from making illegal copies. However, the XCP DRM software, which installs a rootkit (software that gains administrative access on a computer), created security vulnerabilities that exposed the consumer's computer to hackers. The first patch released by Sony to try to solve the problem only created another security hole.[2]

Apple's iTunes DRM

Until 2007, songs downloaded from Apple's iTunes music store were restricted by DRM that made it difficult to share music across computers or play it on non-Apple music players. European regulators argued that Apple's DRM scheme was anti-competitive because of the restrictions it imposed. Apple passed the blame to record companies who insisted their music be sold with DRM until EMI led the initiative for higher quality tracks with no usage restrictions.[3]


  1. Schneier, Bruce. "The Futility of Digital Copy Prevention." Crypto-Gram Newsletter 15 May 2001.
  2. "Anti-piracy CD problems vex Sony." BBC News 08 Dec. 2005.
  3. Blakely, Rhys. "iTunes releases copyright free music." Times Online 30 May 2007.