The Decade in DRM (and announcing Day Against DRM, 2010)

Since the late 1990s, a handful of media and technology companies has waged war against the public, imposing digital restrictions on the technology we use.. Here is Defective by Design's look at some of the most significant events in the past 10 years fighting against DRM. If there are important moments missing (which there may be), please send them to us! Despite a number of victories over DRM in specific areas, DRM is far from dead. Whether companies will control and restrict us through our technology remains to be decided, and the battle is now.

Which brings us to an important announcement: Tuesday May 4, 2010 will be the Day Against DRM. The FSF will be working with other anti-DRM groups and anti-DRM activists from all over the world to raise awareness and mobilize the public. So spread the word by sharing this announcement, and putting the buttons below on your site. If you want to follow the action or be involved, contact or sign up here. And read on! Past victories could inspire your activism this year...

The Decade in DRM: 2000-2009

(Including four pre-2000 events that helped set the stage for the years to come.)

  • February 1997: Richard Stallman's short story "The Right to Read" published. It imagines a future in which book sharing is criminalized and prohibited through technological controls. That future would not be long in coming.

  • October 28, 1998: The DMCA. US President Bill Clinton signs the Digital Millennium Copyright Act into law. The DMCA criminalized DRM circumvention as well as the creation and spreading of anti-DRM tools. Many nations went on to pass similar so-called "anti-circumvention" laws.

  • March 31, 1999: Tivo ships a TV timeshifting device using free software under the hood, but the hardware imposes a restriction on running user modified versions of the software. The freedom of free software becomes an illusion, unless the restriction is broken--something that is now illegal thanks to the DMCA. "Tivoization" is born.

  • October 1999: DeCSS for DVDs. Just before the start of the decade, Jon Lech Johansen, aka DVD Jon, and two anonymous collaborators release

    DeCSS, which defeats the DRM on DVDs. After a judge prohibits distribution of DeCSS code, advocates of technological freedom distribute DeCSS code in a plethora of formats, including songs and poetry.

  • March 2000: GNU Free Documentation License 1.1 is published. The license prohibits DRM and was later adopted by Wikipedia for all its articles.

  • July 16, 2001: Programmer jailed! FBI arrests visiting Russian programmer Dmitri Sklyarov for helping write a program that stripped DRM from Adobe ebooks. He is detained for almost a month, and not allowed to return home until December.

  • November 28, 2001: 2600, sued for merely linking to the DeCSS code, loses its appeal.

  • May 2002: CD DRM schemes defeated by drawing on the disc with a magic marker. Other CD DRM schemes crash the computer playing the disc, inspiring this rant.

  • December 2002: First Creative Commons copyright licenses released. Creative Commons's licenses encourage sharing of creative works, and prohibit licensees from imposing "technological measures on the Work that restrict the ability of a recipient of the Work from You to exercise the rights granted to that recipient under the terms of the License," as a blocking maneuver against DRM. By decade's end, hundreds of millions of works would be so licensed, proving that authors, artists and musicians oppose DRM too.

  • January 2003: Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom becomes the first novel released under a Creative Commons license. Doctorow becomes one of the decade's most outspoken voices against DRM, both in his work with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and on his blog Boing Boing; his 2004 Microsoft DRM talk was especially influential.

  • April 2003: Apple launches the iTunes Store, selling music with the oxymoronic "FairPlay DRM".

  • September 8, 2003: RIAA sues 261 file sharers, kicking off a massive lawsuit campaign that would reach more than 30,000 lawsuits by decade's end. See The War on Sharing.

  • September 13, 2003: John Walker publishes The Digital Imprimatur: How big brother and big media can put the Internet genie back in the bottle, identifying DRM as one of the technologies that will lead to restrictions of liberty on the Internet.

  • November 2003: FairPlay cracked. DVD Jon releases QTFairUse, the first program to circumvent Apple's FairPlay DRM.

  • January 22, 2004: All legal proceedings against DVD Jon related to DeCSS are dropped.

  • October 31, 2005: Sony Rootkit discovered. In one of the greatest DRM fiascos of all time, when certain Sony CDs were played on computers, Sony secretly installed a "rootkit" (software that compromises your computer) as part of a DRM system called SecuROM. Among other things, the rootkit let any web page execute code on the infected machine, like forcing the machine to reboot. Sony's DRM rootkit also contained GPL-covered code distributed in violation of the GPL. Sony was not prosecuted for either of these felonies.

  • December 1st, 2005: Rootkit lawsuits against Sony/BMG gain class action status.

  • December 26, 2005: Sony settles rootkit lawsuit.

  • 2006: Peter Gutmann's "A Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection" memorably concludes "The Vista Content Protection specification could very well constitute the longest suicide note in history." The article ignites public awareness of the new DRM malfeatures in Windows Vista.

  • May 23, 2006: First Defective by Design action launches. DRM Protestors Crash Vista Party: "As Microsoft developers gathered in Seattle to hear Bill Gates's keynote speech on the future of Microsoft and the coming release of its updated operating system Vista, protesters wearing bright yellow Hazmat suits swarmed the entrance of the city's convention center, delivering an unsettling message to the corporation: your product is defective and hazardous to users."

Defective by Design continues to identify DRM-crippled products, aiming to cast DRM as an anti-social technology, and to abolish DRM as a social practice.

  • October 3, 2006: First Day Against DRM. Thousands of emails were sent, one hundred and fifty thousand stickers were distributed, and more than two hundred organized meet-ups to get the message out. Some dressed up in Hazmat suits and educated shoppers and commuters, others blogged about anti-DRM activities, many submitted amazing photos. In Paris activists, handed themselves in to police for breaking French DRM laws.

  • Summer 2006: DRM-free eMusic becomes the second-largest digital music service.

  • 2007 and 2008: Microsoft announces various plans to abandon PlaysForSure DRM. Though some of these plans are rolled back, music customers are outraged at the possibility of losing music collections. Microsoft helps make it clear that DRM sellers cannot be trusted.

  • February 6, 2007: In an open letter, Steve Jobs says that "DRMs haven’t worked, and may never work..." He encourages DRM opponents to ask major record labels to license music DRM-free to Apple and other music distributors. But by the end of the decade Steve Jobs had shown his real colors by leading the charge to impose maximal DRM on Apple users.

  • April 2007: AACS key for HD DVDs published, breaking the DRM on all released discs. The key, a short hexadecimal series, is widely posted and widely censored, thanks to site owners' fear of the DMCA. Digg users rebelled when Digg administrators tried to ban posting of the key, leading the site to eventually bow to the wishes of its users.

  • June 29, 2007: Version 3 of the GNU General Public License is released. Its author Richard Stallman says, "GPLv3 ensures you are free to remove the handcuffs. It doesn't forbid DRM, or any kind of feature. It places no limits on the substantive functionality you can add to a program, or remove from it. Rather, it makes sure that you are just as free to remove nasty features as the distributor of your copy was to add them. Tivoization is the way they deny you that freedom; to protect your freedom, GPLv3 forbids tivoization."

  • September 25, 2007: Amazon starts selling DRM-free MP3s.

  • July 11, 2008: Apple's App Store for iPhone and iPod Touch opens.

    All the software on the device and in the store is DRMed, even the software that doesn't cost any money or whose authors would actually prefer to share it. The DRM gives Apple control over what applications can and can't be installed on any device. The App Store's numerous and arbitrary App Store rejections become a running joke.

  • September 2008: The DRM-encrusted game Spore is overwhelmingly negatively reviewed on Amazon, with thousands giving it one star because if its use of DRM.

  • February 27, 2009: Amazon uses its remote control over the Kindle device to yank the text-to-speech feature from many Kindle books, letting publishers decide which books the device can read aloud. Advocates for the blind responded by protesting at the offices of the Author's Guild, which had pushed for the measure.

  • April 7, 2009: Apple announces DRM-free versions of all songs in iTunes Store. While music DRM appears nearly dead, Apple keeps DRM on movies, TV shows, audiobooks and applications.

  • July 11, 2009: Amazon deletes purchased copies of Orwell's 1984 from Kindle e-book readers, making clear who ultimately controls these devices, igniting a general uproar, and a DbD petition for the right to read.


It's interesting that the decade opened and closed with battles over ebooks. Years before Amazon deleted copies of George Orwell's 1984 from users' Kindles, a visiting conference presenter was actually jailed for understanding and publishing Adobe's ebook DRM, a hint at the draconian direction we were headed in. Richard Stallman identified the hypothetical threat to our books in "The Right to Read", but now some of the biggest tech companies in the world (including Amazon and Apple) are making this nightmare scenario a reality.

So, if we're going to create a world that is DRM-free through this final transition away from physical media (as CDs, DVDs, and maybe even printed books become obsolete), anti-DRM activists must be vigilant. We hope everyone reading this will participate in this year's International Day Against DRM on May 4th. If you want to follow the action or be involved, contact or sign up here. Let's keep writing history!