What has happened and where we've come: A short history of DRM

The following blog post is by FSF fall intern Leonardo Vignini. For more information on interning with the FSF, please click here.

The Free Software Foundation's (FSF) fight against Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) goes a long way back, with efforts that have resulted in victories, and actions that have weakened the chains of DRM or even broken them. In 2006, the FSF ramped up its anti-DRM activities, under the campaign name Defective by Design (DBD). If we are to win the battle against DRM, it is important to have larger numbers on our side. To achieve that, it is fundamental to make people aware of the risk that DRM poses to our privacy and freedom.

Remembering the past is crucial for those who are approaching this problem for the first time and who barely know what DRM is, as well as those who have fought it for years, because the past helps us to better understand the future. Timelines that reconstruct the story of Defective by Design have already been created. What is being done here, instead, is outlining a brief history of our DRM-related campaign activities to highlight important moments in the history of DRM itself, which is now over twenty years old. Before reading this article, the novice to Defective by Design may find it helpful to review how DRM is defined.

2062: The right to read

The first event that should be brought to mind is the beginning of the Tycho Uprising, in 2062. In that year, the inhabitants of Luna started a war against SPA, the Software Protection Authority. You might remember that one of the main goals of the revolt was the universal right to read. Obviously, we haven’t lost our minds: we're simply referencing the events in a short story written by Richard M. Stallman in 1997, called The Right to Read.

The story, which is set in the future, tells of a young couple, Lisa and Dan, who decide to become rebels because in the world they live in, culture is not free. Digital books are restricted by copyright monitor codes that prohibit users from lending them to others, and make them extremely expensive. Stallman lays out an early argument against DRM, portraying a future society in which it has completely subjugated people. We have called this society "dystopian," but as we have learned by now, much of what started out as mere fantasy has turned into reality.

1998: Digital Millennium Copyright Act

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) came into effect in the United States in 1998. Section 1201 of this law is a stringent and widely criticized directive with the purpose of protecting copyright, but it fails to protect users, in favor of corporations. It levies sanctions against all those who produce technologies to disarm the digital systems used to restrict copyrighted works, and those who share these technologies are criminalized. While it supposedly protects copyrights, DRM is a system of control, and doesn't "protect" anything.

2001: Information Society Directive

The DMCA became a model for the European Copyright Directive, approved on May 22, 2001. Like the DMCA, it also supports DRM, creating legal consequences for those seeking to spring technological "protection" measures on copyrighted works.

2006: Defective by Design

The FSF has been fighting DRM since the 1990s. In 2006, Defective by Design was born, as a comprehensive campaign collecting anti-DRM resources and opportunities for individual action together in one place. This became a resource which educates people on the risks related to digital restriction tools, as well as a place to coalesce a community. In addition, we developed initiatives to keep people involved, such as the Guide to DRM-Free Living, a page that promotes publishers, sellers, and distribution services for books, audio, and videos that do not implement DRM in their products. Another key action is the International Day Against DRM, an annually recurring protest day in which all those who believe in a world without digital control tools can join spiritually and physically to make their voices heard.

2006-2008: Steve Jobs and Bill Gates seem to be joining the cause

It should immediately be clarified that opposition to DRM is not limited to people connected with the free software movement. Over the years, in fact, criticism has come from all sides. You can actually find speeches against digital restrictions online by many video game developers and digital music sales services. It may sound strange, but between 2006 and 2008, both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs seemed to take a stand against DRM. The former, during a meeting in 2006, declared that there were "huge problems" with DRM, and the latter even proposed in an open letter to "abolish DRM entirely" in 2008. These are still only words. Nowadays, Jobs's open letter has completely disappeared from Apple's website. In addition, in the same year, Apple’s App Store for iPhone and iPod Touch opened its doors,and all the downloadable apps have DRM implemented.

2007: GPLv3

In 2007, the latest version of the GNU General Public License, GPLv3, was released. This license takes into account digital restrictions and the laws that enforce them. The license guards against people benefiting from free software only to deny those freedoms to others through a process known as "Tivoization." Instead, the license guarantees that users will be able to modify the free software already on the device, and install new software if they wish. In addition, Section 3 of the license makes it clear that DRM can be implemented in software released under the GPLv3 license, but it is not considered illegal to break that DRM, or to share any program capable of doing so. In this way, GPLv3 effectively challenges the DMCA, and all the laws like it.

2009: Amazon deletes thousands of copies of 1984

Perhaps this is the most famous anecdote related to the history of DRM. This single disturbing event, which demonstrated that DRM is exactly as powerful and dangerous as critics have warned all along, made many more people aware of DRM's existence.

In 2009, Amazon canceled thousands of ebook copies of George Orwell's 1984 from Amazon Kindles, on grounds of their seller not being authorized for the Kindle. If we compare it with a printed book, we immediately realize that we are somehow living in a society that has a lot in common with that described by Orwell. Just imagine purchasing a printed book, only to have someone suddenly enter your home and take it back, without any possibility of opposing. How could this have happened? Three letters: DRM. The fact that the subject of this story is precisely the book that symbolizes how society loses its freedoms and the fight against control by technology is bitterly ironic.

2013: Cancel Netflix

In 2010, Netflix began streaming videos, a service that turned it into the giant that it is today. Netflix continues to stand as one of the main antagonists of the Defective by Design campaign. In fact, not only does the company implement DRM in its streaming service, but it has also promoted the introduction of a specification (Encrypted Media Extensions, which we will address later) that would allow the use of videos with DRM in Web browsers. To fight this, the Cancel Netflix campaign was born, with the aim of informing people and allowing them to take a position with concrete actions.

2015: DRM in streaming

Some of the dis-services in which DRM is implemented are music streaming services, among which the most famous is Spotify. In 2015, these services were already widely used by people, and therefore Defective By Design has begun to remind people often of the dangers in these audio streaming services due to their use of DRM with a lot of articles, that can be read on our blog or by joining our action alert email list.

2017: World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) greenlights DRM for the Web

Encrypted Media Extensions (EME), which we mentioned earlier, is a specification that allows HTML5 video, the standard for playing movies on the Web, to play DRM-restricted media directly without the intervention of third party services. EME is basically what allows DRM-restricted videos to be a standard on the Web. The introduction of EME as a standard specification is a great risk for user freedom in one space that should be especially free: the Web.

In addition to the FSF, other organizations such as EFF have tried to dissuade W3C -- the organization that establishes the technical standards of the Web -- from approving EME. Unfortunately, in 2017 EME were introduced, making DRM a Web standard, and hence marking the victory of multinational corporations like Netflix, Microsoft, Google, and Apple.

2019-2020: The struggle continues

In 2019, an event reminded us again that DRM is a control tool with disturbing implications. In June 2019, Microsoft closed its ebook store and deleted all the ebooks purchased by customers. Just as in 2009 with Orwell's 1984, a legitimately purchased product was completely eliminated without leaving any room for objection. Thousands of books were virtually burned.

In 2020, the release of Disney+, which, as expected, is using DRM, reminds us that the war against DRM rages on, and will likely be a long one.

However, the news isn't all bad. In fact, DBD is growing, and every day, new people and organizations join the movement. The International Day Against DRM also is growing more and more. Every year, thanks to our campaign, the awareness grows, but we still need help. There are a lot of things that someone can do to sustain the cause: you can stop using media encumbered with DRM, you can continue to be informed about it, and you can share what we are doing with other people. If you want to be more involved, you can start by making a donation to the Defective by Design campaign. Donations are the most important way that you can help the Defective by Design campaign to continue to fight DRM.

Obviously, this timeline doesn't include every DRM-related event in this time period, but it highlights some of the most important moments and its main offenders, to help you to better understand the central concepts. It also shows the work we have done over the years to battle DRM. The hope is that through this article, even a new reader will understand more about what is at stake in this movement, and they will join the cause. The goal remains the same: seeing the news report in the (hopefully not too far) future on the definitive abolition of DRM, finally bringing freedom to users.