Know your history — the first ten years of the International Day Against DRM

This timeline was published on May 3rd, 2016, for the tenth anniversary International Day Against DRM. If you're so inspired, join us on social media to help us extend it into the future.

Anti-DRM activism first sparked in the 1990s, as media and technology companies wielded digital restrictions more and more blatantly to lock-in customers and control people's access to computers. There are countless examples of the collateral damage DRM has caused to culture, privacy and security, but just over ten years ago, Sony accidentally gave the anti-DRM movement special inspiration. By infecting thousands of its own customers with a DRM that spied on them and broke their computers, the company spurred public awareness of DRM's menace to society. The burgeoning anti-DRM movement combined old-school free software activists with newcomers who were concerned with the digital books, games and other media increasingly being locked down. The Free Software Foundation started the Defective by Design campaign as a home for the movement. On October 3rd, 2006, we launched the first International Day Against DRM.

Since then the Day has been the (nearly) yearly heartbeat of our movement to regain popular control of our media and computers. Here is our retelling of some of the most significant events in the past ten years fighting digital restriction, on the Days against DRM and in between. There's no way we can include every relevant event, but we've done our best to editorialize responsibly.

  • October 3, 2006: First Day Against DRM. Thousands of emails were sent, one hundred and fifty thousand stickers were distributed, and hundreds gathered at meet-ups to get the message out. Some wore Hazmat suits to educate shoppers and commuters about toxic DRM, others blogged about anti-DRM activities, and 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 users locked in to 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 a victory for the campaign, Apple's Steve Jobs publishes a public letter saying 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, Jobs had shown his true colors by leading the charge to impose maximal DRM on Apple users. The letter has since been removed from, but you can still read it in the Internet Archive.

  • 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 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 [of DRM]."

  • 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 freely. 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 of its use of DRM.

  • November 26th through December 31st, 2008: Defective by Design announces 35 consecutive Days Against DRM, each one warning the public against a different DRM-encumbered product or service.

  • 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 respond 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 (could they have picked a better book to burn?), making clear who ultimately controls these devices, igniting a general uproar, and a Defective by Design petition for the right to read.

  • May 4th, 2010: Defective by Design publishes a brief history of DRM on the Day Against DRM, much of which would later be copied into this timeline.

  • January 2nd, 2011: Hacker George Hotz (geohot) publishes cryptographic keys that allow anyone to disable the DRM on PS3s. Though PS3s were advertised and sold with the capability to run GNU/Linux, Sony had been killing off that functionality with new DRM delivered through software updates.

  • January 2011: Showing the same fangs it did in the 2006 rootkit incident, Sony musters a campaign of harassment to silence anyone challenging its DRM. One hacker, Alexander Egorenkov (graf_chokolo), has his home raided by police. Defective by Design mobilizes an email campaign against Sony, overloading the account of its CEO so badly that he disables it. Facing public pressure, Sony backs down.

  • Spring 2011: Nintendo releases the Nintendo 3DS rotten with a DRM which bricks (irrevocably disables) the device if players step beyond its micromanaging Terms of Service. Defective by Design responds by mailing over 200 cardboard bricks to Nintendo. This creative protest goes viral and brings a new wave of gamers into the movement against DRM.

  • Early 2013: At the request of Hollywood and streaming media companies, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) releases the first draft of a plan to build a universal DRM system into the Web. It's called Encrypted Media Extensions, abbreviated as EME, but Defective by Design dubs it the Hollyweb, because it puts the interests of big media before users' rights. A coalition of 26 organizations springs up to oppose EME, with Defective by Design at the center.
  • May 3rd, 2013: Activists pay a visit the W3C on the Day Against DRM to deliver tens of thousands of signatures against the Hollyweb. The delivery includes an embarrassing "Oscar" award to the W3C for "Best supporting role in the Hollyweb." The Consortium's leadership are forced to acknowledge the protest but refuse to break step with EME's powerful backers.

  • June 27, 2013 : Defective by Design calls for a boycott of Netflix because it is a major driver of EME development.

  • 2013: Even though EME has not been officially adopted into Web standards yet, Netflix and Google Chrome activate EME, the universal DRM system. Mozilla Firefox turns its back on the anti-DRM community and begrudgingly follows suit, adding EME support to Firefox. W3C steadily continues developing the official version of the standard.

  • Early 2015: Keurig, the maker of single-serving coffee machines, attempts to impose a DRM-like scheme to lock its customers into buying expensive cartridges from specific companies. An unauthorized adapter that unlocks the machine becomes popular, and Keurig's stock plummets.

  • May 6th, 2015: Day Against DRM includes the most events since 2006. At an event in Italy, principled cooks create tasty-looking -- but painfully spicy -- DRM-themed snacks to illustrate the bait-and-switch deception of DRM-encumbered media. Blind activists and a technology librarian blog about the acute harm DRM causes them.

  • 2015: Scientists discover that some models of Volkswagen are programmed to cheat on emissions tests. There is concern that watchdogs could have revealed the swindle earlier, if it were not for the Digital Millenium Copyright Act's section 1201, which criminalizes vital security research on devices that include DRM (yes, that includes cars!).

  • March 2016: With EME nearing official adoption by the W3C, Defective by Design leads Web users around the world in protest with a Web-native form of expression: selfies.

We've had victories. We've had defeats. We've learned from both. If we're going to win, to eliminate DRM and the system of coercion that it enables, we have to keep growing. Crucial in the coming years will be high-profile battles over the DRM policies of major institutions, like the W3C, the US government's Copyright Office and its counterparts around the world. To seize these opportunities and put ourselves on a course to victory, we will have to use major media coverage of other technology issues as hook to explain DRM to the broader public. We'll make sure to learn from our history, so that we can create the future we're fighting for.

#HowDRMDies -- Help us write the next ten years of history on social media

Our goal is to release a timeline a decade from now that ends with an entry like:

  • 2026: 20 years after the first International Day Against DRM, the last DRM-spewing company closes its doors. Digital Restrictions Management is abolished. Everyone using a computer has control over what it does and what it knows about them. Fields like security research and artistic remixing experience a new renaissance. People once again share and remix the world's media without technological barricades.

But... how do we get from here to there? There are many branching paths we can take, and the handful of passionate people at Defective by Design can't guess all of them. Help us fill in the timeline for the next ten years of anti-DRM activism by sharing your speculative entries on social media with the hashtag #HowDRMDies. For example:

"Feb 2019: EU passes regulations requiring labeling of DRM-encumbered products. #HowDRMDies"

(That shortlink goes to this page.) Defective by Design will curate and re-post our favorites. Let's keep making history together!