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What is DRM and Should it be Removed?

Just a bit of DRM horror back story for you: I admit it – I was a Spore junkie. Well, not junkie, since the game hadn’t even come out yet. I was a Spore fangirl, and couldn’t get enough of reading about it. At midnight the day of its release I got the Creature Creator and promptly created a penis-monster cause that’s how I roll.
(link above semi-NSFW)

My Creature got deleted from Youtube, but you get the gist. The day of its release I purchased the Galactic Edition for $80 and couldn’t wait to get home and install it.

There was only one problem..I couldn’t play it.

The Digital Rights Management (DRM) that “protected” the game prevented me from rocking out with a game that I had been anticipating for two years. There was also a problem with the graphics once I actually got the game working, and I demanded that I be able to return the game to Wal-mart (of all places). General retail policy of any store states: “No game shall be returned if opened.” Alas, I was fiery enough that they actually took it back. With the store credit they gave me I bought two new games, including Sins of a Solar Empire. I had no idea at the time about the controversy around DRM, and how Spore & Sins were at the center of it.

So what is DRM?

DRM, or Digital Rights Management, is a blanket term meaning any technology that is used to protect companies’ intellectual property. What it means to you and me is that companies install software to prevent illegal use of their products, particularly music and computer games. With Spore the SecuROM DRM system even installs a rootkit to hide itself.

Why do companies use it?

With computer games in particular piracy has become a big problem and companies want to protect their sales. DRM’s primary purpose when used with computer games is to stop people from copying and sharing the game with others.

Why do people complain about it?

There are several problems with the way companies implement DRM today. Players are most upset about the games that require authorization from an online server to install and especially to get updates/play online.. This amounts to renting a game at full price, because at any time the company could go out of business or simply shut down its authorization servers due to high costs and then the game would no longer function as intended, if at all. People are also upset about certain programs (SecuROM in particular) where the presence is hidden, to the point of using a rootkit to hide the program itself and not making mention of the program anywhere in the documentation or terms of agreement. These companies treat players like criminals, spying on them without their knowledge.

Does it work?

This is the real heart of the controversy. On one hand games like Sins of a Solar Empire, published by Stardock, have been highly successful (SoaSE sold more than 500,000 copies!). World of Goo was another highly successful game that had no DRM.

On the other hand a number of mainstream games use pretty draconian DRM. The developers of Spore announced before its release that it would not only include DRM, but that the program would try to authenticate online -at a minimum every 10 days- to see if the key had been compromised. Players would be able to install the program on up to three machines total, without the ability to revoke that authorization and grant it to a new PC. This caused such an uproar online that eventually EA announced new DRM procedures, including removing the 10-day requirement and replacing it with a check each time the game is updated or played using the online features, upping the number of authorized installations to 5, and giving the owner the ability to revoke authorizations from PCs and grant the authorization to new PCs. Even with the controversy and the still-strict DRM, the game sold over two million copies in the first three weeks. A few months later, the game was being sold on Steam using Steam’s less intrusive DRM rather than SecuROM.

So what was the most pirated game of 2008? The game with the tightest DRM, Spore…having been pirated over 1.7 million times. Several class action lawsuits were also filed against EA for its inclusion of SecuROM with both Spore and the Creature Creator. Does this mean that DRM doesn’t work?

The key to whether or not DRM “works” has always been whether or not it protects the game against lost sales.. not necessarily against piracy. As far as I know there has never been a game that was released with copy protection or DRM that has never been cracked. So in the end the pirates are going to be able to get the game for free, if they choose to do so. The question is not if this will happen, but if by imposing DRM on their customers the sales of the game are helped rather than harmed. Some would argue that piracy can help a game by exposing it to a greater number of people, creating viral marketing and increasing sales overall.

World of Goo publisher Bright Minds filed for bankruptcy on the heels of a report that estimated that ten times as many people pirated the DRM-free game as those who purchased it legally. While this was more likely due to the bad economy than to piracy (the game sold well on platforms such as the Wii, where there is little to no piracy compared to the PC), and the developer 2D Boy stated it probably didn’t make much difference, the situation really underlines why companies feel the need to protect themselves.

Does piracy really hurt game companies?

Recently we’ve seen another problem that piracy can cause for PC game developers – while Stardock has been a huge anti-DRM proponent, in April they announced changes to their policies after the number of Demigod players online exceeded 100,000, well above their server capacity, causing servers to crash and players to be unable to play. The problem is that the number of legitimate players was less than 20,000. Stardock had to quickly make changes to restrict game updates (and with the updates the ability to play the game online) to legitimate owners. Stardock CEO Brad Wardell had previously stated “Don’t let people who aren’t your audience control the titles you make, and ignore piracy,” but it looks like even Stardock had to make changes to combat the problem of piracy.

One advantage to having online authentication as opposed to disk-protection schemes is that players don’t need disks in the drive to play their games. In general it seems that the less obtrusive/more convenient DRM systems are, players are more likely to accept it. With digital distribution and piracy being a real problem for DRM-free games and game publishers it seems pretty clear that companies do need some way to protect sales, but it is also clear that turning games we “purchase” into rentals and installing rootkits and other hidden programs is not the right way to handle the problem. Rumors are that Blizzard may be implementing a DRM system that is even worse than Spore’s, so this is an issue that won’t be going away any time soon.

Here are three ways that I think that companies can protect themselves without screwing over legitimate customers:

1) Make DRM convenient

Only authenticate an installation and game updates, or when playing online. Games with single-player modes should be able to be played offline without being shut off on some random date.

2) Don’t hide DRM

If companies want to protect their products they should do so by stating it upfront, and not omitting mention of this from documentation/license agreements or using tools to hide the program’s presence on computers.

3) Don’t make us “rent” games

Companies need to provide assurance that the game will be playable indefinitely, so if the game is activated at some point years in the future, no matter what the state of the company or its DRM policy is at the time that our games will still be fully playable. We paid full price, we should be able to play the game in ten years if we wish.

We have seen that gamers will tolerate DRM as long as companies are smart about it, not making it too intrusive or trying to hide its presence. As the saying goes: “what we resist, persists.”

Demigod’s issue with DRM
Spore (General Info)
Maxis’ Response to Spore controversy


  1. BigWhale says:

    Nicely written, but …

    > 3) Don’t make us “rent” games

    That’s the whole catch of ‘intellectual property’.

    All closed software is based on a license that grants you a limited permission to use the software in a limited number of ways. All this is specified in the license agreement. Usually people don’t bother with license agreements. They just click next.

    Grasping the whole thing behind licensing policies, agreements, intellectual property and all the fuss that goes with it is quite a task for someone that is simply a software user. Heck, a lot of people don’t even realize that software is something that needs to be purchased separately.

    Anyway, you in fact are actually renting a game when you buy the box or buy it online. You are granted a right to use the game/software. In a very limited way of course.

    Also, most of the license agreements will tell you that publisher or designer or whomever you got the game from don’t have any obligations towards you. Nor is responsible for any kind of damage or trouble you have with the software.

    Software comes AS IS. The copyright gives very little rights.

    In the end it comes to the basic: You don’t own the game, you own the CD. You have the right to play the game.

    That’s why I think that piracy is in essence wrong in with against ‘the evil software making corporations’. The best and the only way to fight this is ignorance.

    They included new DRM? Screw that, screw them. If nobody would buy their game and nobody would play it, their sales would drop and there would be no income from the franchise either.

    Ok, that’s enough… lol

  2. Anonymous says:

    Sad to hear that Stardock is having piracy issues, they are one of the few publishers who don’t treat us like criminals. Hopefully they will find a solution that isn’t intrusive or malicious.

    And hopefully EA will stop their rootkit bullshit.

    Piracy doesn’t hurt sales, bullshit policy and intrusive DRM does.

  3. Torch says:


    If you aren’t actually buying anything, only agreeing to a ‘licensing contract’, then the game can’t be stolen, can it (no ownership has changed hands – not even to the thief).

    Furthermore, a contract has to contain an exchange of value in order to be a contract… if the licensor has NO obligation to the licensee, then nothing of value has actually been transferred; and/or the licensee should have no obligation to the licensor (I would think – note: I am not a lawyer)

    Moreover, it would seem that the licensor is operating in ‘bad faith’; i.e., requiring payment for something, but then stating that the ‘something’ may actually be ‘nothing’, and there is no obligation to make it worth ANYTHING.

    And IIRC, any contract where one party is operating in ‘bad faith’ is void.

    This is mostly a rhetorical argument; I’m sure lawyers have gone down this path before and come to some conclusion in favor of the licensor. It just seems pretty one-sided, if you ask me.

  4. BigWhale says:


    This is where you need to try and grasp the idea of intellectual property. You are buying something. You’re buying certain rights to a limited usage of that particular intellectual property. Let it be software, a movie or a song.

    The licenser of course has some obligations otherwise, like you said, the agreement would be void. But those obligations are somewhat loose. Usually it comes down to ‘this software does what the manual says it does’. Accompanied by ‘however something might break and we’ll try to fix it as we see fit’.

    Of course companies try to fix their faults and bugs, but mostly because nobody would buy their software if they failed in fixing it.

    It is sort of one-sided, but software (movie and music) industry because of its nature is incomparable to any other industry.

  5. Mulenmar says:

    DRM == {Dang, not Really Mine |
    Dastardly Restricted Much |
    Don’t Reside in My Machine }


    DRM == Number-two reason I use GNU/Linux

  6. The Great Excelcior says:

    Well, I guess I’ll stick to Saurbraten and see how Duke Nukem 3D plays in Ubuntu using Wine.

  7. Daedalus says:

    I stopped buying games from EA because of there DRM. If we put software on there machines we would have someone knocking at our door.

    The thing is they need to go after the ones breaking the law. No one does that. And the games that are being cracked are coming from the same ones! Same servers from the same countries that let this go on and do nothing about it. We can stop this but we will have to work together on the issue.

  8. Chud says:

    At least DRM is nice enough to give you the reach around.

  9. Anonymous Gamer says:

    I have a challenge for crackers. I’d like them to remove the DRM from a game and load it to the servers of the company that distributed it. Maybe then they’d understand why it’s malware when it’s infecting _their_ systems.

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