Dangers of Digital Rights Management

Digital Rights Management has been prevalent for over two decades as a way to control access to digital media by content providers. Content distributors provide access to various forms of media via Content Delivery Networks (CDN), which are globally distributed arrays of servers that house consolidated databases of media that they are licensed to distribute by content providers to end-users. End-users maintain access by either acquiring a purchased license, subscription license, or a license provided by an advertisement-supported no-cost model. This paradigm is most likely at the heart of what content providers have seen as their desired distribution model.  Due to the control now being returned to the creator of the content throughout the entire distribution process as well as while the content is stored locally, providing end-users with less control of their purchased content.  If this distribution model were used unethically, local governments or those with the ability to do so could have the content removed from public access that is deemed threatening to them.  Returning threats to our global society that have not been seen since the days before the printing press, as well as the threat that has been around since humanity first started writing ideas on paper. The burning of those papers and the destruction of thoughts and ideas by those threatened by them.

When people went to the store and bought a Hollywood movie in previous decades, in their minds, they owned the movie.  However, all we owned was the physical medium that was deployed to distribute, store, preserve, and present the content. We could not sell copies of the movie because we did not “own” the movie. Ultimately, we were only granted a license and a device based upon available technology of the time to display the content when desired. This near-obsolete paradigm, whether it be for books, movies, or other content, gave us physical control of our purchased media. Technology has evolved to where content providers in the digital age now have complete control during the entire distribution process to end users. As consumer media consumption transitions away from being stored in physical form in the custody of the consumer to all content being stored digitally in the cloud and controlled by end-user licenses, have we thought about the possible future dangers we are accepting so we can enjoy the ease of use and quicker access?


Thoughts and ideas once were human expressions that existed only at the moment.  The ancient Sumer civilization in Mesopotamia, who possibly invented the first writing system, enabled the storing of ideas and thoughts for a later time to be utilized by future generations.  During the last several thousand years, when ideas were needing to be removed and replaced, books, art, and anything depicting an unpopular or conquered ideology were destroyed, borrowed, or altered. There are several examples of this over the last several thousand years. In 213 B.C., Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered the destruction of books that were a threat to his consolidation of power in his new empire. The Library of Alexandria is another famous example of the destruction of books due to war and religious motivations. During the War of 1812, the British destroyed the United States Library of Congress. The purpose of book burning and the destruction of art have been a part of the entire conquest process since the beginning of time. The battle destroyed the adversary’s army, its infrastructure, and its ability to protect its sovereignty. The destruction of their books and art destroyed their ideas and culture; who they were as a people. This initiated an easier process of integrating the conquered into the civilization of their conqueror.

The invention of the printing press in 1439 by Johannes Gutenberg changed everything. It added a mechanical element to the pressing of words on paper, improving efficiency and production times. This was, in a sense, the birth of the physical internet; the sharing of human thoughts and ideas reached more people than ever before. It was the genesis of a future that involved books being in the hands of the average person and not just scholars and those in power. This allowed for higher levels of education and literacy among people and the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment and the foundation of modern science. With the invention of the printing press, burning printed words was no longer a means of just destroying a society after a war, but it became a tool for the continued oppression of people. Without books, people lost the ability to educate themselves and formulate their own ideas and opinions.

Ideas are not the only thing that is controlled by access to books but also beliefs. In the early Christian church, before the invention of the printing press, the Bible and all religious scrolls and texts were in the hands of those in power. These religious texts were interpreted and used by those in power to reinforce the current political agendas of the time.  Spirituality was not something found by the individual while holding their own Bible.  It was something that was dictated to them verbally by those with authority over them based on their own interpretation and agenda.  With no access to the centuries-old written truth, they were forced to believe what was told to them by their church leaders.

Johannes Gutenberg completed the first printing of the Bible in the West on his printing press around 1455. Known as the Gutenberg Bible, this elevated the availability of Bibles in 15th and 16th-century Europe.  This, along with the printing press, sparked and fueled the Protestant Reformation. This movement put into question numerous doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church.

In modern times political regimes that deem an idea as threatening to their consolidation of power remove any physical books or media carrying these ideas from public access.  This is accomplished by having them destroyed to suppress these ideas; as well as maintaining a tight control of all internal media outlets and internet services that are allowed entrance into countries like North Korea and China. Ironically, just as fire destroys paper-based records, in the 21st century, a national firewall is utilized to isolate a nation’s people from the ideas of the rest of the digital world. This is a fundamental reason why the American Free Press is so powerful. It combats corruption and illegal activity by those in power. Whereas in a controlled society or tyranny, that same mechanism of information is utilized to suppress the truth and promote agendas that strengthen the position of those in power.

As book burning was a means of destroying physical media deemed provocative or against a group that had or sought control over others, Digital Rights Management could be perverted and used in the same manner as book burning.  A government or other entity with authority could direct the deletion of the digital file used for distribution on the central server; removing future access people have to those books and other content.  Denial of access at the account level for preexisting license holders could be completed by revoking the license and authentication credentials from the user’s account needed to authenticate the book or other content on their device. This not only saves time but resources for those with this agenda because they no longer have to invest thousands of man-hours hunting down individual copies of such physical media as was accomplished during the last several thousand years while our records were stored in physical form.

The objective of Ray Bradbury’s novel, Fahrenheit 451, is to portray a world where books and the ideas contained in them are outlawed. All books that are found are burned. I believe the author’s objective in writing this novel was to communicate the dangers of a society that is censored and where ideas are suppressed. “It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed,” describing the emotional state of the lead character Montag as he was performing his responsibilities of burning the books and ideas that had been deemed illegal in his society. It takes one to be in touch with their heart and soul to create. It only takes someone or a political party with a malicious need for control over others to destroy that human expression. The heart of this is the need for man to control his counterparts. As it has been said for ages, knowledge is power. Those that control it have the ability to control and manipulate those that are denied access to it.

This was demonstrated in Ray Bradbury’s book “Fahrenheit 451” by the society’s perception of reality, being that the purpose of firemen was to burn books. This was due to the fact that all records that showed that firemen’s original purpose was to put out fires had been destroyed by those in power. Removing records of history and events that are not favorable to the agendas of those in power or seeking control, allows corrupt leadership to paint the picture of history and the future that they desire. History is like a building; what is built is dependent upon what its foundation represents. If someone or a political party wants to build a different future than what the current foundation represents, it has to be slowly evolved.

Modern Implementation

There are currently references to book burning in modern times as the world moves away from physical media to a digital world. The Amazon Kindle and Kindle Fire, popular eBook readers, hint at it in their names. The definition of the word “kindle” means to light or set on fire; the product version Kindle Fire only reinforces that point. Our move from a world of physical books to digital books is almost a futuristic form of burning. As eBook access is controlled by various content providers and distribution companies who control access to which books and other forms of media are available. If this power was used improperly, it could be used to control which books a society has access to. Through the use of Digital Rights Management, if a book purchased in 2002 was deemed a “Threat to National Security” in 2020, that book could be deleted uniformly across all cloud-based platforms storing and providing them, instantly removing future access and access to all current license holders.

This paradigm has become more prevalent across all forms of media, such as music, movies, games, and periodicals, in recent years.  In physical form, the books and other media are in the control of the owner after purchase and can be passed down and kept in their physical possession. With the advance of technology and consumer usage shifting to cloud-based digital distribution, the companies that produce and distribute content now maintain complete control over access throughout the distribution and usage process.  These companies ultimately are under the control of the governments that put laws into place in their respective countries and regions they operate. The hunting for illegal media, as the “Firemen,” did in the book “Fahrenheit 451”, is no longer necessary because it is all controlled remotely by the companies that distribute them and the governments that make the laws the companies must follow in those regions.

Digital Rights Management (DRM) and the conversion of a world of physical media to digital have removed rights from the average citizen to duplicate media for the purposes of fair use. The Audio Home Recording Act of 1992 stipulated a citizen could make a mixed audio tape; however, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1988 stipulates that no media can be copied if circumventing encryption is required; as all modern media is encrypted to control distribution on modern cloud-based media platforms. The user has lost control of the media they have purchased as well as making a personal copy that is off-grid.  End-users also do not have the ability to use purchased content on a device of their choice if that device does not support the service the license was provided.  How this relates to book burning is that the whole premise of book burning, as outlined in Ray Bradbury’s novel “Fahrenheit 451”, was to destroy books that are filled with ideas, beliefs, feelings, and other things humans are trying to communicate. Societies like this do not just come about instantly. It is due to a slow decay of human rights, the changing of the law, and the seduction of people slowly over time at a slow pace that is not recognizable by the average citizen with each new law and changes within itself. It is a slow change in the way a society thinks and operates by those with a specific agenda to meet their desired goal.

Digital Media also takes away the cultural aspect, the emotional connection with content that is meant to produce an emotional reaction. These experiences are unable to be shared and passed down from one generation to the next because they are imprisoned in the account that is attached to the person that made the original purchase. “Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree, or that flower you planted, you’re there.” (Bradbury 110) Just as our children are our future and a representation of us.  The things that we collect are the memories and expressions of who we are, to be communicated to future generations to understand us. As our creative expressions transition more into the digital world, that generational connection is no longer present. We can’t pass a file down to a child, but we can pass down a book with an inscription. We are slowly moving away from a world of emotional experiences based on touch to a world requiring electricity and authentication.

Book Burning and the possible uses of Digital Rights Management

Digital Rights Management has similarities to book burning if used unethically; they both provide a means for controlling future access to content to a collection of users. In the case of book burning, the media is physically destroyed. In the case of Digital Rights Management, the user’s ability to access the content is denied with the implementation of cryptography. Both have the capability to be used as a tool for controlling and manipulating the available truth and dialog that is available for future generations to learn from.

There are some differences between Digital Rights Management and book burning. Digital Rights Management eliminates the need for search, seizure, and physical destruction as all copies are stored on a centralized server, and all copies distributed are controlled with encryption that requires authentication provided by the content distributor to access. If this is denied for whatever reason, even a purchased book is now useless due to it being a file that is no longer readable on the user’s device.

Digital Rights Management has the potential to be used for political purposes.  To control the ideas of the population by removing access to content deemed undesirable by those in power for political reasons or if the content is deemed a threat to national security.

Digital Rights Management has the potential to affect the course of humanity due in large part to its possible use as a control mechanism for what media and content are available for users to base their thoughts and opinions on.

In a world of only digital content and the possibility of physical media becoming obsolete, the removal of unpopular dialogs or truths that threaten those in power or are deemed a threat to national security is easily removed across the globe by the press of a button.

What does the future hold?

Our reality, the context of who we are as humans, and our history are not dictated by the complete truth of what we have been. It is represented by the truth that was determined to be preserved by previous leaders and conquering civilizations.
Our perception of our being is based upon the story of our past that has been made available by those in power during that time and what they chose to preserve. What would the world look like if the exiled Hebrews in Babylon had not preserved the early books of the Old Testament? The current religious landscape would probably look a lot different.

As society moves forward, the device that takes the place of fire will always change and evolve. Whether it is a fire that destroys all things physical or encryption and authentication that controls all things digital. There will always be an entity seeking to control and a population of people that the unethical seek to control. This has been the reality of humanity since the beginning of time.  As with everything that humanity develops, it is attempted to be utilized by those in power to control others for their own purposes.  It is critical that writing and the storing, of ideas, no matter the platform, be as free and uninhibited as the thought process that created it. In doing so, humanity is free to grow as an unbiased homogeneous mixture of everyone’s ideas without the possibility of bias or manipulation by those in power or those with agendas that could shift the growth and evolution of mankind for their own purposes. In the modern world, “Firemen” could be digital distribution, and the companies that control the cloud-based media platforms, if allowed to be perverted for that use by a government entity, making the decision of which books are available on those platforms in a possible future world parallel to the one depicted in “Fahrenheit 451”.

Literature and the expression of ideas, whether written, spoken, or drawn, is our human legacy. Without it, we have no context of where we have been and where we are going. We utilize our tablets and our connections to the internet, thinking we have access to vast quantities of knowledge. However, the reality is we only have access to data that leaders and regimes over thousands of years deemed desirable. What would the world look like if we had access to all the books and ideas of the cultures that were erased from history and their stories burned from the history books?

The root of this entire issue is the oppression of people through the suppression of truth. Before the written word, the vehicle for suppressing truth was the verbal lie. With the advent of the written word, the vehicle was the burning of the paper it was written on. Now that we are in the digital age, the question is not how but when will Digital Rights Management be utilized as a way of removing people’s access to content that threatens those in power. Only time will tell.