Digital rights management (DRM)

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Revision as of 18:41, 14 October 2021 by (talk) (Middleware)

Key points

With relation to PC gaming, Digital Rights Management (DRM) is commonly used to refer to copy protection and/or technical protection measures employed by companies in an attempt to limit the manipulation and copying of game data and content by end-users after the purchase, download, and/or install of the product.[1]
Technically speaking, the term refers to all form of access control technologies used to control the use, modification, and distribution of copyrighted works, as well as systems that enforce these policies, regardless of how it affects the end-user.

More information

The Big List of 3rd Party DRM on Steam
Digital rights management
Copy protection

DRM-free[2] and[3] generally deliver DRM-free copies of games, although some might require additional DRM for online-based features.[4] GamersGate, Epic Games Store and Humble Store also offer a substantial DRM-free catalogue, and some titles on Steam are also in essence DRM-free post-download.

DRM-free means a game is shipped without any formal restrictions on how it is installed, copied, or activated.
Once a DRM-free game has been bought and/or downloaded, it can be installed on any computer and copied freely between machines, with no activation limits.
Some DRM-free titles might require the use of DRM to access or enable online-based features.

Types of DRM

DRM Disc Check icon.svg


Games which use a CD-key include Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X. For a list of games, see games using CD key DRM.

Also known as a serial or product key, the game comes with a unique code (often printed in the manual), which the user must input to complete the installation.
In this way, the installer can verify whether or not a game has been illegally copied.[5]
If activation is completed offline, then a single key has unlimited uses.
If key activation is completed online, then a single key may be limited to a specific number of installations (see activation limit).
DRM Online Activation icon.svg

Online activation

Games which require online activation include Company of Heroes.[6] For a list of games, see games using Online activation DRM.

Requires an internet connection in order to notify the rights holder each time the game is installed.[7]
This is often paired with identifying information about your computer.
The publisher can therefore track when the game was first installed, and how many times it has been installed since.
It may be used in conjunction with a CD-key and activation limit in order to restrict access to the product.


Services such as Steam and Origin are examples of account-based DRM. For a list of games, see games using Account DRM.

Once a game is purchased or redeemed, the copy is tied to a specific email address or account, and therefore requires online activation.
These services often allow unlimited product activations.
An account can only be used on one computer at a time, meaning a single copy cannot be active on more than one PC simultaneously.
Games can never be unbound from a user's account, meaning they cannot be traded or sold on.
DRM Always Online icon.svg

Always online

Games that require a constant internet connection include Diablo III.[8] For a list of games, see games using Always online DRM.

To play the game, the user must remain connected to the internet for the entirety of the session.[9]
Any loss of connection will boot the player out of the game after a pre-determined length of downtime.
Game files may be consistently downloaded from the publisher's server in an attempt to reduce piracy (e.g. Silent Hunter 5 pre-patch).
If the entire game is stored server-side, it is known as cloud gaming.
DRM Cloud icon.svg

Cloud gaming

Google Stadia is an example of cloud-based gaming.

No game files are stored on the user's computer itself, instead the game is run on a rig set-up by the service provider and video and audio are streamed to the player over the internet.[10]
Any loss of connection will boot the player out of the game after a pre-determined length of downtime.
No game files are accessible to the player.
DRM Physical icon.svg


Many DOS-era games like The Secret of Monkey Island utilized some form of physical DRM system. For a list of games, see games using Physical DRM.

A form of DRM that requires a random phrase or code to be entered in at some point during the game. The phrase/code can only be found in physical materials (or "feelies") provided with the game.
Sometimes integrated into actual gameplay as a puzzle or very difficult section.
A "defeated" DRM system, most of the physical content can be found online for free.
The phrase/code usually needs to be entered in at every game launch and/or for every new game.
DRM dongle icon.svg

USB dongle

A few games may require USB decryption sticks, USB barcode scanners, or special-purpose controllers to reach the proper gameplay. For a list of games, see games using Dongle DRM.

Dongles may require drivers, which may in turn fail to work on newer OS versions.
Losing the USB dongle will cause the game to fail to boot.
  1. REDIRECT Target page name

DRM removal

Circumventing DRM is illegal in some countries (unless consented by the developer/publisher), however there are circumstances where it is possible, legal, and advisable to circumvent or remove the DRM of a product.
Some Steamwork titles can be made DRM-free by the removal of Steamworks related DLL files from the installation folder. See The Big List of DRM-Free Games on Steam for more information.
The PCGamingWiki policy on bypassing copyright protection and fixes lists the restrictions that apply when it is necessary to cover bypasses for games in articles and files available on this site.

DRM is often a critical component of a game, and a removal of the DRM might affect the functionality of the game; sometimes even make the game unplayable. Removing the DRM while these games are installed is therefore not recommended; although in some cases, running the game might reinstall the DRM. If you uninstall all software related to the DRM, the DRM can typically be removed safely. Many DRM companies provide a removal tool; other programs can be uninstalled directly.

Occasionally a developer will remove DRM from a game with a patch after a period of time. Patching the game in these cases is a legitimate way of running the game without DRM. For example, Civilization IV: Beyond The Sword was eventually patched to remove DRM and CD checks from the game, and the Civilization IV series was re-released as a DRM-free game soon after.

DRM and second-hand software

Used software is very susceptible to anti-piracy measures. Some problems can occur when buying used games, due to DRM or copy protection.

  • Lost code wheels, manuals, or similar physical DRM. Older games, such as Pool of Radiance, require a physical tool to progress in the game. Used copies do not always include these materials, and online replacements may be difficult to find, rendering the game useless.
  • Missing, registered, or banned keys. Games that require an installation key may not always have the key with them when bought used, preventing the use of the product. In other cases, games such as Fable 3 and Bulletstorm can not effectively be bought used because they combine a one-time key with an account-based DRM to tie the one-time key to the account owned by the user. Another potential problem is buying a used game, and finding the multiplayer, online features, or even outright play of the game disabled due to actions of the previous owner.
  • Maxed out activation limit. Related to the registered keys problem, some software requires online activation, and used copies may fail activation if they have already been played. Activation effectively makes games unsuitable for resale or transfer.


Due to its very nature DRM sparks controversy as the limitations/restrictions enforced can, and sometimes will, affect customers as well. The consequences for customers can either be intentional or unintentional; therefore DRM requires a balancing act on the part of studios where the intended purpose of the DRM (e.g. prevent cheating or delay piracy) is weighed against possible customer inconveniences (e.g. prevents modding or offline play).

Examples of controversies:

  • DRM is not always disclosed on packaging and might be installed silently on computers, sometimes without user consent. Many people as an effect do not know they have DRM software installed on the computer, nor how it might limit or restrict their use of the software.
    • The DRM itself, or data related to it, might also undisclosed remain on a system after the protected software is removed.
  • DRM can make resale of computer software difficult, in some cases impossible, which conflicts with the exhaustion/first-sale doctrine many countries follow. See DRM and second-hand software for more information.
  • DRM can present an issue for long-term games collectors as it can lead to games becoming completely locked out as CD keys are lost, studios close or withdraw support, or online services are discontinued. This can be resolved by studios issuing a patch that removes the DRM although not all studios do this.
    • It is possible that existing installations may continue to function, but new installations will no longer function unless the DRM is removed or bypassed.
  • DRM might have its own compatibility issues causing unexpected hardware/software problems or lower the forward compatibility of the protected software.
    • Early versions of StarForce allegedly caused strange behavior in some optical drives, occasionally making Windows XP unable to detect and access CD-ROMs.[11]
  • DRM might malfunction, and flag a legitimate game as pirated.
  • Key-based or online-based DRM can be revoked without a customer's consent, has the potential for errors, and is susceptible to abuse from piracy.
    • This is more common nowadays in relation to grey market resellers whom might sell fraudulent keys to buyers that may have been or will become invalidated by studios.[13]
    • For a few games key generators used for piracy produces install keys that can be registered on official platforms; flagging the keys that were shipped out to legitimate customers as invalid.
    • Some games might have a history of key banning for trivial reasons.
  • DRM may contain security vulnerabilities that makes a computer more susceptible to malicious attacks. The more tightly integrated in the operating system a DRM is (such as "Ring-0 DRM"), the more critical a vulnerability becomes.
    • Security concerns with MacroVision SafeDisc's kernel drivers prompted Microsoft to disable/remove them from modern versions of Windows.[14]
    • Ubisoft's Uplay browser plug-in (although not directly related to the DRM of Uplay games) were found to have a security vulnerability[15] that could be exploited by an attacker using a specially crafted website.

Anti-cheat middleware

While the primary intention of an anti-cheat protection is not to enforce or serve as the copy protection of a game, because of their intended goal being to prevent players from gaining an unfair advantage over other players they often enforce similar, or sometimes harsher, restrictions on customers as regular DRM meant to limit piracy. The anti-cheat protection is not always optional, and may also be active during singleplayer gameplay sessions preventing the user from performing actions that otherwise does not give them an unfair advantage over other players (e.g. cheating in a singleplayer campaign).
Due to the lack of a dedicated page on the topic, this section is mentioned here for now.


Official website

Denuvo Anti-Cheat

Denuvo Anti-Cheat (DAC) is an anti-cheat solution that according to its developer takes a "read only" approach where the anti-cheat protection does not actively block any cheats or applications but only detects and reports user activity. See Denuvo Anti-Cheat for more information.

Easy Anti-Cheat

While Easy Anti-Cheat (EAC) is not primarily intended to serve as a DRM solution for games, its design to counter cheating in multiplayer games using various methods often have a similar impact on end users to that of typical as also been used to prevent the use of third-party modding tools (such as 3DMigoto) in singleplayer games.

Some games allow EAC to be disabled, at the cost of disabling some or all online features.
Blocks the use of third-party DLL files, such as is used by 3DMigoto and other modding tools, even when these are not for the purpose of cheating.

Valve Anti-Cheat

A part of the Steamworks suite of features, Valve Anti-Cheat (VAC) is available for Steam-based titles to use in multiplayer games.