Digital rights management (DRM)

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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. However with relation to PC gaming the technical use of DRM on the backend of digital distribution platforms such as Steam, GOG, Origin, etc to allow continuous access to download and/or install a game through the platforms using an account-based DRM is often ignored.

More information

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

DRM-free[edit]

GOG.com[2] and Itch.io[3] generally delivers DRM-free copies of games, although some might require additional DRM for online-based features.[4] GamersGate 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[edit]

DRM Disc Check icon.svg

Disc check[edit]

Games which use a disc check include The Sims 3 and Age of Empires III. For a list of games, see games using Disc check DRM.

Also known as CD/DVD check, it is an older form of DRM becoming less common as PC gaming moves to digital distribution.
The game will not run without the appropriate CD/DVD being present in the disc drive.
This system will operate regardless of whether or not the entire game content is installed on the hard drive.
DRM CD-Key icon.svg

CD-key[edit]

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[edit]

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.
DRM-installationlimit.png

Activation limit[edit]

Games that set an activation limit include Mirror's Edge, Crysis and Spore.[8][9] For a list of games, see games using Activation limit DRM.

Always used in conjunction with online activation, a limit is placed on the number of times a game can be installed simultaneously, or independently.[10]
The most common limits are three or five activations.
After this limit is reached, the user has to contact customer support in order to extend their limit and install their game again.
Uninstalling the game may not free up an activation unless a specific 'de-authorizing tool' is provided (e.g. EA Games Authorization Management).
DRM Account-Based icon.svg

Account-based[edit]

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[edit]

Games that require a constant internet connection include Diablo III.[11] 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.[12]
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[edit]

OnLive was 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.[13]
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

Physical[edit]

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.

Middleware[edit]

Some games come bundled with and make use of additional copy protection and/or technical protection measures provided by middleware developers.
This section details the most common platforms and how they might affect users.
Certain middleware might also be designed to restrict the user's fair use rights.[14]

Arxan Anti-Tamper[edit]

For a list of games, see games using Arxan Anti-Tamper DRM.

Used to strengthen the account-based DRM (e.g. Microsoft Store, Origin, Steam, or Uplay) of a game, considered an alternative to Denuvo Anti-Tamper.
Easier to mod binary, but still employs protection methods to parts of the executable.

Denuvo Anti-Tamper[edit]

See the main article for more information.

Easy Anti-Cheat[edit]

Easy Anti-Cheat (EAC) is designed to counter cheating in multiplayer games using various methods, however it has 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. Use a whitelisted third-party application instead.

Epic Online Services[edit]

Epic's equivalent of Steamworks, mostly geared toward supporting the Epic Games Store, though it sounds like it can also work independently of it.

Allows games to make use of EGS friends list, perform networking with EGS users, access EGS payment flows...
Can optionally provide developers with basic DRM for checking EGS ownership of games / DLCs / other entitlements.
An additional anti-tamper protection (e.g. Denuvo Anti-Tamper) might be used to strengthen the DRM elements.

Games for Windows - LIVE[edit]

See the main article for more information. For a list of games, see List of Games for Windows - LIVE games.

Offline features can be used with a local profile without entering a key or activating the game (any additional DRM such as SecuROM will still require online activation). A few games do not support local profiles (e.g. Bulletstorm).
Online features are only available in Xbox LIVE Countries and Regions and require a Microsoft account and online activation. Games with Server-Side Activation (SSA) ties the product key to the Microsoft account (no install limit) while the Legacy method has an activation limit (see the List of Games for Windows - LIVE games for game-specific details).
Partially defunct. The closure of the Marketplace prevents game and DLC downloads through the service, and the multiplayer services of some games have shut down. Refer to game-specific articles for more information and possible workarounds.

Microsoft Store[edit]

For a list of games, see games using Microsoft Store DRM.

An additional anti-tamper protection (e.g. Denuvo Anti-Tamper) might be used to strengthen the DRM of Microsoft Store.
The AppX package(s) that make up Universal Windows Platform apps acts as a very restrictive form of DRM, preventing users from easily modifying game content or use third-party injectors.

Origin[edit]

For a list of games, see games using Origin DRM.

Same as with Steam/Steamworks, Origin provides a basic DRM wrapper and solution that protects against extremely casual piracy. An additional anti-tamper protection (e.g. Denuvo Anti-Tamper) might be used to strengthen the DRM of Origin.

SafeDisc[edit]

For a list of games, see games using SafeDisc DRM.

Protection for games distributed via optical discs aiming to disallow disc duplication, used often for checking the disc.
SafeDisc official support was discontinued on March 30, 2009.[15]
Often found in game install discs with a file known as "SecDrv.sys".
Sometimes formerly known as CDilla from 1998 to 2003.
Not supported in Windows 10[16] nor previous versions of Windows with the KB3086255[17] update installed due to security concerns. Possible workarounds exists for Windows 10 and previous versions of Windows, however it might expose the system to known security vulnerabilities, and can make the system more susceptible to malicious attacks.

SecuROM[edit]

For a list of games, see games using SecuROM DRM.
One of the most common and longest enduring forms of DRM, SecuROM uses a variety of methods to verify the integrity of a game, as well as prevent disc copying of the protected material. The original disc-based DRM solution is simply called "SecuROM", or sometimes SecuROM Disc Authentication, while the online activation-based version meant for digital distribution is called SecuROM Product Activation. At the launch of a game and during play SecuROM (both versions) would also monitor the system, preventing the game from running if it detects applications or tools that can be used to enable piracy, disassembly, or hacking of the game.

Official general information/FAQ
Official support
Official support pages for popular titles
Still works on newer versions of Windows, despite erroneous reports of the contrary.[18][19]

Disc Authentication[edit]

The disc-based version of SecuROM works by using strong software encryption along with a special signature applied to the physical disc during manufacturing. The game will only launch if the original disc that carries the special signature of the game is detected, otherwise an error message will be shown instead.

The disc-based version does not rely on an internet connection to function.
Official FAQ for Disc Check / authentication
May stop games from properly installing from the disc. To get around this, transfer the files to the PC, and install it using the files on the PC.

Product Activation[edit]

For a list of games, see games using SecuROM Product Activation DRM.
This is the online activation-based version of SecuROM meant for games released through digital distribution and used on some of the later disc-based games. It functions much the same way as the previous disc-based alternative, although it replaces the dependency of a physical disk with an authentication license retrieved using a one-time internet connection and stored on the local hard drive. SecuROM Product Activation is integrated into the executable of the game, and after the game have been uninstalled only the authentication license remain on the system. Some older versions also used a background service to allow the sharing of these licenses between multiple user accounts in Windows. Use the SecuROM Removal Tool to remove the remaining licenses after all SecuROM Product Activation protected titles have been uninstalled from the system.

Requires an one-time Internet connection to retrieve an authentication license for the protected product. This version of SecuROM is the predecessor to Denuvo Anti-Tamper.
Manual activation website
Official FAQ for Product Activation
Still works on newer versions of Windows, despite erroneous reports of the contrary.[18][19]
Can be used to enforce an activation limit.

Data File Activation (DFA)[edit]

A component used among other things as a form of release date control check to prevent pre-release access to games. Often used in addition to Disc Authentication or Product Activation.
Manual activation website
Some games might not include a manual activation option, but requires a manual tool downloaded from the SecuROM support page, or might need to be retrieved from an archive of the support page (such as with Borderlands).
The automatic release date check service that relies on e.g. https://dfa01.sonyvfactory.com/ seems to be not be working any longer, regardless of operating system, and requires manual activation instead.[20] For games with no serial number, leave that field empty (such as with Borderlands non-GOTY retail discs).

StarForce[edit]

For a list of games, see games using StarForce DRM.
Another older DRM, StarForce has changed several times over the years. StarForce provides many of the functions of other DRM software, but installs itself as a driver on the computer. This along with some purported hardware and software issues made StarForce very controversial, and lead to a decline in its use due to user complaints. For removal options, see the official support page. If the game uses online activation remember to deactivate the license before removing the driver.

Primarily used in Russian releases of several games, but sometimes is released universally across all regions.
Some older StarForce versions are not supported on newer versions of Windows, or might require an update to function correctly; see the official support page for details and possible workarounds.

Steam/Steamworks[edit]

For more in-depth information, see Cyanic's Steam DRM user page. For a list of games, see games using Steam DRM.

Although hardly its main concern, Steam and Steamworks provides a basic DRM wrapper and solution that protects against extremely casual piracy and has some obfuscation.[21] An additional anti-tamper protection (e.g. Denuvo Anti-Tamper) might be used to strengthen the DRM of Steam/Steamworks.
One of the least intrusive DRM schemes available with multiple service enhancements only available for legitimate users.
Can inadvertently act as an always online DRM if implemented incorrectly by developers, as was the case with Sonic Mania and Ys Seven.[22]

Custom Executable Generation[edit]

TAGES[edit]

For a list of games, see games using TAGES DRM.

TAGES, like StarForce, installs itself as a driver on your computer and uses multiple methods to prevent copying. The TAGES drivers can be removed or updated by using the TagesSetup tool.

Solidshield[edit]

For a list of games, see games using Solidshield DRM.

Solidshield is TAGES' new DRM technology. It is presumed that this is their replacement for TAGES - though some games use it in tandem with their prior system.
To revoke activations for EA games with Solidshield "released after May 2008" use the EA Game Authorization Management Tool.
To revoke activations for other games use the executable in the installation folder (usually called activation.exe); see Activation and revocation client for further details.

Uplay[edit]

For a list of games, see games using Uplay DRM.

Same as with Steam/Steamworks, Uplay provides a basic DRM wrapper and solution that protects against extremely casual piracy. An additional anti-tamper protection (e.g. Denuvo Anti-Tamper) might be used to strengthen the DRM of Uplay.

VMProtect[edit]

For a list of games, see games using VMProtect DRM. Please note that this list might be incomplete as some iterations of Denuvo Anti-Tamper also reportedly used VMProtect.[23][24]

Prevents code from executing on virtual machine and non-standard architecture.[citation needed]
Suspected of negatively affecting protected program's performance due to usage of virtualization methods.[citation needed]

DRM removal[edit]

Circumventing DRM is illegal in some countries (unless you have the developer/publisher's consent), 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 applies 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[edit]

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.

Controversy[edit]

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 were the intended purpose of the DRM (e.g. prevent cheating or delay piracy) is weighted 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.[25]
  • 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.[27]
    • 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.[28].
    • Ubisoft's Uplay browser plug-in (although not directly related to the DRM of Uplay games) were found to have a security vulnerability[29] that could be exploited by an attacker using a specially crafted website.

References

  1. Giant Bomb: Digital rights management
  2. TechCrunch - GOG.com opens a new indie developer portal as it looks to broaden its DRM-free games catalogue - last accessed on 2018-08-26
  3. itch.io - Creator FAQ - last accessed on 2018-08-26
    "Does itch.io impose any DRM (Digital Rights Management)?

    No. itch.io lets users download the games exactly as you uploaded them. No modifications are made to the files you upload.
    "
  4. GOG.com Support - Multiplayer issue - CD Key - last accessed on 2019-01-10
  5. Wikipedia: Product key
  6. Amazon list: Games with limited activations and/or online activation
  7. The Escapist: Experienced Points - Online Activation Is A Ripoff
  8. Amazon list: Games with limited activations and/or online activation
  9. EA Games Authorization Management
  10. Wikipedia: Limited install activations
  11. Wikipedia: Always-on DRM
  12. Wikipedia: Persistent online authentication
  13. OnLive: About
  14. Electronic Frontier Foundation: Fair use and DRM
  15. SafeDisc End-of-Life Notice - Trymedia - Wayback Machine - last accessed on 2018-07-26
  16. Not Loading in Windows 10; this will break thousands of - Microsoft Community - last accessed on 2017-01-16
  17. Microsoft - MS15-097: Description of the security update for the graphics component in Windows: September 8, 2015 - last accessed on 2018-02-16
  18. 18.0 18.1 Including executables with no copy protection - Development - PCGamingWiki Community
  19. 19.0 19.1 Verified by User:Aemony on 2018-02-16
  20. Verified by User:Aemony on 2019-04-05
    Automatic release date check service for retail discs of the original Borderlands seems down, but using the manual activation website along with the manual release date check tool worked.
  21. Steamworks Documentation - Steam DRM - last accessed on 2018-02-16
    "The Steam DRM wrapper by itself is not is not a anti-piracy solution. The Steam DRM wrapper protects against extremely casual piracy (i.e. copying all game files to another computer) and has some obfuscation, but it is easily removed by a motivated attacker."
  22. Steam Community - Special K - v 0.8.65 [Legacy Release - (1/15/18)] - last accessed on 2018-02-16
  23. Wikipedia - Denuvo - last accessed on 2018-02-16
    "The keygens released by STEAMPUNKS are allegedly packed by VMProtect, which is reportedly also used by Denuvo itself in some iterations."
  24. Steam Community - Denuvo Anti-Tamper - Some Information on it's Functionality [this is not a fear monger or shill post] - last accessed on 2018-02-16
  25. ArsTechnica - Is your game’s copy protection system frying your machine? - last accessed on 2018-07-17
  26. Battle for Middle Earth II Heaven Forums - All my units die out of the blue at the same time at around 5 minutes into the game - last accessed on 2018-07-17
  27. Polygon - The truth behind those mysteriously cheap gray market game codes - last accessed on 2018-07-17
  28. Microsoft - MS15-097: Description of the security update for the graphics component in Windows: September 8, 2015 - last accessed on 2018-02-16
  29. Rock Paper Shotgun - Warning: Big Security Risk In Some Ubisoft PC Games - last accessed on 2018-02-16