Digital rights management (DRM)

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Key points

Information With relation to PC gaming, Digital Rights Management (DRM) is technology employed by companies in an attempt to limit the manipulation and copying of game data by end-users.[1]

More information

Information The Big List of 3rd Party DRM on Steam
Digital rights management (Wikipedia)
More information Digital rights management (GiantBomb)

Types of DRM[edit]

DRM Disk Check icon.svg

Disc check[edit]

Games which use a disc check include The Sims 3 and Age of Empires III.
Information Also known as CD/DVD check, it is an older form of DRM becoming less common as PC gaming moves to digital distribution.
Disadvantage The game will not run without the appropriate CD/DVD being present in the disc drive.
Advantage This system will operate regardless of whether or not the entire game content is installed on the hard drive.
DRM CD-Key icon.svg


Games which use a CD-key include Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X.

Information Also known as a serial or product key, the game comes with a unique code (often printed on the manual), which the user must input to complete installation.
Information In this way, the installer is able to verify whether or not a game has been illegally copied.[2]
Advantage If activation is completed offline, then a single key has unlimited uses.
Disadvantage 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.[3]

Information Requires an internet connection in order to notify the rights holder each time the game is installed.[4]
Disadvantage This is often paired with identifying information about your computer.
Disadvantage The publisher can therefore track when the game was first installed, and how many times it has been installed since.
Disadvantage It may be used in conjunction with a CD-key and activation limit in order to restrict access to the product.

Activation limit[edit]

Games that set an activation limit include Mirror's Edge, Crysis and Spore.[5][6]

Information Always used in conjunction with online activation, a limit is placed on the number of times a game can be installed simultaneously, or independently.[7]
Information The most common limits are three or five activations.
Disadvantage After this limit is reached, the user has to contact customer support in order to extend their limit and install their game again.
Disadvantage 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


Services such as Steam and Origin are examples of account-based DRM.

Information Once a game is purchased or redeemed, the copy is tied to a specific email address or account, and therefore requires online activation.
Advantage These services often allow unlimited product activations.
Disadvantage 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.
Disadvantage 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.[8]

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

Cloud gaming[edit]

OnLive is an example of cloud-based gaming.

Information No game files are stored on the user's computer itself.
Information 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]
Disadvantage Any loss of connection will boot the player out of the game after a pre-determined length of downtime.
Disadvantage No game files are accessible to the player.


DRM-free icon.svg is a popular website which only sells DRM-free games.[11] GamersGate also offers a substantial DRM-free catalogue.

Advantage DRM-free means a game is shipped without any formal restrictions on how it is installed, copied, or activated.
Advantage Once a DRM-free game has been bought, it can be installed on any computer, and then re-downloaded whenever the user desires, with no activation limits.[12]
Advantage DRM-free releases have become more popular in recent years due to consumer backlash against oppressive DRM policies.

Software and removal[edit]

Disadvantage A number of software platforms exist (often bundled with certain games) designed to monitor the number of product activations and restrict the user's fair use rights.[13]
Disadvantage These platforms are often installed without the user's knowledge.
Information This section details the most common platforms, their purpose, and how to remove them legally.


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 preventing disc burning of protected material. It is used on both physical media and digital downloads. SecuROM installs silently on a computer, and monitors certain system behavior, preventing the game from running if it finds anything suspicious. It must be manually removed from the computer with the Removal Tool if you decide to stop using the game and no longer want the 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 your computer. This along with a number of purported hardware and software issues made StarForce very controversial, and lead to a decline in its use due to user complaints.

See Update/Remove driver for removal details. If the game uses online activation remember to deactivate the license prior to removing the driver.

Some older StarForce versions are not supported on newer versions of Windows; see Technical support for end-users for details.

Games for Windows - LIVE[edit]

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).


TAGES, like StarForce, installs itself as a driver on your computer. Tages uses multiple methods to prevent copying.

Use the Tages 5.5 Drivers to remove or update the TAGES drivers.


Uplay games require a client and login to play. Some games also require a constant internet connection (even for single player).

DRM removal[edit]

DRM is required by many games, which will not run if the DRM is removed. Removing DRM while these games are installed is not recommended; in some cases, running the game will reinstall the DRM. 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 remove 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 long 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. A number of problems can occur when buying used games, due to DRM or copy protection.

  • Lost Code Wheels/Manuals/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 used. The game cannot be installed without the key. In other cases, games such as World of Warcraft (prior to the free version) could not be effectively bought used, because they had one-time key usage. Another potential problem is buying a used game, and finding the multiplayer or online features of the game disabled due to actions of the previous owner.
  • Activation. Related to the registered keys problem, some software requires online activation, and used copies may fail activation because of this if they have already been played. Activation effectively makes games unsuitable for resale or transfer.


DRM presents 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 discontinued. This can be resolved by studios issuing a patch that removes the DRM, though not all studios do this.

Another historic problem with DRM software is unexpected hardware and software problems. For example, early versions of StarForce sometimes caused strange behavior in optical drives, occasionally making Windows unable to detect and access CD-ROMs.

Online activated DRM, present in games such as Spore means that the game becomes useless when support for the servers is withdrawn. Existing installations may continue to function, but new installations will no longer function.

DRM is rarely disclosed on packaging, and is installed silently on computers, sometimes without user consent. Many people as an effect do not know they have DRM software installed on the computer. Some DRM installs in critical system areas (such as "Ring-0 DRM"), a behavior typically used by malicious software due to the control it allows over a system.

DRM also has potential to malfunction, flagging a legitimate game as pirated. For instance, The Battle For Middle Earth had a copy protection system that looked for signs of pirating that was known to trigger on legitimate installs, causing all the characters to die randomly. The only fix was to uninstall and reinstall the game.

The nature of DRM also makes resale of computer software difficult, in some cases impossible, which conflicts with the First Sale Doctrine many nations follow.

Purposefully deactivating or disabling DRM without permission of the rights holder may be illegal in some countries.

DRM tends to stay on a computer after the related software is removed, sometimes requiring a special tool to remove. Most people are unaware that the DRM remains on their computer. Removing DRM while a game is installed typically breaks the game.

Online-based DRM can be revoked by any reason. Also, online-based DRM has potential for errors and is susceptible to abuse from piracy. For instance, pirated/keygen produced install keys can be registered, meaning the legitimate keys are flagged as invalid. Some games have a history of key banning for trivial reasons. The problem of falsely revoked keys is particularly noticeable on Spore.

DRM may contain security vulnerabilities, as revealed in the Uplay DRM backdoor.


  1. Giant Bomb: Digital rights management
  2. Wikipedia: Product key
  3. Amazon list: Games with limited activations and/or online activation
  4. The Escapist: Experienced Points - Online Activation Is A Ripoff
  5. Amazon list: Games with limited activations and/or online activation
  6. EA Games Authorization Management
  7. Wikipedia: Limited install activations
  8. Wikipedia: Always-on DRM
  9. Wikipedia: Persistent online authentication
  10. OnLive: About
  11. TechCrunch: opens a new indie developer portal as it looks to broaden its DRM-free games catalogue
  12. Downloads and games
  13. Electronic Frontier Foundation: Fair use and DRM