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Technology: Friend or foe of the pirates?


Ubiquitous access to broadband and mobile internet combined with the increased power and screen quality of consumer devices has transformed how viewers consume content. Services such as catch-up, Over-the-Top (OTT), Video on Demand (VoD) and multiscreen offer consumers a large variety of options to enjoy content anywhere, anytime and on any platform. However, while technology is increasingly being used to enable operators and broadcasters broadcasters to improve the quality of experience and service, it can act as a double-edged sword, helping pirates to develop new forms of illegal content sharing. Pirated Blu-Rays and DVDs, card-hacking and key sharing of pay-TV systems constitute the traditional weapon arsenal of pirates; but the advent of simplified technology for online video streaming means that the illegal redistribution of content over the Internet is now the greatest piracy threat facing the content industry. For example, emerging technologies like live streaming apps Periscope and Meerkat have recently hit the headlines as concerns grow that consumers and pirates are abusing the services to illegally re-stream high quality content, such as the Mayweather – Pacquiao ‘Fight of the century’ and Game of Thrones season premiere.


According to Variety, Game of Thrones managed to beat its own piracy record after the episode ‘Kill The Boy’ was illegally downloaded more than 2.2 million times in just 12 hours after first being aired on pay-TV. Lack of content accessibility is often described as a key piracy driver, and given the quick adoption of streaming applications as well as the low technical barrier to use these products, we can expect that consumers will take an ever more active part in enabling content to become accessible across the globe, often without knowing that they are infringing the law. This consumer desire to share their passion with their worldwide peers was particularly prevalent in the case of the Mayweather – Pacquiao boxing match, and premium sports content is increasingly a key target for content theft.


For an industry that relies on monetising live action, the idea that professional pirates can deliver HD sport in real time at a fraction of the legal cost, if not for free, is potentially disastrous. Videonet recently revealed that illegal viewing of major sports events is doubling every six months, posing a serious threat to the broadcast industry, which invests in premium sport content rights to retain subscribers from cord cutting or switching their subscriptions to OTT services. Unless they remain in control of sports content, these companies are at risk of losing valuable customers and revenue, as well as their competitive edge.


Traditional content encryption technology such as Conditional Access and Digital Rights Management remain an essential tool for operators looking to ensure that high value content is delivered only to their legitimate subscribers. However, these technologies are not designed to prevent illegal re-distribution of content once an authorised consumer has legitimately played it. Internet Monitoring combined with Takedown Notices can help reduce the number of illegal streams for each piece of content illegally shared, as long as the hosting service itself is complying with Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Ultimately, these measures are proving insufficient in the face of tech-savvy pirates, which is why the industry is increasingly deploying forensic watermarking in addition to other content protection methods, whether on the server-side for OTT or directly in a set-top box for broadcast to ensure that pirated content is uniquely traceable back to the the source of the leak.


Forensic watermarking is the means by which a unique and imperceptible identifying code is inserted into a media asset, whether a movie, video or any other type of content. By adding a unique identifier disseminated throughout a piece of media, that content, along with its owner, becomes identifiable. A digital watermark is used to enforce contractual compliance between a content owner and the intended recipient; it provides proof of misuse and a link back to the source of the leak.


Another advantage of forensic watermarking is its capacity to play a part in educating consumers.  Illicit services increasingly look similar to legitimate services; many of them carry advertising and can even request viewers to pay for content. This means that a number of users may believe the service to be legal, and need to be informed that they are infringing the law. Using forensic watermarking to identify the source of an illegal stream, operators and broadcasters can turn the pirate stream into a tool for consumer education. By inserting a visual overlay into the pirated session, operators can provide information on legal alternatives to the illegal content as soon as it is stopped, as well as information about content copyright.


As the content industry increasingly turns to forensic watermarking to ensure that premium video is fully secure, technology providers need to ensure the robustness of their solutions and adapt to ever changing use cases. With the addition of real time watermark detection for live sports and Content Delivery Network-agnostic watermarking for OTT streaming, forensic watermarking solutions such as NexGuard provide the confidence and peace of mind for content owners, broadcasters and operators who want to stop illegal content re-distribution without inconveniencing consumer accessing content legally.