IBC 2019: Three video piracy myths, busted!

Image source: IBC
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By Steven Hawley

With video piracy as my main focus, one of my goals at this year’s IBC was to sort out the role that analytics plays, and also, to get a better sense of the nuances of this area.

Unlike the “analytics” used to measure ad effectiveness, and unlike the “analytics” used to increase video quality and reduce delivery errors; the analytics platforms that detect potential account abuse – which could in turn indicate piracy – identify questionable end-user behavior.

For example, to flag individual user accounts that get requests from an unusually large number of devices.   Or, accounts that are seeing requests from outside a video provider’s intended (or contractually committed) distribution territories.  Or accounts that suddenly get thousands of hits within hours or minutes.

Trust but verify

To establish a baseline for analysis, video providers establish business rules to place limits on devices, actions, regions, availability windows and other parameters derived from requirements placed by their content suppliers.

Most content suppliers have formal vetting processes to confirm that a video service provider can support the required business rules before the rights-holder grants a license.   So they turn to their security vendors to make sure such rules can be implemented, and that they can monitor usage to identify potential abuse.

Verify but sometimes look the other way?

All of the formality about analytics and rights infringement aside, I caught three recurring themes at IBC that show how the rules can be tacitly bent.  While security requirements can be very strict, enforcement is sometimes another story – and sometimes, on purpose.

Myth #1: Video providers are strict about limits

Sometimes, video providers want to know when content is circulating outside of its intended distribution or is being consumed on too many devices.  But not always.  One example is of a top pay TV aggregator that serves the higher education market through resellers. One of their rules is to ensure that programming stays on campus, which can be done through geo-fencing.  But this doesn’t limit the number of devices per account.  Even though the video provider’s service platform can enforce limits on the number of devices on an account, their content provider (the aggregator) doesn’t want to alienate students who may soon be in the market for (their) pay TV service; to watch sports programming on the big screen, or may soon start a family.

Myth #2: If credential abuse is suspected, revoke the keys and ask questions later

When account credentials are being shared within a pay TV subscriber account – where service is to a fixed location – sign-ins from out-of-state aren’t necessarily suspicious.  It could be a family member in college or traveling.  Monitoring can quickly differentiate whether its family sharing, versus a credential that has been passed on through to many others and suspected of infringement by pirates.

The immediate reaction to the latter might be to shut down the originating account and ask questions later.  But also, the video provider can use monitoring to discern patterns that could represent opportunities.

Myth #3: Content owners are strict about enforcement

The most publicized instances of piracy happen with high value sports content and popular premium programming (think FIFA World Cup and A Game of Thrones).  These content owners are rightfully concerned, and the damage can be millions of dollars per day.

But this situation also takes all the oxygen out of the room for smaller content providers that struggle for awareness.  In the industry, we all know companies that tried and failed to get channel slots on pay TV and subsequently left the business.  The modern equivalent is to get distribution online, but online distribution is so fragmented that it’s hard for programmers to choose the best one for their needs.

I’ve spoken with more than one company with “mid-value” content intended for general or niche audiences, that have decided that they will risk piracy in order to gain awareness.  Their thought process is that it doesn’t matter how the consumer got the content; it only matters that they got it at all, and that it might be compelling enough to purchase or subscribe to.   Some of them have watermarking and monitoring in place, to see where the content was discovered and how it was played – again, as market research of a sort.

What this means

All three of these situations represent compromises but can have a more positive impact over the longer term.  They also leave doors open for video providers to use carrots instead of sticks.   For the users that received shared credentials, perhaps an introductory offers to establish paid accounts for the services that were shared to them.  For pay TV operators that detected lots of usage outside their service footprints, a way to justify getting license to distribute online, outside of fixed service territories.   For content owners trying to get visibility, a way to find interested consumers.

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