Piracy awareness is a part of The Future of Video

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By Steve Hawley

Parks Associates held its 2019 Future of Video conference in Los Angeles this week. While much of the event was about the many challenges that the media and entertainment industry is facing as video programming transitions from traditional pay TV and cinematic distribution channels to the online world – from big screens and small screens to all screens – it was gratifying to see piracy in more than one place on the conference agenda.

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And the challenges facing the industry are many, with lots of burning questions. What is the proper mix of linear and on-demand programming? Is discovery better enhanced through automated curation or through continual improvements to user interface? Should video providers try to support every imaginable device with a user experience that’s good enough, or should they concentrate on super-optimizing the experience on just the top tier of devices? What’s the impact of technology on brand? What’s the impact of brand on the selection of technology?

According to Parks Associates, consumers took an average of about four subscription streaming services, up from about 2.5 in 2018, which has been fueled by major introductions from Disney, AT&T, Warnermedia, NBC and numerous others.

Public discussion of piracy is muted; skeptics still exist

Yet with this explosion of services, content choices and consumer engagement models, piracy was something of a one-sided conversation. Following a research briefing about credential sharing, there was a session titled “Piracy: A Billion-Dollar Challenge” with panelists from two technology suppliers: Synamedia and Verimatrix. One audience member challenged the panelists by asking why nobody could identify a single customer case study about forensic watermarking.

Each panelist answered that while their companies had many customers for watermarking, monitoring and other piracy detection and reduction tools, their identities are kept strictly confidential. Which leads the cynic to ask whether they exist, or whether it’s all just a solution in search of a problem.

In defense of the panelists, piracy is such a big problem and such a sensitive subject that nobody wants to talk about it in public. Large operators and content providers (some of whom I have been given the privilege to interview, with agreement to keep them off-the-record) have given me more than ample reason to believe that the problem is real, and the impact to revenue is in double digits.

Massively-parallel distribution as an anti-piracy tactic

When asked about fighting piracy in another session, about the Future of Live TV, the VP of digital media business development from the National Football League replied that having the broadest possible distribution was also a deterrent. This sentiment was sounded by others as well.

The reasoning goes that “if your content is on every imaginable platform, under all imaginable business models (ad-supported free, paid subscription, free through partners, as well as through various direct and partnered paid plans), that nobody would care to steal it.” After all, it’s available everywhere. But tell that to pirate streaming sites that include premium sports programming from around the world as part of their “thousands of channels” for $19.95 a month, or embed links to pirated programming within their apps or illicit streaming devices.

Another speaker, an executive from antipiracy vendor Friend MTS, remarked that anti-piracy technologies are also about preserving consumer retention – to keep consumers subscribed to legitimate services.

Why it matters

Along the ongoing theme that piracy is a big problem that isn’t going away anytime soon, Parks Associates is about to publish a new study and global forecast for video piracy. I will report further details when the work is announced and released.

Another misconception is that anyone who is infringing rights is an intentional pirate. In fact, people who share credentials may have no intention to infringe – that it’s innocent. And while penalties for intentional, industrial-scale theft and redistribution should be swift and severe, there’s merit in assuming innocence until you can prove guilt.

As one panelist remarked, “If a video provider detects that a consumer is sharing credentials to three other users, the provider can either cut off the sharer and lose a friend. Or, it can take a lighter touch and market a compelling (and legal) service to these three friends, and end up with four.”

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