Piracy Monitor perspective: Why anti-piracy needs technical standards

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It seems that the recognition phase of video piracy has finally passed. A year ago, there were still lots of questions about the existence of piracy and its magnitude.  Now, discussions are more “yes, piracy does, in fact, exist” and people realize that there are several ‘genres’ of it: content theft, service theft, the theft of advertising and “the theft of you.” Put succinctly by one industry executive, “Piracy is the world’s largest video service, where the content is free, you can watch any match, and there’s no restriction on access.”

Three provider segments have been affected by it: content producers that distribute direct-to-consumer or through distributors, broadcasters who are largely but not exclusively concerned about the theft of premium live event programming, and the distributors themselves.

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Recognition of the effects of piracy have also advanced past attempting to assign a value to lost content. There’s a realization that consumer databases can be used to conduct phishing attacks against pay TV accounts. Fake ads can lead people to download fraudulent apps that look like apps from their pay TV provider (and how do you know that your app hasn’t been reverse-engineered). And more. All to the detriment of reputation.

COVID accelerated the understanding of piracy

Understanding of the impact of piracy on business has become more nuanced as well. A year ago, there was lots of demand for evidence, and analysts and vendors were publishing lots of statistics. But then the coronavirus struck. With lockdown, streaming consumption skyrocketed during Q2 of 2020. While there are many reports that movie piracy subsided in subsequent quarters, much of that was due to the fall-off in new releases in mid-year. Network providers note that the increases in streaming volume have largely sustained.

Then WarnerMedia did a cannonball in the deep end of the pool by announcing that it would release movies both in theatres and online in 2021, and release windowing is still in a state of flux. But just as new service models (which were considered theoretical or a few years away prior to COVID) have become reality, the question of whether piracy was real has evolved into “How will it impact us?”

It’s not just the studios

Broadcasters and distributors have been affected as well. Because of piracy, there has been hesitancy between distributors and sports leagues to enter into exclusive distribution agreements. Last year, this was the case with beIN Media, which questioned the ability for Deutsche Bundesliga and this year, with Italy’s Lega Serie A; to protect the programming from being stolen and redistributed by pirates; rendering any exclusive distribution agreements between them moot.

For a time, pay TV distributors seemed to have been less concerned, generally seeing piracy as “the problem of our content suppliers, not ours.” But that tune is changing. One industry technical group with members from the pay TV service provider community has tasked itself to attack the piracy problem and is in the process of identifying piracy use-cases, and best practices that would guide members toward recognizing and defending against piracy; in areas that include the abuse of account access and illegal re-distribution of their services.

Detecting piracy

In the realm of protecting content, there has been a running discussion about the MovieLabs Enhanced Content Protection (ECP) specification, which calls for (among other things) forensic watermarking to help trace stolen copies back to the point where they were stolen. One thread of the discussion was that ECP is merely a set of guidelines and that nobody would enforce them (but some studios reportedly are). Another thread is about where watermarking should be done and who would be responsible for bearing the burden of cost.

The answer comes into focus when sports leagues and broadcasters begin to require piracy detection and anti-piracy countermeasures to protect exclusivity, and when studios start to demand ECP for ultra high-definition content.  Distributors are keen to listen since they differentiate themselves on the content they carry.

But where?

With all this as background, how do we detect and mitigate piracy? If I’m a distributor, I have influence, if not control, over the physical distribution of content, from my headend, through my managed network and my CDN provider, at the network edge, and in consumer devices. But, if I’m to watermark, where do I do it? Without going in depth, it can be done at any of those points.

One can simplify it into three domains: encoding/transcoding, transmission, and consumption. Watermarking the original content during the encoding process can help identify an instance of broadcast or streamed content, so if it is detected from a pirate site, the source can be confirmed; and therefore, the fact that the pirate is distributing it without a license can also be confirmed. But that doesn’t tell us where the content may have escaped in transit, or which subscriber may have been responsible for the leak.

To identify an offending (or unintentional) instance of piracy, two additional approaches are available: the A/B approach, where every video program or asset is generated and duplicated during encoding, and a different watermark applied to each copy, A and B. Then, after packaging and segmenting, each streaming session gets a unique combination of A and B segments, so a session, and therefore a consumer, can be identified. The other approach is to watermark at the consumer device, so the device can be identified and associated with a consumer.

But now, how? Normalizing the treatment

Most video providers and pay TV operators already have relationships with potential watermarking suppliers, via their existing DRM and conditional access vendors. All of them have added watermarking to their product line-ups, some by developing and controlling their own internally, and others by partnering with an outside watermarking developer. All of the watermarking suppliers also have external relationships with encoding systems suppliers, CDN providers, and/or with service companies that provide encoding and DRM services from the cloud.

One way to ensure a baseline set of functionality and to create a forum for interoperability between systems in today’s complex video ecosystem is to produce technical standards.  In February, the Ultra HD Forum released the first version of its Watermarking API for Encoder Integration, which is the result of work among multiple companies that otherwise compete against one another in the marketplace, but which collaborated for the greater benefit of video service providers and the rights holders who impose antipiracy compliance requirements upon them.

We will see more of this kind of collaboration as the understanding of piracy, its dangers, and even its benefits, continue to evolve.

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