Tech Tools Can Ward Off Pirates

7/18/2009 2:00 AM Eastern

Content piracy, especially the distribution of illegal copies of movies via the Internet, is recognized as a growing threat to a broad range of business interests. Such bootlegs are estimated to account for more than one-third of all piracy. Many highly anticipated movies are available online even before their theater release.

The value of movie content is tightly bound to a title’s first release date. Each release window presents opportunities for piracy and, therefore, unique challenges for protection and revenue enhancement.

The use of content-identification technologies directly addresses these challenges and falls into two broad categories: techniques that help track illegal copies and those that seek to prevent illegitimate viewing and copying. As an example of each category, let’s look at forensic watermarking and fingerprinting.

Forensic watermarking: One of the most promising techniques to track illegal copies is forensic watermarking, which seeks to securely, robustly and imperceptibly hide information within media content. In the case of user-specific forensic watermarking, the goal of the insertion is to help identify the source of unauthorized copies and trace them back to the last legal recipient.

Because piracy can be traced back to the source, and not just the network operator, content owners are ensured a higher protection level than other distribution methods, e.g., DVDs.

Unlike encryption, which creates an envelope around content that secures point-to-point delivery, a watermark is embedded in the content and remains even if it has been decrypted, decoded and possibly rerecorded and re-encoded to a different file format.

User-specific watermarking is also an effective way to change consumer behavior. The presence of a traceable identifying watermark will no doubt serve as a piracy deterrent.

Fingerprinting: While forensic watermarking is meant to identify the illegal capture of content, fingerprinting aims to control distribution and playback of illegal content.

Fingerprinting does not mark or otherwise modify the content. Specialized software creates and stores a unique fingerprint by extracting and compressing its characteristic components. Identifying illegal copies on user-generated content sites for example, requires the reading or scanning of the content and comparing it to the stored video fingerprints in a potentially very large database.

During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, NBC successfully used fingerprinting to compare its footage to content uploaded to YouTube, to identify official content that was restricted to TV distribution only.

In this context, fingerprinting has shown to be effective and faster than human-recognition techniques. Yet, content recognition is a challenging problem. As the hours of content increase rapidly, the problem of comparing the reference content to the distributed content grows exponentially. Additional approaches that aim to classify content, using such features as network logos and captions or actor recognition, will help to create precise and reliable detection in the future.

Even with the increasingly sophisticated encryption and digital-rights-management solutions available, the developing content-identification field provides key complementary layers of protection that can significantly stave off piracy. These techniques are even proving to play a special role that is commercially effective and culturally acceptable.