Vital Content Technology Finally Making Its Public ’Mark

Forensic watermarking is an expanding protection in the battle against piracy

Harrie Tholen, managing director of content protection company NexGuard, was surprised after AMC Networks announced in February it would use his company’s forensic watermarking system to put a unique identifier on episodes of everything from The Walking Dead to Better Call Saul.

It wasn’t that he was surprised a major cable programmer was taking new measures to protect its content. Tholen—and everyone else—has just been used to content owners keeping these kind of protection measures very close to the vest, he told Next TV at the recent NAB Show.

“AMC graciously agreed to go public about it, and if you look at them, they’re a use case we’re proud of,” he said. “On the TV side, with so many companies going day and date with their content around the world, watermarking has to start at prerelease, before distribution.”

In February, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) released a report showing that the movie and TV industry contributed $131 billion in American sales in 2014 alone. But MPAA figures also show that piracy is costing the industry as much as $20 billion a year.

In the face of those figures, more and more companies are emphasizing forensic watermarking for video and audio content, allowing content owners and distributors the ability to embed unique identifiers to any one piece of content, wherever it goes. The invisible tag goes completely unnoticed by the end viewer, but if the content is copied and shared online, it can be traced back to the source.

“One of the interesting stories of the last couple of years is watermarking moving beyond being used just for forensic purposes, to being used for content ID purposes, like the content ID watermark with ATSC 3.0 for identifying content for synchronized second-screen and other things,” said James Helman, CTO of MovieLabs, Hollywood’s R&D nonprofit created by the six major studios. “One of the important uses of forensic watermarking is to enable reviewability, and to do that you really need to identify the make and model and software that was compromised.”


The two main ways of delivering forensic watermarking include either building the technology into devices and then having the watermark applied as a video is played, or—a way that works better for over-the-top and streaming services—server-side watermarking, where a unique watermark is put into content as it’s served out, with different segments of the content including the watermarks.

However it’s done, forensic watermarking has been a must in MovieLabs’ recommendations for digital content distribution since the group’s first “Enhanced Content Protection” spec was released in 2013. It calls for forensic watermarking that’s “robust against corruption of the forensic information” and that “the watermark shall be inserted on the server or on the client such that the valid insertion is guaranteed even if the device and its secrets are compromised.”

And there’s no shortage of vendors specializing in forensic watermarking, looking to give content owners and distributors what they need. In addition to the AMC news, NexGuard recently announced a forensic watermarking partnership with Colorfront (which offers on-set digital processing software for film and TV productions) to protect 4K and high dynamic range (HDR) content for broadcast and OTT applications. And NexGuard has also teamed up with video transcoding company Telestream, putting NexGuard’s forensic watermarking tech into Telestream’s encoders, a solution aimed at giving content companies the ability to start protecting content at the encoding and transcoding stage.

“[The partnership] reaffirm[s] the importance of utilizing an effective method to deter piracy at the source for content owners… and all their partners,” said Paul Turner, VP of enterprise product management for Telestream, in a statement.

NexGuard—a division of Civolution—is far from the only company in today’s forensic watermarking game. Francois Quereuil, senior director of marketing for IBM’s Aspera, told Next TV at the NAB Show that response to his company’s forensic watermarking partnership with digital security company Irdeto has been a success. Twentieth Century Fox has already been using the solution, which combines Irdeto’s Tracemark forensic watermarking tech for individual content streams, with Aspera’s large-file FASP transfer service.

The combined solution gives clients the ability to easily source where a pirated version of content came from, without impacting the quality or speed of delivery of the content, Quereuil said.

“Our joint solution with Irdeto represents an exciting progression in the use of forensic watermarking in combination with highspeed data transfer,” added John Wastcoat, VP of business development for Aspera, in a statement. “In even the most difficult of broadband environments, we give content distributors a more efficient way to offer high-quality movies and TV shows without forsaking the advanced monitoring and detection capabilities that watermarking brings.”

San Diego-based Verimatrix’s VideoMark forensic watermarking technology is hardware- based, and is especially geared toward helping pay-TV operators tackle content security via their chipsets, with an eye on delivering Ultra Hi-Def content. “MovieLabs’ specifications have set the bar very high for distributing premium content at UHD quality, with stringent requirements needed to obtain studio approval,” Petr Peterka, CTO at Verimatrix, said in a statement.

There’s also California-based Zoo Digital, which recently debuted a cloud-based, home streaming screener solution, with forensic watermarking tied in, that’s geared toward helping content owners deliver award and press screeners. Norway- based content protection firm Conax this month showed off a new end-to-end forensic watermarking solution for UHD content for both broadcasters and OTT services.

But Kai Pradel, founder and CEO of Boston- based video sharing platform company MediaSilo, has another view of watermarking: While forensic, invisible tags have their place, they just don’t have the same anti-piracy weight as visual watermarking, where user-identifiable information is embedded directly on the face of the content itself.

Tracking the source of piracy is all well and good, he told Next TV, but by that point, the damage has already been done. His company in April debuted SafeStream, a cloud-based, on-demand watermarking service that puts personal information—tied to the viewer of the content, covering everything from emails to IP address—on the content. And both studios and networks are on board, Pradel said.

“The benefit of forensic is it’s invisible and traceable, it survives re-encoding several times, and the better [vendor] services that are more established have some unique IP around tracing it back to the source,” Pradel said. “But the problem is, it’s just not a deterrent, and if you look at the major leaks of the last three, four years, they didn’t result from people who intentionally…tried to distribute them to torrent sites. They were legitimate copies that got into the wrong hands.

“Look at the pressures in the supply chain, and the limited time people have to get their jobs done. If it doesn’t have your name on it, and you think you can get away with distributing a piece of content without the checks and balances, you’re going to have leaks,” Pradel added. “That’s where forensic fails as a technology.”