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Watermarking Technology: Revolutionizing the Video Streaming Industry

Watermarking is crucial for protecting content and detecting piracy in video streaming.
October 30, 2023
6-Minute Read
Senior Manager, OTT & IPTV Solutions

Video piracy in the world of streaming is on the rise. A study by Parks Associates predicts that piracy rates for U.S. streaming services in film and television programming will increase from 22% in 2022 to 24.5% in 2027. 

In the realm of live sports, video piracy presents a unique challenge. When viewers opt for illegal streams to enjoy live sports, it leads to an underestimation of the true audience. The audience size is pivotal for securing sponsorship deals, which, in turn, plays a crucial role in supporting a sports team's revenue generation.

This blog will highlight how watermarking is transforming content protection and creating a robust defense against piracy of video streaming services.

What is watermarking in the context of video streaming?

Watermarking is a powerful tool that video service providers can use to combat piracy. It is the process of covertly embedding a “signal” into the video stream to identify its owner and source. The purpose is to ensure that the original work can easily be identified and authenticated. Additionally, watermarks make it harder for others to claim the video as their own.

Watermarks generally take on two forms: perceptible or imperceptible. Examples of perceptible watermarks include text, a logo or a video copyright disclaimer laid on top of the video content. Imperceptible video watermarks are completely transparent to end users. An imperceptible watermark can be created uniquely for each user. It is possible to detect a watermark in an illegal stream since the table of watermark versus user ID is managed by the content management system (CMS). The user ID or IP address associated with the detected watermark can be determined later from the back office.

Why is watermarking important in the video industry? 

In today’s digital age, where sharing and downloading video content is universal, there is an amplified risk of piracy. That is where the practice of watermarking comes into play.

Watermarking exists so that content providers can assert ownership over your digital content, identify the source of piracy and protect their brand. Let’s explore how watermarking is helping the video industry.

Protecting video from illegal use: One of the primary reasons to use watermarking is to trace the origin of unauthorized duplication if the content is appropriated. Many video service providers invest significant time and resources in creating original content, making it imperative to safeguard their work. Watermarking, when done properly, can act as a potent deterrent against piracy. By adding a visible or in some cases invisible watermark to the content, content owners can signal that the material is protected and should not be used without permission.

Defending content copyright: Watermarking serves as a shield for intellectual property by protecting the copyright. It discourages unauthorized copying and usage of your video. When viewers come across visibly watermarked content, they immediately recognize the original owner, making it clear that this material is not to be misused. Moreover, watermarking can provide a legal basis for taking action against hackers or pirates who infringe upon copyrighted video content.

Identifying illegal viewers: Advanced watermarking technology allows content providers to identify unauthorized users. Content providers can retrieve user parameters from the back office once they have decoded a watermark. This ensures that, in case someone accesses the content illegally, content providers have the means to identify them. Knowing the identity of the user can be valuable when taking action against unauthorized access, helping protect content effectively.

Video watermarking methods: client-side watermarking and server-side watermarking

Understanding the benefits of watermarking is an important first step toward protecting video content. Next, you might be interested in learning how to implement watermarking for your video streaming services. There are traditionally two types of watermarking methods applied to video streaming content: client-side and server-side video watermarking. Here we’ll explore the differences and advantages of both approaches.

Client-side watermarking

One of the simplest approaches to video watermarking is client-side implementation. With client-side watermarking, content providers can apply the watermark to video content on consumer devices, such as set-top boxes (STBs), OTT clients and applications, smartphones, tablets, and smart TVs, typically via image overlay or blending.

Client-side watermarking is commonly used for live sports streaming since it offers a faster watermark extraction cycle. Service providers can apply the watermarks during the playback phase.

The key advantages of client-side watermarking are its cost-effectiveness, the fact that it enables rapid watermark extraction, and that it ensures compatibility with multiple platforms, including STBs.

A common challenge with client-side watermarking is that custom integrations are necessary for each unique device or player. Client-side watermarking has mixed results for robustness against pirate attacks. While it's resistant to temporal collusion attacks due to the entire ID being in one frame, it's vulnerable to severe distortion and spatial collusion attacks, which can impact the viewer experience.

It is highly susceptible to watermark avoidance methods, especially CDN leeching. It is a newer form of piracy that enables pirates to use an operator’s streaming infrastructure to serve their customers, making it nearly indistinguishable from an authentic video streaming service. If pirates can breach digital rights management (DRM) technology — another solution that is used to control and manage access to copyrighted material — the security of video content will be compromised.

On the other hand, server-side watermarking can be seen as a protection against CDN leeching. With server-side A/B watermarking, the receiver must provide an ID token to the CDN so that the CDN can calculate the A/B sequence. The illegal receiver will not have the token and therefore the CDN will refuse to serve the request.

Let’s understand more about this type of watermarking.

Server-side watermarking

A/B watermarking, majorly known as server-side watermarking, includes two watermarks, A and B that are static. Distinct temporal sequences like ABBA are added into each video stream to make the content unique. The watermark is invisible to viewers but detectable by specialized software. You apply the watermark at the encoding and packaging stage of the content delivery process, creating two copies of every file, with distinct “A” and “B” watermarks.

A/B watermarking consists of delivering a unique sequence of segments; some segments have the watermark A and other segments have the watermark B. The sequence of A and B segments makes the unicity of the stream for each end user and can be retrieved by forensic analysis to identify the end user originating illegal streams.

The live signal is encoded twice, once with watermark A and once with watermark B; the two encoded versions are then packaged and made available to the CDN through the origin. The CDN edge server embeds a specific algorithm to decide if it should serve the A or the B segment based on a watermarking ID token embedded in the request from each end-user. Advanced A/B watermarking solution comes with CDN revocation, which means the capability for the solution to stop serving content to the pirate user once detected through watermarking.

There are multiple benefits to using a server-side watermarking approach, including:

Robustness: Being content aware, A/B watermarking is studio-compliant and meets the golden-eye standard for an imperceptible watermark. It’s a robust solution that is inherently more resistant to watermark avoidance.

Ease of deployment and use: A/B watermarks are easier to deploy and maintain than client watermarks. All that’s required is a one-time integration across various OTT devices. No DRM integration is needed and no device hardening. On the other hand, a client-side watermark needs ongoing integration with new devices and relies on DRM integration for hardening, necessitating continual software upgrades as viewer devices evolve.

Simple tracking: With A/B watermarking content providers can easily track video content distribution across multiple platforms. This is beneficial because if the video is leaked on one platform, the watermark can be used to identify the source of the leak. This allows content providers to take appropriate legal action. 

How to choose a video streaming watermarking solution

Several key criteria need to be considered while choosing a robust watermarking solution, including:

Client-side vs. server-side implementation: Weigh the advantages of using a client-side or server-side approach. Opt for a solution that meets your requirements for robustness and ease of deployment.

Imperceptibility: In today's era where viewers expect a flawless streaming experience, watermarking needs to be subtle, with no impact on the video quality. A solution that ensures low latency and pristine video quality up to UHD is ideal.

Scalability: Scalability is crucial, especially in the live streaming space. A watermarking solution should effortlessly scale to scan millions of devices at once and instantly pinpoint those that are pirating content.

On-demand solution: A/B watermarking can be costly. A solution that serves on-demand watermarking services can be great in this case. You have the flexibility to switch the solution on as you wish and you pay as they consume. This is especially a good option for live sports as the event lasts only for 2 to 3 hours occasionally.

Secure your video streaming content now

As the digital landscape continues to evolve, watermarking will continue to be a valuable ally in preserving the integrity of your content against piracy in an ever-connected world.

Recognizing the need for robust content security, Harmonic has joined forces with several leading technology providers to offer content providers an A/B watermarking as a service (WaaS) for live sports streaming on our VOS®360 Media SaaS.

About Harmonic's watermarking solution for video streaming

Harmonic's watermarking as a service (WaaS) allows our customers to provision watermarking insertion only for those live events they wish to protect. It automatically inserts a unique invisible watermark for each end user, enabling you to trace pirated streams on the internet back to an individual STB or account responsible for the content leak.

The VOS360 WaaS service is an innovative solution in the market. The cost is usage-based and can be activated per event. It is fully integrated and automated and a one-stop shop for the customer that includes streaming and watermarking delivery. The solution is independent of the client application, the CMS, or the DRM solution provider.

At the end of the event, a report is generated by the VO piracy center and delivered to the customer by Harmonic, listing pirate streams detected by the VO Piracy center.

We’ve integrated several flavors of dynamic watermarking technology with our VOS360 Media SaaS. Our innovative WaaS solution empowers sports content owners and providers with a flexible business model, making it simpler and safer than ever to protect premium live sports content against piracy while ensuring an outstanding streaming experience.

To find out more about how we’re transforming video streaming protection with watermarking technology, contact us today.

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