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Does Watermarking Prevent Piracy?

December 19, 2013
2-Minute Read

Marking content as a strategy to reveal the source of illegal content distribution is now gaining traction amongst broadcasters as a solution to placate content owners concerns about piracy. Rudimentary marking of content with a user subscription number or logo has provided a first level protection, but is easily removed by determined pirates.

Such visible deterrents can either be cropped or covered with another logo. This explains why more robust mechanisms are now being explored which are often more complex and remain with the content even when manipulated prior to retransmission.

However, such invisible approaches come at a cost, namely additional content workflow steps, encoding complexity and significantly more bandwidth requirements than the original material. Until now the overhead of introducing watermarking has outweighed the perceived benefit, particularly for live-to-air applications, which has surprised many within the industry given the extent of the problem.

Where it does appear to be applied is for catch-up and VOD applications where the cost to implement is reduced. This is because implementing watermarking as part of a non-live workflow is significantly easier in terms of cost and complexity. However, many within the industry are concerned that if a robust mechanism for identifying the most serious breaches is not universally adopted, pirates will concentrate on the weakest link in distribution. These weak links are either a blatant rights breach, where the offenders are not pursued, retransmission where no mechanism is in place to detect the infringement or elaborate content processing where the source of the content has been removed.

Another aspect that makes unpleasant reading for those concerned with preserving the value of content is what happens after the source of the pirated retransmission is identified. Cease and desist orders have been used against both pirates and rival broadcast organizations to prevent retransmission or the promotion of sites where copyright material is illegally available. However, the pirates have proved to be adept at avoiding the authorities to such an extent that the use of cease and desist orders have only proved useful in resolving issues amongst broadcasters or larger offenders hosting massive libraries of content. This strategy ignores the vast majority of offenders who host content below the level where the authorities can and will act.

For the moment, the broadcast industry has yet to get behind a watermarking approach and enforce prosecutions on the scale needed to counter content piracy and avoid a repeat of what happened in the music industry with widespread illegal sharing. There is no doubt that content security is a key issue in preserving the on going value of television and movie assets. For rights management and watermarking technology to be truly successful, it's essential that the industry vigorously pursue all rights infringements.

– Ian Trow, Sr. Director, Emerging Technology & Strategy, Harmonic

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