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Why video watermarking can help keep video piracy at bay

The move to digital distribution has made it easier for the unscrupulous to scrape, copy or illegally share copyrighted content. But rights owners now have many tools to protect the value of their IP. Here’s how video watermarking fits into the picture…

By: Lydia Bird

For almost as long as there has been art, there have been people happy to copy it. And since the arrival of home videos, films and TV series have been fair game for video pirates seeking quick profits at someone else’s expense.

But over the last 15 years or so, rights owners and distributors’ decades-long battle with the pirates has been transformed. The arrival of high-definition digital media and widespread internet connectivity has made it easier than ever for pirates to get high-quality footage, and distribute it globally. Through underground sites like The Pirate Bay – and even open sharing on social networks – pirated content is widely available.

It’s a massive problem, costing the US economy almost $30 billion a year according to a report by GIPC/NERA Economic Consulting. The resulting impact on the American content production industry suggests between 11% and 24% in lost revenues. But even in today’s connected age, rights owners have the tools to fight back. Along with digital rights management (DRM), improved archive security and strict sharing controls, video watermarking can help minimise the theft of valuable IP. So, what is video watermarking, and how can it help you protect your digital assets?

What is video watermarking?

As the name suggests, video watermarking is the act of placing text or images into a video so that they can be seen in any subsequent copies. In fact, digital watermarking can be used to protect any file type, for example through image watermarking. The point is almost always to ‘brand’ a video, image or other assets so that it’s immediately obvious where it came from, and when a copy might be illegitimate.

We’re all familiar with the subtle BBC logo applied to iPlayer content, or its equivalent on other streaming services. This most basic form of digital watermarking serves to reinforce the content owner’s brand, and subtly assert their ownership of the content without ruining the viewing experience.

This is probably the most explicit, visible watermarking that a paying audience will tolerate. But rights owners can be more aggressive when protecting preview content not intended for widespread release. In their online portal, for example, a distributor might apply much larger and more prominent branding to licensable content. Potential customers can evaluate a video with a watermark through the screen centre, but it’s essentially worthless otherwise.

Video watermarking needn’t always be this simple. Watermarks aren’t always visible to the people copying content, protecting the mark from being obscured or cropped out. Among other techniques, forensic video watermarking encodes a unique mark into each copy of a film or episode. Using this, investigators can later discover not only the source for pirated content – such as a particular streaming service in a specific country – but potentially even track it down to the user responsible.

How video watermarking discourages piracy

A visual deterrent isn’t always the most effective way to discourage bad behaviour – we’ve all seen people ignoring automatic ‘slow down’ signs on country roads. However, anti-piracy measures need to be balanced against the needs of legitimate content users.

In fact, the presence of a watermark does much to discourage copying. Even a subtle mark can be an uncomfortable reminder that content has been ripped off. It can also help discourage unsuspecting users – for example, when people don’t realise that the official-looking site they found is distributing pirated content.

Few dodgy downloaders are interested in preview content that’s ruined by a prominent mark – 63% of respondents to the Digital TV Europe Industry Survey 2021 were “less convinced that pirate services simply offer a superior user experience.” And where a watermark has been removed, it often leaves traces such as an unfortunate crop, or image distortion, devaluing the video in the illegal sharing community.

In peer-to-peer networks, and when it comes to uploading content to piracy sites, users are likely to be especially wary of content that could be traced back to them through forensic watermarking. This fear is reinforced every time the community hears about a user warned, barred from a service, or prosecuted thanks to forensic watermarking.

● Under US law, copyright infringement can result in civil damages of up to $150,000. Successful prosecution can also incur criminal penalties of up to five years in prison and/or a $250,000 fine.
● In the UK, the Digital Economy Act 2017 raised the maximum sentence for copyright offences from two to 10 years.
● In 2017, a man from Bristol was convicted of illegally streaming Sky Sports content and ordered to pay £16,000 in legal costs

Video watermarking – part of an anti-theft toolbox

No single content protection method is foolproof, however. Digital watermarking is best considered part of a toolbox of techniques and controls that together can protect content from illegal distribution and viewing. This starts with having the ability to restrict access strictly to authorised viewers only – employees, subscribers, or others with the right credentials.

Various other techniques let distributors restrict access to streamable or downloadable content. For example, while geoblocking isn’t foolproof, using IP address filters to restrict regional access can help enforce licence terms or release dates. Expiring or ‘sunset’ links ensure that content is available at a given address for only a limited time period – reducing the damage if a sharable link gets into the public domain.

Rights holders can exert additional control over content distribution through digital rights management technology. DRM encrypts content so that it can’t be played back or streamed without a decryption key. This key is only provided to verified purchasers or subscribers, meaning that the content is unwatchable for anyone else.

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What is digital rights management?

Learn how DRM protects your video assets

How a DAM ensures security for your media assets

Knowing that powerful content protection tools are available is one thing, but having the ability to apply and benefit from them is another. Without doubt, a digital asset management (DAM) platform is one of the most powerful tools for protecting and controlling your content. DAMs are designed from the ground up with security in mind, typically encrypting content at rest and in transit to protect it against unauthorised access.

DAMs provide fine-grained, robust user access controls that let content owners restrict media access only to the right users or groups. Importantly, different access levels ensure that users have appropriate permissions, rather than carte blanche to copy, upload or share. DAMs typically support regional and time-based restrictions, too, enabling you to lock down content further.

“The Imagen platform has… allowed us to really scale our content licensing business.”

Discover how we protect LADbible’s licensable archive with video watermarking

When it comes to video watermarking, DAMs are the ideal solution. With the power to automate bulk file operations and encode videos en masse, a DAM can automatically apply watermarking to vast libraries of content. Imagen, for example, can burn watermarks onto proxies before making them available for preview or sharing, helping accelerate the provision of secure content on a self-service licensing portal.

No single technology offers complete protection to your media, and even the best tools may fail against a determined criminal. However, advanced DAM systems that include digital watermarking are the ideal starting point for rights owners and distributors who are serious about content control today and into the future.

Find out how Imagen’s robust and secure DAM solutions can help protect all your digital assets. Talk to us today.

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