Tech Briefing: Advances in Digital Video Watermarking technology

Monday, July 21, 2014

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Duncan Potter, CMO of SeaWell Networks, takes a candid look at how Digital Video Watermarking technology is advancing in an effort to deter online video piracy.

Today’s methods of securing content have not helped facilitate multiscreen delivery. In fact, difficult-to-use digital rights management schemes and fear of piracy have slowed the adoption of ‘TV Everywhere’. However, one solution has emerged as both a way around the user experience hurdles and a deterrent to would-be pirates: per-session digital video watermarking.

Why do they (or is it you) pirate?

Today, if you steal a car, walk out of a store wearing jeans you didn’t purchase, or even manage to “lift” a chocolate bar, you’re likely going to get in trouble. At least, you’re certainly not going to tell anyone, and most of us would feel pretty guilty about it.  Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about the last “Game of Thrones” episode you downloaded. In fact, according to HBO’s fantasy epic was the most illegally pirated television series of 2013 with an estimated 5.9 million illegal downloads.

In North America, movie audiences fill the air with pirate sounds during the Motion Picture Association’s (MPA) pre-show anti-theft message, making light of the warning and revealing where current allegiances lie. The changes that digital technology has wrought have been so fast that social mores have not caught up. 

Digital is simply not considered real. It’s just software – it’s not tangible. And, everyone is doing it!  Almost 70 percent of respondents to a study by Denmark-based Rockwool Foundation Research Unit said downloading illicit material from the Internet was acceptable. This cultural tendency has significant effects: the MPA puts global losses from Internet theft and DVDs at more than $18.2 billion annually. In short, if you had invested $160 million into a single movie, or billions for multi-year sports rights, you too would be actively seeking ways to protect your investment. 

Despite the MPA’s and the Audiovisual Anti-Piracy Alliance’s (AAPA, formerly known as AEPOC) PR efforts, things haven’t changed much. In fact, the growth in high-speed connections and the abundance of high-definition (HD) quality streams is only making it easier to capture and upload illegal copies. With improvements in compression like H.265 and Ultra High Definition (UHD) coming into the market, better quality copies are going to be available and content owners stand to lose even more.

DRM and its hurdles

The methods by which operators use set top boxes with smart cards to control access (Conditional Access Systems – CAS) are well known and often surmounted. Less well known are the ways in which operators and OTT purveyors, like Netflix and Amazon Instant Video, are protecting the millions of individual video streams that are being delivered to any device. With the hype around ultra-HD TVs at this year’s CES, pirates undoubtedly salivated at the notion of being able to camcord from the comfort of their own living rooms.

Digital Rights Management (DRM) refers to software that is designed to control these streams, i.e. who is able to view the content and what they can do with it after they have it. Netflix is pushing forward with efforts to do away with Microsoft Silverlight and move towards an HTML5-based approach that “describes a JavaScript API for performing basic cryptographic operations in web applications, such as hashing, signature generation and verification, and encryption and decryption.”

Microsoft’s PlayReady is by far the most reasonably priced option on the market, and has recently come out with software development kits (SDKs) for both Android and iOS clients. This means that each operator needs to build and maintain a custom client for every device – undoubtedly the rationale behind Netflix’s push towards HTML5. DRM remains a hurdle for most end users. Multiple logins and the inability to move content between different devices is enough to make anyone consider the (illegal) file-sharing alternative.

Watermark each and every stream

Like an epidemic, a single pirated copy can make its way in minutes across the internet and into millions of homes. The best way to disrupt the spread is to be able to identify the source. (see figure 1)

With forensic watermarking, each copy made carries a unique identifier. A forensic watermark is an imperceptible and non-removable unique identifier that is embedded into the video or audio signal. It enables content owners to trace – all the way back to the original source – those who attempt to illegally distribute content. It makes viewers more accountable without impacting their experience and creates a powerful deterrent against theft.

Watermarking, until now, was a tool used largely by studios, who were being ultra-careful with their HD copies being sent to movie distributors, encoding companies and operators.  In fact, Hollywood studios have always made forensic marking mandatory during each theatre viewing. With the advent of UHD, MovieLabs, an on-profit research and development joint venture, published a specification for next generation video also requiring watermarking as part of enhanced content protection. Recently, a pairing between Civolution and SeaWell Networks has produced the ability to make unique watermarks for each individual user or device – from tablets, to PCs to UHD TVs.

SeaWell’s software Spectrum sits at the edge of the operator’s content delivery network, translating adaptive bit rate (ABR) streams dynamically, for live and on-demand sources. At the same time, it interfaces with back-office systems to invoke DRM, insert targeted advertising – and in this case – apply a unique watermark to each video stream.

Civolution’s Preprocessor encodes versions of the mezzanine Apple HLS video ready for per-session watermarking and stores them on an origin server. When a request for content comes in, Spectrum provides a session ID and interfaces with Civolution’s SmartEmbedder to create a blend of the preprocessed content that is watermarked and entirely unique to that session.

In case of non-HLS enabled devices, Spectrum repackages the stream into other ABR protocols to ensure seamless playback on any device. As the per-session processing is done at the edge server, the solution leverages the caching capabilities throughout the CDN. For multiscreen service providers, the SeaWell/Civolution pairing is highly scalable, supports any ABR format and device, and can even concurrently handle targeted advertising insertion.

No matter how a would-be pirate captures the video – whether he or she is downloading the stream itself or capturing it with a camcorder – the operator merely has to look at the illicit copy and run it through Civolution’s NexGuard online watermark detection service to forensically identify the source of the original stream.


DRM is not going away in the short term, as operators need to control access and erect a reasonable impediment to the end users who might be tempted to send an operator’s content around to their friends. The real issue is in identifying the source of the original theft, as those individuals have shown they will go to any length to get around security hurdles.

The joint SeaWell/Civolution solution is a significant leap forward because it enables operators to pinpoint specific streams, devices and individuals who are perpetrating theft. Moreover, as pirates can’t identify what it is that they want to remove – it can’t be removed with common reprocessing – it deters them both technically and psychologically. If watermarking technology is widely adopted, we might hope to see fewer hurdles between us and our cherished content. We might also be a little less inclined to download that latest episode of Game of Thrones.  

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