Content identification

The media industry is undergoing a profound and dramatic transformation. In the recent past, a consumer primarily accessed premium content through one well-protected pipe. It is clear that the days of this model are numbered, as consumers want — and now expect — a multiscreen future.

Although this world of less-linear content opens up new revenue opportunities, the fear for the content industry is that it also increases the chance of content being accessed and redistributed without financial reward, either by organized pirates or by negligent consumers. The old method of just protecting the pipe is not enough. As content distribution becomes less linear and more fragmented, the use of watermarking and fingerprinting technologies to identify, manage and monetize content will be a critical tool for all content businesses.

From protection to monetization

In order to monetize content in a multichannel, multi-platform media environment, content owners must be able to identify their assets and track their usage. Where appropriate, they need to be able to automatically trigger actions that protect content from unauthorized exploitation and help generate revenues.

Content-identification technologies such as watermarking can provide solutions that protect content owner rights at every stage of the content life cycle, through all release windows, to ensure content is fully monetized. For instance, during the pre-release stage, a media asset needs to be protected when it goes to post-production houses, is circulated for review or accessed for preview. Forensic marking (combined with encryption solutions) provides enhanced content security and ensures traceability of individual copies, during tape or DVD duplication, and upon file transfer or transcoding.

Increasingly, forensic watermarking systems are also playing a direct part in revenue generation. An important example is how the robustness and efficiency of the technology became a requirement for Hollywood studios, so they could confidently offer early-release HD movies for premium VOD services. This is an exciting and significant revenue opportunity for movie studios and service providers such as pay-TV operators. Systems that embed a watermark prior to content being displayed on the screen already have been deployed widely.

Even after severe quality degradation — such as scaling, cropping, compression and camcorder copying — any pirated content still can be traced back to the specific pay-TV subscriber from which it was taken. Such watermarking products are designed for integration in set-top boxes, televisions or VOD servers. Experts have reviewed the embedded watermarks for imperceptibility and robustness.

Similarly, exciting revenue possibilities are offered by new distribution models such as “digital lockers,” i.e., UltraViolet (UV). Neustar Media, which provides much of the plumbing behind UV, and Civolution have collaborated to develop a solution for the forensic watermarking and fingerprinting of UV content. The result is a technology architecture for additional security features to the current UV ecosystem for digital content distribution, such as the secure distribution of premium movie content.

Technology tools

Watermarking, as shown in Figure 1, is the process of inserting a hidden code into video or audio content, giving each piece of content a unique identity. Upon detection, the unique code conveys client ownership information. It allows granular detection and can be used to differentiate two identical copies of content. The watermark must be applied to the original content.

Fingerprinting, on the other hand, is the process of extracting unique characteristics of the content to generate and store a “reference fingerprint” for later comparison to fingerprints of “suspected” content. (See Figure 2.) When a reference fingerprint matches a “suspect” fingerprint, a detection is registered, and an action can be triggered. Fingerprints are capable of detecting legacy content, are extremely robust against compression, and have a detection granularity of 5 to 10 seconds, but they cannot uniquely identify content or convey ownership. The fingerprint can be captured before or after distribution.

Content-identification technologies now are playing a pivotal role in content distribution and consumption. One of their key assets lies in their ability to allow content to be accessed and consumed freely by the consumer at any time and on any device; by deterring piracy, forensic watermarking, for instance, offers the most unobtrusive method for content owners to protect their content while remaining consumer-friendly.

Recent advances in both devices and content distribution technologies are also radically affecting television viewers' habits, as well as how consumers access content. The traditionally passive “lean-back” experience of front-room viewing is being transformed instead into one of active engagement with program content through social media and new applications. Ultimately, this engagement will reach out far beyond the broadcaster's boundaries to encompass direct interaction with original content owners, advertisers, artists, brands, social networks and, indeed, almost anyone or anything with an IP address.

Automatic content recognition is a technology tool that makes smart TVs and second screens content-aware and smarter. (See Figure 3.) Advanced interactive media services can be run on companion devices or connected-TV platforms.

Mark of future success

The content distribution industry is undergoing rapid change. New distribution methods bring new competitors hoping to change the way people buy, consume and interact with content. Forecasting the future of the industry has never been more difficult, but we are confident that we will see media distribution that is much less linear, and that consumers will develop a lasting relationship only with content providers that offer true multiscreen and engaging experiences. In such an environment, the advantages of watermarking and fingerprinting in content identification, management and monetization will be critical.

Watermarking and fingerprinting technology innovations answer consumer desire for increased interactive experiences; deliver on creating additional revenues for rights holders, broadcasters and operators; and bring stability to the content ecosystem by offering valuable intelligence and asset protection.

Andy Nobbs is chief commercial officer, Civolution.