Securing the Streaming of Live Sports and Combating Piracy

Sports has been famously referred to as the “battering ram” for global expansion of pay-TV subscriptions. With recent advances in live streaming technology and the introduction of new OTT sports viewing options such as subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) packages, sports fans are moving from traditional broadcast to online streaming services.

However, not all live OTT sports services are from legitimate sources. Piracy of live OTT sports broadcasts has proliferated with rising global demand for streaming and the ease of access to this content on consumer devices. Estimates from research firm Parks Associates peg the cost of video piracy this year for pay-TV and OTT providers at $9.1 billion in lost revenue. Consider that NBC agreed back in 2011 to pay $4.38 billion for the rights to broadcast the Olympics through the 2020 games—the most expensive broadcasting rights deal in Olympic history. It all adds up to an unparalleled need for comprehensive content protection and anti-piracy solutions.

But protecting the revenue of a premium live sports broadcast or streaming service with legacy conditional access systems (CAS), or even modern digital rights management (DRM) technology, may not be sufficient to block piracy services and redistribution of live sporting events. Pirates effectively restream live sporting content, after it has been decrypted, using various circumventions such as screen-recording software, external camera recording or HDMI-capture devices with a high-bandwidth digital content protection (HDCP) “stripper.”


As the competition heats up and improvements in technology bring the live OTT viewing experience closer to broadcast TV, live OTT sports service providers are starting to innovate in other areas as they look to attract and retain new viewers. Consequently, as with other streaming media technologies, there are certain well-accepted platform considerations that guide delivery.

For example, consumer interest is growing worldwide in lockstep with pervasive use of IP networks and global cloud-based platforms such as AWS, Alibaba, Azure and Google Cloud. At the same time, local CDNs allow content to be served from the edge, putting resources closer to users and providing a superior user experience. DRM technology is an essential enabler for OTT video as content delivered at the edge must be encrypted at rest and played on trusted clients.

Scaling for peak viewing is also a factor. Live sports are appointment-driven viewing, creating peaks in traffic during major events. Scalability for millions of simultaneous viewers is daunting, and DRM is not trivial to master. A poor implementation results in a frustrating viewer experience, and ultimately may lead to costly subscriber churn. With live events, this challenge is compounded by the need to quickly deliver a large number of DRM licenses to a global audience on a broad range of devices. A managed multi-DRM service is one alternative to in-house development.

Advancements in delivering live OTT sports, streaming services continue to experience latency, potentially leading to spoilers and ultimately subscriber attrition. Recent industry innovations, such as low latency Common Media Application Format (CMAF) and Low-Latency HLS (LHLS), provide an “equivalent to broadcast” transmission delay of 3-5 seconds versus 10 times or more in typical adaptive bitrate encoding and delivery scenarios.

Traditional broadcast services, using managed networks, have honed their high-availability performance. In order to retain subscribers, OTT live streaming must match and exceed that performance and OTT services look to achieve this by utilizing a scalable and redundant architecture that is deployed across multiple data centers and CDNs for performant access to content, and a reliable and scalable solution for DRM license delivery.


Pirates typically use screen recording software or an external camera to record and restream the content. Acting as a crucial complement to CAS or DRM, user-specific forensic watermarking technology embeds a unique identifier for each session, enabling identification of the device that is “leaking” or restreaming the content. This allows for real-time shutdown of the illegal redistribution or the ability to take other actions subject to the service provider’s policy.

Forensic watermarking can be applied either at the head-end during content processing and delivery (server-side) or within the client device and video player (client-side). For live sports OTT services, avoiding latency when adding a forensic watermark is crucial. Server-side technology requires heavy integration with the live encoders and CDNs, and can add additional latency to live events.

On the other hand, the major requirement for addressing the piracy of sports content is the capability of the fast, real-time extraction for the embedded watermark. Therefore most vendors are focusing on client-side watermarking technologies as the best approach for live sports. This does not require significant watermarking integration nor add to system overhead, which is currently required for server-side solutions.

It is important to note that the first step in combating live sports piracy is to detect the pirated service. It is essential to also take advantage of monitoring services and web crawling tools, in conjunction with session-based watermarking. Combining digital fingerprinting technology, which is required for automatic content recognition (ACR) applications, with session-based forensic watermarking will achieve the most effective end-to-end anti-piracy service. This combined approach enables monitoring of known piracy sites for pirated streams and ultimately the detection forensics required to prosecute pirates and take action to disrupt the entire value chain from illicit source to consumer.


OTT technology offers a unique opportunity to deliver live sports without regard for geographical borders, allowing global audiences to access content on a broad range of devices, platforms and networks. By way of example, with the ubiquitous ExpressPlay DRM platform, the service provider can employ any monetization method, including pay-per-view, subscription or freemium. As an integral element of content protection, it allows for forensic watermarking of live, linear and on-demand OTT services to prevent piracy.

It is also possible to build on DRM to reduce copyright infringement and minimize losses. While traditional and streaming broadcasters have long used both conditional access and DRM to protect content, particularly live sports, technology cannot be the only line of defense. Tackling piracy also requires pursuing offenders through legal remedies, such as in the courts, sending a message to others. In addition, collaborative efforts to monitor the web, as well as closed pirate networks for content leakage, must be front-and-center in the response.

As the business of delivering live action to sports fans around the world changes rapidly, new challenges take the field for media and broadcasters. Ensuring that OTT content is received by the intended user in a secure, high-quality manner and based on subscription service, device and location can be complex. Content publishers, network operators, and broadcasters must be supported by technological means to receive their full media monetization, so they can continue delivering live OTT sports content to eager fans.

Ali Hodjat is a director of product marketing for Media Solutions at Intertrust Technologies. He has extensive experience in leading product management and product marketing activities in the fields of pay-TV security, multimedia, watermarking and anti-piracy solutions. Before Intertrust, Ali worked at Verimatrix for seven years as a senior director of product management and at Broadcom for six years managing security certification with major CAS and DRM partners. He holds a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from UCLA, and an MBA from the University of California at Irvine.