Special Report: Content And Ownership

By 2009, more than 108 million digital TV subscribers worldwide will be accessing thousands of video-on-demand (VOD) programs and moving massive amounts of content from device to device.

That expected explosion of special content delivery holds tremendous upside, and one enormous danger: piracy.

Preventing this valuable content from being stolen by consumers or illegally downloaded is now an industry imperative. It's pushing cable operators, broadcasters, movie studios, record companies and their partnering industries—such as set-top box manufacturers—to new content-protection heights.

Next-generation methodologies and technologies such as the M Card, DCAS (downloadable conditional-access system) and digital watermarking are expected to offer a more effective means of identifying and tracking just who is accessing the content and how it's paid for, all under the conditional-access (CA) umbrella.

CA's role in protecting content is limited, particularly in the wide open spaces of the Internet. But by next July, the FCC wants to see set-top manufacturers build in a cost-efficient, downloadable/removable CA platform.

Right now, there is a device called CableCARD that provides minimal security functions but is expensive and not very nimble. The new M Card seems better. It's less expensive and “backwards-compatible” and allows a cable operator a clearer view of what interactive service, such as VOD, a customer is using. It's considered the next-gen CableCARD, which is just now being deployed by a few cable operators.

Solutions in the works

Its cousin, DCAS, is a conditional-access solution that works with any device including set-top boxes that are connected to a cable operator's network. That makes it an interactive two-way device that allows cable operators to download their conditional-access system of choice to devices connected to the cable network.

And choice, especially for cable operators, counts. “With the M Card in the set-top–box space, operators can pick and choose between vendors, so it's an open standard for CA. I think it's a trend we'll see more of, especially with the changing business models for content delivery,” says Simon Blake-Wilson, managing director for Safenet, a content-protection company.

Not only are the content-delivery business models changing, but so is the entire structure of the CA sector. And none too soon.

“I think the role of Conditional Access requires new models, flexibility and approaches to content protection and a system for Internet video,” says Adi Kishore, director of global media and entertainment for The Yankee Group.

But Kishore says that, for all its limitations, CableCARD will probably be the solution for most operators in 2007.

In the meantime, Cisco/Scientific-Atlanta, Macrovision, Motorola, NDS, Safenet, Teletrax, Widevine and a host of other companies are advancing their content-protection technologies. Each is aware of the deadline and of the longer-term implications of protecting the growing amount of content flowing from device to device.

“The industry is showing lots of movement with CableCARDs, M Card, DCAS, OCUR [OpenCable unidirectional receiver] and emerging technologies, and many are working them into their development cycles,” says Jim Strothman, director of product strategy and management for Cisco/Scientific-Atlanta.

Cisco/S-A is currently shipping M Cards, which can manage up to six video streams and provide security to protect the video content,

SeaChange International, a VOD provider, is also in the mix. “We'll start to see encrypting content on the fly, particularly with more 'push' devices with stored content on the edge of consumer-electronics devices, PCs and iPods, where all content sits statically,” says Tom Rosenstein, VP of business development for SeaChange.

SeaChange safeguards content in a number of ways, not only to protect revenues from VOD transactions but through the “content lifecycle,” which means from the time the content is created to when it reaches the user. “No one can copy it,” Rosenstein says.

There are other challenges: If a broadcaster or cable network wanted to purchase syndication rights to, say, Entourage or Friends and Micro­soft also cuts a deal to provide the shows online, the content provider must make sure the user can't take the Internet versions to distribute on DVD or other platforms.

“We want to protect content, but security is only as good as the mechanism,” says Steve Oetegenn, executive VP of global sales and marketing for Verimatrix, a content-security provider. “Now there's a big emphasis on accountability. If a system gets compromised, be sure you're in a position to counter.”

Digital watermarking is one way to do that, he maintains. It allows studios, broadcasters and cable operators to insert digital fingerprints into content as it passes through three key points in the distribution chain: the content owner, operator and consumer-electronics devices.

“It provides irrefutable evidence and is one of a combination of deterrents, like forensics. Content protection is getting stricter with security measures. Now the burden for protection is moving to the operators. Because content is still king.”

So, says Oetegenn, “if you want it, you'd better protect it.”