Tech Battles To Stop “Stream-Ripping”

The rush of online content flowing to and from TVs, computers and mobile phones is also rocking the foundation of the revenue sources that it's generating.

New technologies are giving content owners and their delivery partners a tighter grasp of ways to protect their content. But the veritable flood of online content is so overwhelming that content producers face a substantial revenue loss from piracy.

“Stream-ripping,” the practice of capturing video streams off the Internet and then storing them on a personal computer, is “a growing threat,” says Mike Goodman, program manager of digital entertainment for The Yankee Group.

It's already costing content providers, although how much is hard to determine. “There is a tremendous amount of illegal content out there,” says Glenn Reitmeier, VP of technology standards, policy and strategy at NBC Universal, who recently found a hi-def copy of My Name Is Earl, with the commercials stripped out, on file-sharing site Bit Torrent.

Says Goodman, “The question is when digital rights management [DRM] will be effective as content becomes more fluid and flows across several different platforms, which all require different solutions.”

Of course, some of the solutions are the same used by television producers concerned about the same DRM issues. Forensic watermarking and open licenses are at the forefront of online content protection. But content owners, device manufacturers, DRM providers and consumers need a common solution.

“I'm not convinced there is one. But there is a recognition by content owners that they must move into DRM to protect their businesses,” Goodman says.

“We're still in the early days of video distribution,” maintains Jonathan Usher, director of consumer media technology group for Microsoft. “It's a matter of proving the system to protect content works.”

Microsoft's Windows Media DRM, which was approved by the cable industry's technology greenhouse CableLabs, supports interoperability with a number of content sources, including Verizon's new wireless V CAST video service.

More needs to be done in the online DRM space, however. “We need to continue the dialogue with studios and content makers and ensure that they understand what we're doing technologically,” Usher says. “It's in our interests to listen to them.”

Video watermarking allows content owners to precisely track and monitor where, when and how content is being aired. Teletrax, of which Philips Electronics is a shareholder, uses Philips' watermarking technology and is testing a series of software watermarking tools to make the technology easier to use.

Andy Nobbs, president of Teletrax, which provides watermarking services, says it is “gaining traction.” But he knows the content-protection issue has lots of tests to come.

Help may be on the way, maintains Brian Baker, CEO of Widevine Technologies Inc. which plays in both the DRM and watermarking spaces. “Online content video is very real, and protecting it is tremendously important. In 2007, we expect a massive amount of technology in the video-protection world.”

Widevine's digital copy protection (DCP) is expected to be one of them. It protects content during the time between decryption and when it appears onscreen, or the “digital hole.”

Notes Baker, “Content owners are at risk. They must protect their revenue streams, so copy protection is a major battleground.”

The battle seems to be shifting to the content owners themselves, maintains Simon Blake-Wilson, managing director of DRM for Safenet, a provider of online-content-protection technologies.

“The Internet can be hacked and content distributed to thousands of people,” says Blake. “So the threat of piracy has moved from cable and satellite to the content owners. It's now only one piece of a greater strategy. I think we're seeing a shift to both prevention and protection.”

The problem is not only online viewing of unauthorized content on file-sharing sites. The Internet is now also used to help create illegal DVDs, days after the films' theatrical release.

“The piracy supply chain is sophisticated, unbelieveably efficient and incredibly elegant,” Antonellis says. “That's what we're trying to compete with.”

Additional reporting by Glen Dickson