With illegal streaming on the rise Broadcast explores how technology is helping content providers protect their multibillion pound investment.
Experts dub it 'cat and mouse' or 'whack a mole' but piracy is not a game to broadcasters who have paid, in some cases billions of pounds, for rights to content which is being leaked in ever greater numbers online.
The issue is particularly acute around the high value properties of live sports, more and more of which are pouring onto OTT platforms. English Premier League matches for example are available via Sky Now, and in the US, Twitter will stream a package of live NFL matches next season.
Illegal streams start as legitimate transmissions (such as a Sky Sports Sunday afternoon live match) but are then captured and re-broadcast for non-subscribers or they are being captured outside of the geographic restricted areas.
An accurate assessment of the problem is hard to come by. The EPL, which collects £5.136bn from Sky and BT Sport and another £3 billion for the sale of overseas rights in its most recent deal, doesn't divulge figures relating to theft.
A check on aggregator websites – which list URLs that link to the content being hosted – suggest that the audience of unauthorised streams is in the millions.
Brand protection service NetNames reckons that more than 23% of web bandwidth is used for digital piracy costing the global economy more than $75 billion per year. Analysts MUSO [in its Global Piracy Report] states that 58 billion visits to illicit websites were to stream pirated film and TV content last year, 28% of them using mobile devices. The EU's Intellectual Property Office report that 19% of British 15-24 year olds illegally accessed content in 2015 (albeit 14% less than youth in Spain).
“Given the ease with which content can be re-streamed online and watched for free, rights holders need to protect revenue and ensure that this market remains viable for investment,” warns Alistair Cameron, European sales director of content protection firm NexGuard.
“With the growth of availability of live streams there is a natural growth in people stealing the content,” says Arik Gaisler, Sr. director of product, infrastructure at video management platform Kaltura. “In parallel this has made security something of a commodity.”
There is no silver bullet but a combination of approaches can being used to limit the scale of damage.
A first step is to secure the stream with encryption (and/or conditional access systems (CAS) in set-top boxes) and add digital rights management (DRM) to authenticate usage.
Kaltura encrypts content as part of the ingest process or on the fly. Then it adds a Universal DRM which is integrated with Google Widevine, PlayReady and Apple Fairplay for content protection which Kaltura says will work regardless of the browser, device or platform being used.
“DRM makes sure that those watching content have relevant access rights,” says Gaisler, who adds that this is the approach taken by most pay TV broadcasters. “To overcome DRM it would need to be hacked in a deeper, sophisticated way.”
Traditional DRM and CAS do a good job of ensuring that only legitimate viewers can access content through paid services. But once the video is displayed, it is still vulnerable to re-streaming through numerous methods, including camcorder capture and screen-scraping in which data is copied in realtime and rebroadcast as a live stream.
“Traditional access control works up to the point where the customer starts watching the content,” argues Cameron. “From that point, all bets are off. Most pirates will pay for a subscription or will buy the pay per view. The DRM checks are done, but the security mechanisms have not accounted for human behaviour.”
According to Ampere Analysis, most viewing of illegal streams is among people with low income (and therefore can't afford to view) and/or who live with others (so that their control of the TV is limited).
“These are demographic issues rather than a fundamental business threat,” says research director Richard Broughton. “Making multiplatform streams available is important for operators so that they can reach consumers on different devices.”
However, illegal uploaders can turn a profitable business by selling ads around the site or in some cases selling a subscription service.
“Some sites are so professional even down to the small print of terms and conditions,” says Cameron. By embedding an invisible forensic watermark (such as NexGuard's) in each video stream, content that is improperly re-distributed can be traced back to its source. “By knowing the source, immediate action can be taken to interrupt the pirate stream while the event is still going,” says Cameron.
As further back-up, monitoring and analytics technologies are required. “HTML-based video players allow you to look at reference urls to get an idea of whether the content is being accessed in unusual places or whether stream volumes are in line with expectations or if you have a leakage,” says Mark Blair, vp of EMEA at video player developer Brightcove.
Once illegality is verified operators have some choices. Sending cease and desist notices works in some cases, legal action in others.
“The problem is that when people do take content down it will respawn quite quickly on a new website,” says Blair. “Pirate organisations will often use web servers in countries where intellectual property enforcement is difficult.” A February 2016 study by Stony Brook University, found that 25% of live streams originate from servers hosted in Belize.
“Another way is to starve the supply pipe to viewers illegally viewing those sites,” he says.
“Unfortunately, it is a mammoth task and one that becomes harder over time due to increases in technology which allow faster, better quality, streaming of data,” says Stuart Fuller, director of commercial operations, NetNames. “There's also the catch 22 of broadcasters having to increase subscription costs to cover their increased investment in brand protection mechanisms to counteract illegal streaming, which leads to more people turning to illegal streams due to the increase in costs.”
While there are instances of net piracy funding criminal organisations, there are more illegal views among those characterising themselves as digital robin hoods and others who have turned to torrent out of frustration with being able to access a decent quality legal stream.
“Illegal views represent an important but relatively small business impact on broadcasters,” says Broughton. “Most people are generally happy to pay for sports.”
The social streaming challenge
Social streaming apps like Meercat, Periscope and Facebook Live present another challenge to rights holders.
Twitter's Periscope came to attention shortly after launch last March when ringside streams of a Floyd Mayweather boxing bout gave some viewers free access to a fight which HBO and Showtime had paid a fortune to air pay per view.
Use of mobile phones are also banned at events like The Open golf, ostensibly to reduce distraction for the players. However, it is believed not practical to police use of video phones going forward. Such forms of amateur live broadcast are viewed as more of an irritant than a serious breach of rights and could be turned to a broadcaster's advantage.
“Watching social streaming for a whole match is not an enjoyable experience and is not a viable alternative to pay TV unless professionally done,” says Cameron.
“This summer, the IOC are not going to be able to prevent everyone entering the Olympic stadium from using their mobile phone,” says Blair. “This should be treated as a business issue.”
While bandwidth capacity restraints at crowded events currently hinder mass live streaming, WiFi advances mean this will likely be overcome
“Rather than a big brother approach it makes much more sense for a broadcaster to create an app for fans to download which make it easier for them to stream,” says Chris Knowlton, vp Wowza, whose media servers support Periscope. “You might have a curation committee moderating all the live streams and encouraging action. You could challenge fans to send in streams via your app so that you control the experience.”
As it happens Wowza has developed a software development kit called GoCoder enabling organisations to launch streaming apps. One idea is that a broadcaster would be able to identify by GPS the position of every mobile device/camera at a venue and offer these angles up online.
“It could be really interesting to crowd source this video and give it back to fans as an experience, allowing them to choose different angles and, if any videos are of high enough quality, to use them in the main live broadcast perhaps for another view on controversial incidents not caught on camera.”