Fighting piracy with watermarking technology

This article originally appeared in IF Magazine #146 (April-May 2012).

Last December, an operation spearheaded by local police and AFACT (the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft) collared a 35-year-old male as he was illegally capturing the audio soundtrack of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol at the Blacktown drive-in in Sydney’s southwest.

Blacktown was familiar territory for such an investigation. Two years earlier, 26-year-old Craig Farrugia was successfully prosecuted for illegally recording a number of films at the same cinema. Farrugia’s recordings were forensically matched to pirated DVDs purchased by industry investigators in Australia, the Unites States, Mexico, Britain, Spain, the Philippines and Malaysia.

Watermarking technology played a pivotal role in the Farrugia investigation. And although at the time of writing the December case is still under judgment, it seems likely to emerge that this investigation also made use of watermarking. “It is being widely used, certainly in the studios that we represent,” says Neil Gane, managing director of AFACT. “It’s a useful tool in preventing, investigating and deterring piracy.”

The technology is straightforward in concept, but increasingly sophisticated in execution. Insiders are reticent about revealing the specific technical details, but essentially, imperceptible ‘watermarks’ are embedded into both the visual and audio elements of films distributed to cinemas, which allow investigators to identify not only the country but also the cinema in which an illegal recording was made.

“Sometimes release groups will take a visual recording from a cinema in, say, Russia, and embed an audio soundtrack from a cinema in another jurisdiction, such as Australia,” says Gane. “We can identify not only where the visual was recorded, but where the recording of the audio track was made.”

If watermarking is effective as an investigative tool and a deterrent, arguably it is also a case of locking the barn after the horse has bolted. This is particularly true given the ease and speed of distribution through online video platforms. Another tool, digital fingerprinting, is playing a central role in reigning the horse in, or at least making sure the farmer gets some financial gain from its escape.

Fingerprinting involves generating a digital fingerprint using distinctive visual and audio identifiers from the film. These can then be matched against an extensive database of other unique digital fingerprints.

“Content owners can predetermine actions or business rules they require upon content identification,” explains Alex Terpstra, CEO of Civolution, an international company specialising in fingerprinting and watermarking technology.

“The system can automatically block a piece of content from being uploaded to a website; alternatively, an ad related to the content can be inserted.”

It’s a strategy YouTube has employed with its Content ID system, described by a spokesperson as “a set of tools that allow content owners to identify their content on YouTube and manage how and whether it is made available”.

Content ID is being used around the world, including by Australian content owners. It makes it easy for them “to automatically find their content on the site and decide what to do with it before it ever appears. Choices include: block it, monetise it [insert an advertisement], or track valuable viewing metrics about the demographics of the viewers and locations where it’s most popular.”

Watermarking and fingerprinting “are two sides of the same coin” according to Vance Ikezoye, CEO of US-based Audible Magic, a pioneer company of watermarking and fingerprinting technology which has worked with a number of content owners and broadcasters in Australia. The tools are not mutually exclusive, but complementary; it’s a matter of matching the right tool to the particular purpose.

Terpstra agrees. “Various applications can be served by either watermarking or fingerprinting or both. In certain cases it may not be efficient to place watermarks in content, such as if content has already been distributed. But watermarking is unique in its ability to trace the source of a copy.

“Fingerprinting on the other hand needs matching servers and handling of potentially large databases… But it is unique in identifying content that is already distributed, such as millions of music assets.”

Incidentally, Civolution watermarking technology was used in the 2004 investigation of a leaked Academy Awards screener of the Tom Cruise film The Last Samurai. “The watermarking enabled the identification of the source copy (in that case derived from a Jury member) and led to the arrest of a number of individuals involved in copying and distributing the movie illegally.”