An Anti-Piracy Security Strategy for Live Sports Content

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By Ali Hodjat


An Anti-Piracy Security Strategy for Live Sports Content  

In the mid 1990s, Rupert Murdoch famously referred to sports as the “Battering Ram” for the global expansion of his pay TV empire. Broadcasting live sports has been a major driver for traditional 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. This is especially true for millennials. The “Battering Ram” concept has not gone away, but has translated to OTT streaming services.

However, not all live OTT sports services are from legitimate sources, let alone rights holders. Illegitimate live OTT sports services have proliferated in many regions reflecting the global demand for streaming services, combined with the ease of access to such content on all kinds of consumer devices. A study commissioned by BT found that 54% of surveyed UK millennials take advantage of piracy services to watch sports events. According to Digital TV Research, losses in subscription and advertising revenue globally that was attributable to online piracy reached $26.7 billion in 2017. This is on course to hit $52 billion by 2022.

Online pirated live sports content is not restricted to illegitimate paid streaming services. In many cases the illicit redistribution link of a sporting event is posted on social media. For example, over 41 million viewers watched illegally redistributed streams during the 2018 FIFA World Cup via social media alone.

Modern content security technology including an anti-piracy strategy is essential for protecting the revenue of a premium live sports broadcast or streaming service. But protecting the live sporting event with legacy conditional access systems (CAS), or even modern digital rights management (DRM) technology alone may not be sufficient to block piracy services and redistribution of the live sporting events. Today, pirates effectively bypass CAS/DRM systems by restreaming live sporting content using various circumventing tactics such as screen recording software, external camera recording, or HDMI capture devices with a high-bandwidth digital content protection (HDCP) “stripper”.

Video watermarking technology is a crucial element of any content security system and anti-piracy strategy. User-specific forensic watermarking is a method to identify the source of piracy by pinpointing the last authorized user and device. Session-based forensic watermarking enables the service operator to embed a unique identifier for each user, and therefore to identify the actual device that is “leaking” or restreaming the content. This anti-piracy strategy allows for real-time detection of the source of pirated content and 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 server-side, or in the client device itself. Any good anti-piracy strategy must also consider the type of content that is to be watermarked. For example, for live OTT services, minimizing latency is essential. Therefore, several issues must be considered when adding a forensic watermark. Server-side technology requires tight integration with the live encoder and edge components. It is computationally very intensive, and may add latency to live event transmissions. Therefore, there is much focus on developing new client-side watermarking technology to battle theft of high-value sports content. The new approach leverages a thin client with pre-integration in the video player for different types of streaming devices. Fortunately, this new client-side watermarking approach does not require the significant watermarking integration nor add the system overhead that is currently required for the server-side solutions.

Another key requirement for implementing an effective anti-piracy strategy to protect live sports content is the ability to perform a fast extraction of the embedded watermark. With server-side technologies, the traditional approach by studios for protecting on-demand content can take up to 15 minutes to detect the watermark identifier once the pirated content has been identified and captured. This is far too long to effectively protect the revenue of a live event. Additional time is also required to identify the piracy and redistribution links and for responding to the piracy, which can include shutting down the source once the watermarking ID is extracted. An anti-piracy strategy for sporting events requires watermark detection to be a near real-time process.

Recent advancements in client-side watermarking solutions, especially for live streaming services, are aimed at better protecting the revenue of live sports. Usually, the client-side solution is implemented as a secure software client and integrated with the media player. In order to protect the thin watermarking client, white-box cryptography technology is used to protect the app code and associated secrets, and to securely anchor the client software to the device.

It is important to note that the first step in combating live sports piracy is to detect the pirated service. It is essential that any anti-piracy strategy also takes 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.


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About Ali Hodjat

Ali Hodjat is the VP Marketing for Intertrust ExpressPlay. He has extensive experience in leading product management and product marketing activities in the fields of content protection and pay-TV security, anti-piracy, and IoT security solutions.

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