Watermarks Create Digital Chain of Custody

When Hollywood studios found floating on the Internet copies of “screeners” sent to Oscar voters, they turned to Royal Philips Electronics of the Netherlands for a solution. Philips’ answer: digital watermarking.

Digital watermarking has been around for some time, but with the spread of video distribution through online services, such as YouTube and the broadband wireless services offered by major mobile carriers, the technology is becoming an increasingly important tool for digital content rights owners.

Currently, watermarks are a relatively benign and unobtrusive form of protecting digital content. They don’t affect the performance of a media file and they’re invisible to consumers. Their primary function is to create an audit trail that can be followed by a content owner. If a copy of a song or video is made, it can be traced back to the content owner.

That contrasts significantly with digital rights management (DRM) schemes, which impose more severe limitations on the copying and reproduction of music and video. They also vary from company to company, which can interfere with the interoperability of devices in the marketplace and contributes to consumer confusion.

Tracking Super Distributors

“Most content owners are not overly concerned if one or two people break a protection system for DVDs, for example, and watch it on their own,” Jarad Carleton, an IT consulting analyst with Frost & Sullivan told TechNewsWorld.

“The problem occurs when the tool to break the content protection gets commercialized and a million other people can do the same,” he explained.

“That is when content owners want to identify the misuse of license rights in a broadcast environment or at stores and flea markets where people sell DVDs they have burned themselves,” he added. “For content owners, it’s important that they find out where the content came from and be able to stop its illegal redistribution.”

The Over-the-Counter Hole

In order to track a watermark, though, you need to know who owned the original. That is not a problem when distribution of an item is limited — such as screeners to 7,000 Academy members — or its origin can be easily identified — such as on-demand movies sent to a cable TV box or music purchased online — but it can become problematic elsewhere.

“Anyone can buy a DVD at a shop, and if they rip copies of it no one will know who it is so it doesn’t make sense to watermark it,” Philips Content Identification Business Development Manager Ronald Maandonks told TechNewsWorld.

“If you’re looking at putting a forensic watermark into media that’s sold, you really have no tracking capability, and it has relatively little value at that point,” Robert Schumann, general manager for Cinea, a digital watermarking company in Reston, Va. added.

“If you have a set-top box that’s part of an IPTV network or a cable network, there’s a connection back to an account or a path identifying where that box exists or who might be associated with that box,” he told TechNewsWorld.

Room for Both Technologies

Because watermarking is ineffective in tracking media sold over-the-counter, DRM makers have sought to tarnish its reputation, according to Carleton.

“DRM vendors have traditionally derided watermarking technology,” he claimed. “This restraint is directly related to the inability of watermarks to prevent content super distribution.

“Unfortunately, some DRM vendors have failed to understand the insurance policy of forensic tracking that watermarking can offer digital content when it is used as an additional security layer in a DRM system,” he added.

“Instead, some vendors have chosen to openly put down the technology and have stated that they don’t see a use for it in the digital marketplace,” Carleton concluded.

There’s room in the marketplace for both technologies, argued Philips’ Maandonks. “There’s a future for both products,” he said.

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