M&E Journal: HDR’s Potential as a Revolution for Content Protection

By Harrie Tholen, NexGuard

Piracy has long plagued the content industry, from camcorder-toting movie theater attendees to re-streaming and torrent networks. The Motion Picture Association of America estimates that piracy costs the global content industry a whopping $6.1 billion annually.

From a technological point of view, tackling content piracy works best by combining three fundamental solutions that safeguard against illicit actions pre- and post-access.

The first step involves the deployment of Conditional Access (CA) and Digital Rights Management (DRM) — two integrated encryption technologies that control unauthorized access to programming before the intended users access the intended piece of content.

In the CA model, the rights owner licenses networks to distribute content and take on the responsibility of determining the legitimacy of users who want content access – through subscriber management systems, subscriber authorization systems and security modules. DRM, on the other hand, is a software-based protection model that works best for OTT content delivered to multi-screen devices for consumers who want to access content immediately, but also possibly watch it later.

Although CA and DRM provide a very strong rampart against piracy, windows for illicit seizing still remain – video sharing up to HD and live re-streaming over P2P networks are two examples. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) was enacted as a direct result of industry demand to implement copyright law to combat piracy, addressing the rights of copyrighted material owners and internet service providers. By issuing takedown notices, the content industry can legally mandate the removal of infringed content from unauthorized sources. The addition of a network-level watermark will help to automatically confirm the rights ownership per distribution path.

Forensic watermarking acts as the last stone in this effective three-sided technological fort against pirates. Developed to protect intellectual property, the solution involves the insertion of a unique, invisible identifying code into a media asset to serve as a contractual compliance between content owners and intended subscribers – regardless of how it might be trans-coded, resized, down-scaled or otherwise altered for distribution. Watermarking detection identifies the source of unauthorized OTT, VOD and live TV re-streaming by rogue subscribers. Both processes work across the entire quality spectrum from standard resolution live streaming apps to 4K/Ultra High Definition (UHD) and HDR.

Where does HDR differ?

HDR content presents as more lifelike than any other resolution and can be differentiated from all other forms of content in two key areas: contrast and color enhancements. This is achieved by expanding the quantity of nits (a unit of brightness) in bright content while decreasing it to the lowest degree in the darkest content. HDR additionally offers 1024 colors instead of the traditional 256 RGB (Red, Green, Blue) values. This way, the gradations between shades and different tones in onscreen content present a far greater degree of realism to the viewer – referred to as the “wide color gamut” by 4K TV makers.

The result is a richer range of colors, more realistic whites and much deeper darks that can all be displayed simultaneously on any 4K-capable screen. This improvement in contrast and color enhancement, however, can prove challenging for watermarking providers. A watermark needs to remain completely invisible to the human eye to be effective, requiring careful testing by Golden Eyes – sight experts who watch all watermarked content to identify any superimpositions. With the increased detail specifications of HDR, we needed to adapt our existing solutions – deployed by all major studios and multiple pay-TV operators around the world – to ensure that the watermarking technology would remain completely invisible throughout the entire pieces of content.

Is HDR really a revolution for content protection?

Since the early deployments of 4K quality content, the content industry has started to put new systems in place to better secure its revenue. A step in the right direction was taken in 2013 with the publication of the first version of the MovieLabs Specification for Enhanced Content Protection, a set of security recommendations produced by the joint venture of six major motion picture studios that invest in accelerating the development of technologies essential to the distribution and use of consumer media. As a result, studios now mandate these specifications for all pay-TV service providers and other licensees that want access to enhanced content.

Strategy Analytics forecasts that annual worldwide sales of HDR-enabled TVs will reach 58 million units in 2020 with penetration of HDR TVs in the United States projected to reach nearly 25 percent of homes. This requirement to protect HDR content is increasingly crucial as more consumers obtain access to this higher quality and higher valued content – including early release movies or premium productions shot in HDR. This content will be developed for distribution to home TVs before becoming available for HDR-capable tablets in future. However, content to home TVs is usually distributed via a set-top box, where access to content is traditionally protected by a card and root of trust. If either of these sources were to be hacked, a practice possible for experienced pirates, premium content would become immediately redistributed on illegitimate streaming websites or downloaded via torrents.

This is where forensic watermarking becomes a fundamental tool: the presence of a unique identifier for each piece of content makes retrieval a lot easier and enables content owners to easily identify the weak link in their distribution systems. The ability to trace illicit redistribution to the original source makes it a very strong piracy deterrent, as content owners can strongly warn pirates, and even consumers watching an illegal stream, against the legal implications of accessing or sharing copyrighted content.

Studios are planning to offer HDR as a mass market proposition by 2018, so content owners need to implement or upgrade their protection arsenal now. By preparing for the next pixel revolution, they can avoid the pitfalls of tech-savvy pirates and better educate consumers on the latest specifications for content protection.

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