With content owners increasingly worried about seeing the value of their investments disappear in the face of concerted piracy attacks, here are 6 ways to stop digital piracy. Updated August 2021.
Looking at the global scope of video content piracy activities, there is both cause for hope and cause for alarm. On the one hand there are increasing industry initiatives that seem to be working and at least stopping the acceleration of piracy; on the other there are more and more ways for the pirates to get illegal content to the consumer.
Once upon a time the barriers to viewing pirated material, while not really significant to anyone with a small amount of technical knowledge, were still significant enough to put many off. Files had to be found on torrent indexing sites, malware and poor quality material needed to be sifted out, the material had to be downloaded, often converted, and then coaxed to play on a television set. The picture quality was often poor, the audio sometimes worse.
Fast forward a few years and everything is so much easier. Consumers looking for illegal content can chose from a proliferation of viewing platforms that are live streaming pirated material. The pivot towards app-based television has opened up whole libraries of pirated material on set-top boxes and more.
23 million across 9 million households in the USA used a pirate IPTV subscription service last year, while the Audiovisual Anti-Piracy Alliance published an infographic showing that the value of pirate video services accessed by Pay-TV and non-Pay-TV consumers has been projected to exceed $67bn by 2023.
So, what can operators do? We’ve broken down the anti-piracy protection measures that broadcasters and operators can take into six different areas, adapted and updated from a presentation given by Olivier Dufour, CEO France, Motorsport Network at our TVLS 2018 event. Individually some of these techniques are powerful in their own right, but taken together they represent a new culture of affirmative anti-piracy action that represents a step-change in the battle against the content pirates.
Stopping digital piracy in its tracks
1. Remove the Incentive
One of the most-effective ways of dealing with piracy is by removing the incentive for the consumers to look for pirated content. Effectively this can be characterised by offering a good product and a good user experience at a fair price. There are several different interpretations of this. Netflix's price starts at $8.99 and rises to $17.99 in the USA, with differentiation on picture quality and the number of screens that can be watched at one time. Disney+ costs $7.99 in the same country.
There are also differences between approaches in different countries. Netflix's price range is $6.70 to $10.99 (approx) in India, but it also has a mobile-only offering that costs an even cheaper $2.70 (approx) per month. Indeed, mobile-only offers are becoming increasingly important in emerging economies and price competition is fierce.
Price though is not the only differentiator. The importance of the user experience cannot be understated; viewers want sympathetic interfaces that contain the usual sophisticated bells and whistles such as personal recommendations, and they want excellent picture quality with no buffering and/or latency. The more the industry can provide that at realistic cost, the less people will be driven towards pirate arms.
You are not going to stop everyone from watching pirated content, but this can definitely remove some of the more casual illegal consumers.
2. PR & Education
There are several strands to this, but effectively the goal is to highlight to the consumer that piracy is a crime and it is illegal. To those within the industry this is obvious; to those outside it, it is anything but.
We’ve written recently of the problem of password sharing and how up to 4O% of US consumers are sharing log-in credentials. This has become a normative crime — one that ‘everyone’ does and so the activity no longer appears as illegal because the behaviour is normal. The usual example given is speeding, but video piracy is prevalent enough that maybe it should replace speeding in the textbooks. Efforts made to remind viewers that piracy is both morally wrong and a crime can prove successful in driving down numbers, as have been campaigns that have highlighted the role of organised crime in pirate activities, exposure to malware and inappropriate material, and the danger to advertisers of negative brand association with pirate sites.
3. Barriers to Entry
In the same way that you want to make it easy for consumers to choose legal alternatives, you want to make it hard for the pirates. The era of unprotected content is long gone. Content owners look to protect their investment and Intellectual Property, and will only strike licensing deals with operators that can demonstrate that they take such threats to the revenue stream seriously in turn.
What that means in practice, is changing all the time. Where once card-based Conditional Access Systems were as sophisticated as operators could get, the move towards IP and OTT delivery has necessitated a transition to software-based Digital Rights Management in turn. Even so, there is no single technology that can guarantee security. The best practice now involves a multi-disciplinary approach that encompasses both prophylactic anti-piracy measures and the following two criteria governing detection and enforcement as well.
4. Technology & Operations
You can’t fight ghosts; you need to know what content is being pirated and where. That means being able to identify content, a live pirate stream as having come from your own video ecosystem. That requires technical intervention at the pre-transmission stage. Monitoring is the key to success here, whether automated — and there are some interesting developments in AI monitoring of video streams, both deployed and under development — or human-led. In an ideal world, at least for now, a hybrid solution is typically deployed.
Once a breach has been detected, swift action is necessary to deal with it. This has become ever-more important in recent years as piracy has pivoted towards realtime streaming and the lucrative illegal revenue streams associated with live sport in particular (the premium prices paid for accessing sports content making it a particular target).
Here, high-level agreements with the search engines and social networks consumers use to locate pirated content are key to rapid and realtime action.
5. Legal & Enforcement
There are a variety of countermeasures that TV Service Providers can use to interrupt and remove pirated content, from the traditional take-down notices to increasingly sophisticated realtime messages. With the correct anti-piracy services, operators can identify consumers who are watching illegal streams and incentivize them switch to legitimate services. These actions scale from soft to hard, with the harder countermeasures involving the introduction of law enforcement authorities.
The key is speed. While prosecution will always be a much slower process that happens after the event, removing the content from the internet as swiftly as possible is the best way to deter pirates and drive consumers towards legal alternatives.
While companies at all levels of the broadcast chain are used to competition, the losses to content piracy are too great for there not to be concerted efforts at cooperation. These need to take place at all levels of the industry and at all steps of the process, from production and on-set content security through to transmission.
The concept of herd immunity that is such a crucial aspect of global vaccination programs is important here. The more companies and organisations that are involved, the more effective the overall solution. Unfortunately the converse can also be true, and if there is any weak spot in the chain at any point, even in a place far removed from what was considered to be the primary route to the consumer’s television or device, that weakness is there to be exploited.
How to Stop Digital Piracy for Good
The short answer is that you can’t. While content is being made and broadcasters and operators are charging a price for providing it to their viewers, there will always be pirates looking to exploit that relationship between supply and demand and turn it to their own advantage. What has changed over the past few years is that this has progressed from what was effectively a hobbyist industry to a serious criminal enterprise with equally serious consequences for the industry as well.
But while you cannot halt content piracy, you can mitigate against it. The 6 Ways to Stop Digital Piracy that we have covered here are a start. There is, of course, a lot more detail that can be put on these too. For more information, download our white paper on the subject here.