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The problem of piracy

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By Winston Bond, European Technical Manager at Arxan Technologies

The adoption of mobiles has been swift and the consumer demand for new ways to consume digital media is driving innovation and pushing organisations to develop new applications to deliver content.  The way we consume media is changing and as content owners and producers look for new ways to keep audiences engaged, the challenges of protecting content across multiple screens becomes increasingly difficult. Innovation, of course, is a good thing, but as new ways of streaming content are developed, it is actually aiding digital piracy.

The problem of piracy is that it’s here to stay and it could be argued that the problem is growing; in August it was reported that Game of Thrones was the world’s most pirated TV show, with 1.6m illegal downloads in just four weeks. This accounted for over a quarter of all pirated downloads from the top 100 torrent sites.  Another recent report from Viacess-Orca highlighted that during the last Football World Cup they monitored 20 million illegal downloads. What this demonstrates is that the pirates appear to be winning.  However the definition of piracy encompasses many different layers: from the amateurish camera recordings shot discreetly from a cinema, through to Internet-streamed content that has been cracked and then uploaded to an appstore.

The many layers of piracy certainly means that content owners and producers can never fully protect their content, they can only do as much as possible to limit what pirates can access, and this is where it gets interesting. To implement a DRM (digital rights management) solution for streamed content across all devices  is both complicated and expensive, so what we’re seeing is that studios are choosing to focus their protections around high value digital media such as High Definition and 4K over standard definition content. What they need is content protection that follows the content and therefore is device agnostic.

 DRM is the solution but it needs improving

Implementing an effective DRM security is the answer and – as most content publishers will argue – is vital to facilitate continued innovation in digital media. As new devices that stream apps and host media players are constantly being developed, the need for secure and unobtrusive digital distribution is urgent. In order for DRM solutions to work to protect the sale of books, films, and music that is growing online, the critical component of a digital key – which allows a user or device to decode the protected content – is required.  However, even the best encryption schemes are useless if a hacker can quickly acquire the key.

The costs of DRM security breaches are significant; with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) estimating it costs the film industry $6 billion per year in lost revenue. The weakness with DRM security and implementation is that it can be easily hacked and cumbersome to users if strong application-level defences are not leveraged. In an attempt to curb piracy, many DRM vendors are resorting to using invasive digital rights protection techniques that assume the system is always under attack by pirates, which causes restrictions and performance degradation to honest users.

Since most streaming media applications are performance intensive, DRM security solutions mustn’t noticeably impact performance; it’s simply not an option. For a DRM system to be well received, it’s imperative that the original content simply looks and works better than the pirated copy. The solution lies in imposing DRM security strategies that are effective at preventing piracy, while not degrading the consumer’s experience.

While we can hold our breath (or not) to see any major steps forward in terms of combating piracy, what we are doing, as an industry, is coming up with smarter and better protections for content in renewable, and device agnostic software-based solutions.  DRM vendors are always going to be held hostage to the speed of technological innovation. Just like in the IT security industry, they are constantly playing catch up with the bad guys. The problem here though, is that the quality of the very content that we are so addicted to on our myriad different devices is likely to be undermined by the massive loss of revenue caused by piracy. So ultimately – if piracy is left unchecked – the pirates could be the authors of their own downfall. 


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