Protecting Premium Content OTT & VOD Distribution - Part 1

The complexity of modern OTT and VOD distribution has increased massively in recent years. The adoption of internet streaming gives viewers unparalleled freedom to consume their favorite live and pre-recorded media when they want, where they want, and how they want. But these opportunities have also presented content owners with unfortunate challenges, typically piracy and overcoming illegal content copying.

This article was first published as part of Essential Guide: Protecting Premium Content OTT & VOD Distribution - download the complete Essential Guide HERE.

Traditionally, it was very difficult for pirates to get hold of premium content as the high-quality video tape source material and edited masters could be physically kept under lock and key. Expensive custom electronic equipment in the way of broadcast VTR was needed to copy the video tape and few people had access to these devices making the possibility of illegal copying very difficult. It still went on but was relatively problematic to achieve and the quality of the reproductions was often very poor.

One of the challenges content owners experience in the digital world is that the quality of streamed video and audio is incredibly high meaning multiple duplications can be achieved with little loss of quality. Unlike the analog days when multiple generations of copying would quickly result in poor quality sound and vision, digital media, especially high-quality broadcast masters can be copied many times without noticeable degradation.

Source material no longer sits on a medium that can be easily tracked but instead resides in a soleless datacenter somewhere. Although storage and network security has improved massively in recent years, faceless malicious actors conspire to access media from anywhere in the world making their detection difficult, if not impossible, leaving content owners to find new and innovative mechanisms to protect their content.

All systems are only as secure as the weakest link and when the open media leaves the content owners fabulously well protected environment the possibility of unauthorized access increases significantly. Content owners must use strategies that extend their secure systems beyond the precincts of their facilities.

However, content owners see massive opportunities to monetize their media in OTT and VOD and so want unrestricted access to these viewers through the Wild West internet. Unfortunately, they also see equally massive opportunities for malicious actors who can access their content, steal it, and make it available on pirate web sites, thus forever devaluing their much sought-after material.

Security is nothing new to broadcasting as television stations have been protecting high-value content since the first programs were broadcast. Access was controlled through tape libraries and source material could be tracked, and the physical size of the tape meant it was difficult to conceal. What has changed is the access now open to criminals who can download material without having to be anywhere near the locality of the broadcaster or content owner.

Protecting media is critical for content owners. Encryption and watermarking are two tools in the arsenal of the content owner, but the complexity of modern OTT and VOD distribution means maintaining high levels of protection is not as easy as it may first appear. The myriad of international affiliates and broadcasters whom they utilize to improve audience reach further draws in many new challenges that must be overcome.

OTT and VOD distribution over the internet has afforded content providers and viewers with unprecedented opportunities. Episodic program and movie makers are able to reach considerable audiences and viewers have more platforms than ever to consume both live and pre-recorded media. However, the internet was never designed to be secure and the multibillion-dollar content that traverses the globe must be protected.

Distribution chains from broadcasters and movie producers utilize a network of affiliate channels to take advantage of their audience reach, and this is where the challenges first start.

Not surprisingly, the content owners are protective of passing high-quality copies of their valuable content to affiliates and anybody else in the distribution chain.

Large legal documents ensue, and movie releases can easily become bogged down in tightly specified contracts, making them both difficult to sign, and even more difficult to enforce. Application of copyright law varies throughout the world and countries differ greatly in their attitudes towards enforcement.

Maintaining Creative Intent
Another challenge is that of creative control. Media owners go to incredible efforts to maintain the look, feel and sound of their productions. Language localization may be provided with assistance from interpreters from the country in question, but the content owners will want full control over the dubbing process to maintain artistic control. Other technical constraints that impact the creative look also need to be considered such as the aspect ratio and resolution rates.

For small distributions to a handful of affiliates, maintaining these controls should be relatively straightforward. However, a high-value movie could easily be distributed to many thousands of affiliates throughout the world, rendering contractual agreement and enforcement almost impossible.

One method for dealing with this is to audit the affiliates IT security systems to make sure they are highly secure and cannot be breached. Not only does this include checking for hostile actors attacking the computer networks, but also includes verifying who has access to the media. Forensic audits are necessary to keep track of who has accessed the media, when, and where from.

Resource Consuming Audits
IT audits are a massive undertaking, and their requirements are not always consistent across media publishing companies. This often leads to affiliates requiring every content owner to conduct their own specific tests resulting in thousands of hours of effort and potential disruption to their own services.

Audits are generally passive as the auditors will want to make sure correct processes are being followed and adequate records are being maintained. At some point systems need to be tested on-line. Penetration testing (pen testing) is a method of providing a scheduled and agreed check of the affiliates network by attempting to break into their systems. Everything should be fine and pen tests are now fairly common; if something goes wrong, then it can go wrong really quickly resulting in potential damage to the affiliates output. This may not necessarily be a fault with the affiliates systems but could be due to issues outside of their control such as anomalies with internet and leased line providers.

Clearly, nobody wants to enter into an IT audit unless they really need to. One audit could easily take six months to complete, that is from the time the auditor walks into the building to the time the affiliate has implemented all the requirements highlighted by the testers. This can be a real can of worms, especially if two auditors representing different media owners have contrasting interpretations of security, potentially providing the affiliate with contradictory requirements that may heavily impact their facilities.

Cryptography is used to guarantee password and username protection during authentication. Anybody having access to the encrypted content will be able to receive the content, but not decrypt it or view it as they do not have the essential private key.

Cryptography is used to guarantee password and username protection during authentication. Anybody having access to the encrypted content will be able to receive the content, but not decrypt it or view it as they do not have the essential private key.

A further challenge is that of monetizing the content by the affiliates. There are several models of charging consumers for content such as transactional viewing or monthly subscriptions, to name but two. Either way, the affiliate must know exactly who is watching the content, when and where. They will have a contract with the content owner that will specify how they are to pay for the content and this in turn requires highly accurate viewer reporting.

Under and over reporting is a key issue for both content owner and affiliate. If the affiliate under measures the media consumption by their viewers, then they run the risk of not charging the viewer adequately and losing income. More importantly, under reporting runs the risk of the affiliate not paying the content owner enough and effectively being in breach of copyright, or at the very least in breach of contract. Neither of which are very palatable.

Three Challenges
So, we have three challenges to overcome; firstly, the content owners must maintain quality standards, creative control and ownership of their media, secondly, affiliates must guarantee their systems are secure and the media will not find its way onto the internet where it can be downloaded free of charge or offered through a pirate site, and thirdly, accurate and timely viewing reporting must be maintained.

It’s clear to see that there are multiple reasons why the content owner doesn’t want to pass their high-quality and high-value media onto the affiliates, and why the affiliates don’t want the risk and potential liability of storing the media within their systems. Although content owners can monetize their media by broadcasting directly to the viewer, working with affiliates reduces their costs and saves time.

This suggestion may have many technical challenges which can be overcome relatively easily, the real issue is that of localization, presentation and marketing. The affiliates specialize in understanding their audiences, advertising to them, and packaging programs for presentation so the viewers subscribe to the content. This is a massive challenge and not one that can be easily centralized.

All of these issues revolve around the same argument, that is, technically high- quality video and audio media is easy to copy, change, and re-distribute.

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