Content Protection Prevents Sports Stream Dreams From Turning Into Nightmares

With Internet streaming of sporting events on a massive uptick, courtesy of higher bandwidths to the home, more robust encoding/streaming platforms, and simply a greater comfort level among content owners and advertisers with the medium, the issue of content protection and tracking is also seeing a resurgence.

For companies like Vobile, Inc. launched in 2005, that interest is creating market opportunities as it helps clients like major studios and sports leagues understand concepts like watermarking and fingerprinting and, more importantly, how to track content, enforce protection measures, and have both of those steps move in lock step with business models.

“The core of a business model is content distribution in an exclusive fashion,” says Yangbin Wang, CEO of Vobile, Inc. “If you don’t control those exclusives the core business model for credible revenue streams on the Internet and mobile platforms is jeopardized.”

Vobile is currently working with all of the major Hollywood studios as well as the NBA and it worked with CCTV in China to protect content during the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Wang says the first question a sports content needs to ask is what is the goal of content protection? Is the goal to track down and sue the people who are illegally distributing content or is it to move those who are illegally consuming content from illegal channels to legal ones?

“Watermarking can help track the source but if the [copy] isn’t watermarked it can’t be identified,” says Wang. “Fingerprinting is good on tracking the content but not identifying the source.”

For sports leagues, says Wang, fingerprinting, is the best approach.

“By and large sports leagues are not interested in finding teenagers who are streaming content illegally and getting them put in jail,” says Wang. “They want to identify the illegal streams and show the people using those streams that high-quality content is only one click away.”

The NBA, for example, routes all TV broadcasts of NBA games through an ingest facility in Secaucus, NJ, where Vobile’s VideoDNA Live video and audio content identification server “fingerprints” the content live and in realtime. That process can take place within the production truck, at the venue, or back at the broadcast center prior to distribution to viewers.

“Fingerprinting, unlike watermarking, is non-intrusive,” says Wang. “Without touching the signal our system does a mathematical computation to figure out the VideoDNA of a clip. It doesn’t change the signal in the lightest.”

Once the VideoDNA of a clip is figured out it is registered in a database and, via cloud computing, illegal matches of that VideoDNA can instantly be found “Once identified we can prevent sites from uploading content automatically or send take down notices,” says Wang.

Wang believes that there is a place for both fingerprinting and watermarking but that watermarking systems are more vulnerable. Watermarking systems typically work by embedding an ID into a video signal, a move that can, at least potentially, impact the video and audio quality of the content.

But more importantly that watermark can possibly fall out of the signal, especially if it is being transcoded from one platform (like HDTV) to another (cellphones). Also if the watermark is embedded into the soundtrack instead of the video and the soundtrack changes the watermark can be lost.

“The objective is never to prevent 100% of piracy because that isn’t possible,” says Wang. “But we do want to stop rampant piracy and redirect those streams back to legal channels.”