Digital watermarking promoted as foil to would-be content pirates


People who think nothing of making illegal copies of video-on-demand and cable television pay-per-view content may think twice if they knew they were leaving “digital fingerprints” behind.

At least that’s the theory that’s led to the development and recent launch of “digital watermark” systems.

The technology is the brainchild of two companies. The first is Philips Digital Networks, an affiliate of Netherlands-based Royal Philips Electronics that provides digital television systems, including Internet TV and personal video recording solutions.

The other, Herndon, Virginia-based Cinea Inc. provides content protection and watermarking technologies and products to the motion picture and television industries.

Here’s how the technology works: When someone orders content from a cable television company, for instance, a digital watermark identifying the subscriber, is placed on the file before it reaches the recipient.

This digital watermark remains with the content even after multiple copies have been made.

This technology is promising because it meets consumers’ legitimate needs, while addressing the concerns of rights holders, says David Fewer, staff counsel at Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) in Ottawa.

He says this technology is good from a usability perspective. “If you have a home networking system and you want to stream the content upstairs to your bedroom TV, or send it downstairs to your home theatre, you can do that,” says Fewer.

He contrasts it with other digital rights management systems that put limits on entirely appropriate things consumers may want to do in their home. “We don’t think there is any legitimate business need for that kind of interference.”

CIPPIC is part of the University of Ottawa’s faculty of law and deals with policy and law-making processes in the area of new technologies.

Although Fewer believes the idea of digital watermarking is a workable deterrent to illegal copying, he says the technology raises privacy concerns.

In particular, the presence of identifying information in digital watermarks is intrusive from the perspective of consumer protection, says Fewer.

“Our experience is many companies say they use these techniques to prevent piracy or to enforce the terms of the [vendor-consumer] agreement, but the reality is the primary use they find is to monitor consumption by getting marketing data without consumer consent,” he says.

Specifically, privacy issues arise when vendors don’t issue notices to consumers that identifiers are being placed on products and services, says Fewer.

He says Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple Inc. is an example of a company that applies a similar technique to brand every song a consumer downloads from iTunes with an identifier, usually an e-mail address. “Most people would be annoyed by that, or irritated that they weren’t told,” he says.

If there is personal information involved, he adds, vendors should get consumer consent that meets requirements of the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act. It’s not enough to include it in a privacy policy or ‘terms of use’ on the Web site.

One way to uphold privacy while using piracy deterrents (such watermarking technology) is for vendors to use a trusted third-party that will ensure consumer anonymity.

That aside, shortening the delay in getting quality digital content to consumers is another benefit to this technology, he says. “Organizations that want to get their content out there are often slowed down because of concerns about infringement.”

Besides deterring illegal copying of content, digital watermarking will be a useful detection tool, believes Russell McOrmond, policy coordinator at the Canadian Association for Open Source (CLUE).

“It will be easy to write tools, such as Google has done, that wanders the Internet looking for files with these watermarks,” says McOrmond.

Toronto-based CLUE seeks to create a Canadian information technology environment that promotes collaborative innovation as well as open standards and the rights of consumers.

Tracking statistics on content ownership and viewership through digital watermarking is useful given there exists a movement towards compulsory licensing of content in the same way that radio station royalties work, he says.

“If every song that was peer-to-peer shared had watermarks in it, you could easily detect and collect the statistics to figure out where the money for the music should go.”

Like Fewer, McOrmond too, thinks most digital rights management systems are unnecessarily limiting for consumers. “The return on investment for watermarking is considerably higher than any investment in digital rights management.”


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