As release windows shrink for theatrical movies and higher value content during their journey to DVDs, VOD, mobile devices and the Internet, the need for new business models and a heightened awareness of just how to protect, and monetize, valuable content assets is intensifying.

And for good reason. The proliferation of content across multiple platforms, coupled with the near-immediate availability of movies and other premium content, is prompting the entire content ecosystem to re-evaluate and re-define how this valuable asset should be protected from piracy, and how to maximize revenue.

Global VOD streams should increase ten-fold by 2013, at a compound growth rate of nearly 45 percent, an ABI Research report predicts, and with impressive growth expected for the mobile delivery of content, protecting this valuable asset during the entire release cycle is now a top-of-mind strategy.

forensic watermark
This image indicates where the forensic watermark is embedded in this particular frame. For trade show demonstrations, Cinea Inc. uses its yellow and magenta boxes to indicate the location of the watermarks, since the watermarks are imperceptible.

“Content protection and earlier release windows go hand-in-hand. There’s a recognition of content as a media asset, and it needs to be monetized through the stage-by-stage release cycle,” said Mark Kirstein, president and co-founder of MultiMedia Intelligence, a research and analyst group. “But it’s less and less controllable because of the Internet, so it must be monetized as quickly as possible. It will be available anywhere, not just in theaters. That’s where the lack of content protection actually drives earlier release windows.”

It’s also driving more interest in technologies such as forensic watermarking and strategies such as digital rights management (DRM) and conditional access (CA), all designed to deter piracy of higher value content.

“Forensic watermarking is a technology everyone is looking at for deterrent, protection and enforcement,” Kirstein says.

He cited Blu-Ray’s watermarking technology embedded directly into theatrical releases as a case in point.

“The theater release has a watermark in it, as does the Blu-Ray system. If it’s not a Blu-Ray player, it won’t work, and DVDs will record via watermarks when they enter the black market. That’s one element of watermarking that can preserve the release of movies,” he explained.

Yet there’s a business side that needs preserving as well. Added Kirstein: “Digital watermarking and fingerprinting technologies are positioned to pass $500 million by 2012 and include transactional watermarking in digital set-top boxes (STBs), including IPTV and cable boxes.”

Watermarking alone isn’t the content protection panacea, experts maintain. It takes a village of technologies and strategies to protect it, especially the higher valued, early release kind.

Steve Christian

“Studios definitely want to protect early release window content, and its revenue opportunities. That’s where we’re looking for integrated, forensic watermarking with traceable capabilities. We’re attacking that market. But you don’t just think of one single protection technology, but a security envelope that surrounds content. Today, the focus is on bigger valued content and business models created by multiple services,” said Steve Christian, vice president of marketing for Verimatrix, experts in the content protection space.

And the business models, he maintains, must include watermarking. “The technology is rolling out of the labs into deployments and being driven by pressure on the delivery platforms, like PCs. We’re rolling out watermarking commercially and pressing the case to standardize it in STBs, cable and IPTV.”

Using watermarking selectively, he noted, is essential. “Each content value point could be protected by different sets of layers, fingerprinting, watermarking and encryption. There’s a role for all layers of protection. It just depends on the release windows.”

For subscription-type networks such as Starz Entertainment, those earlier windows count. Big time. And so will protection.

“They will become more important to us, and higher-value new titles will require more protection. We’re required to place content protection on all we deliver via Motorola’s CA system, and have broadband media protection by Microsoft DRM,” said Ray Milius, senior vice president of programming for Starz.

Ray Milius

Those earlier windows, added Starz Senior Vice President of business development and programming Richard Turner, can make a big difference. “The earlier the better. We can take advantage of the marketing campaigns,” he said.

It can also present some tricky challenges. “Home videos and PPV have existing, entrenched entities, and home video sales like Blockbuster have no interest in letting one window behind them be earlier. And we have a limited amount of time to move it up ahead of the other window. Studios will listen to offers to move up windows, but it’s very expensive and difficult to affect the chain,” Turner said.

And the chain has added a new link, mobile, which is fast-becoming a key element in the content protection ecosystem.

“It’s very much a changing landscape in the content protection world, and many are missing the boat related to the open Internet, over-the-top market with emerging devices like mobile,” said Brian Baker, CEO of Widevine Technologies.

Securing that content is no slam dunk, however, particularly in the wide open Internet environment.

“We’ve built separate technologies to protect content over the Internet, where a client code is embedded with their network equipment. But formats are significantly more complex,” Baker said.

Complex indeed. Delivering titles in the mobile environment, and protecting them with the same vigor, strategies, and technologies used with DVDs and VOD can be tricky.

“It’s a challenge. How do you account for mobile devices when they’re turned off? They’re not listening to refreshes. And bandwidth security for mobile content protection is a real challenge. I think there’s somewhat of a panic by content providers worried about new platforms like IPTV and mobile,” said Christopher Schouten, director of mobile product marketing for Irdeto, a provider of control systems for pay-media content.

Digital watermarking and fingerprinting
Digital watermarking and fingerprinting software and services revenue.

Panic may be a stretch, but to help ease any concerns, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) recently filed a petition with the FCC for a waiver of the ruling restricting selectable output control, which disallows movie studios to make high-value content available in significantly earlier windows for in-home viewing – VOD, for example.

If approved, watermarking could take center stage in the content protection space. “We’re bullish it will be approved, and watermarking, which is being driven by earlier window content, we believe is critical. It can track the original, unique user, so studios are wanting it on a much broader scale,” said Rick Whittemore, director of product marketing for Cinea Inc., a company providing a variety of content protection technologies.

Many studios are taking content protection even more seriously as content value increases and spreads across multiple platforms.

“High-quality content being made available to early windows is very important to protect. We’re using watermarking, DRM and looking at other technologies like anti-camcorder technology and broadcast flags. But there are still lots of points of vulnerability, and the Internet landscape is changing all the time with linking sites and cyber locks. And mobile is a whole new reality,” said John Malcolm, executive vice president and director of worldwide piracy for MPAA.

Another reality, he noted, is the after-market value of content that has been vaulted for years, and the technology to deliver it to multiple platforms. “All of these wonderful technologies have created profitable after-markets, but they can also be used for no good. We have to look at these latest trends and remain flexible.”

For those playing on the STB field, most notably Cisco and Motorola, earlier release windows and the new wave of release platforms are testing their STB-specific mindsets.

“We’re entering an ocean of content, and in places we’ve never seen before. Studios, vendors and cable operators all want to be in new markets and devices. So, we’re working on a DRM system to address that. The harder problem is crossing the markets where there are different systems and operators. We all have to work together. But is the technology up to it? That’s where the dialogue is going on with studios and customers,” said Eric Sprunk, senior director of Motorola’s PKI and security engineering center.

Falling costs for CA protection are also part of the equation, Sprunk says. “An assumption is there’s a benefit to trimming down the protection as the value lessens in the cycle. But this year, the economic forces in CA have driven down the cost of providing security services. The reality is you can provide strong protection if [content is] 20 days or two days old.”

And part of that new reality is watermarking. “It’s not widespread, but we may see it more widely deployed. Source-specific watermarking can trace back to individual customers as more higher-value content is delivered over devices like the Slingbox. In the meantime, we’re going to keep the hardware at the highest level of security,” said Bill Wall, technical director for Cisco’s service provider video technology group.

The revenue level also needs to remain high, and earlier release windows will help, maintains Whit Jackson, vice president of business development and studio relations for SecureMedia inc., a provider of CA and DRM.

“There’s lots of talk about movies on VOD and PPV right after theatrical release, and taking advantage of the marketing. Why not capture that in a 60- to 90-day window? And DVDs are a $26 billion business. There are opportunities for a multi-platform experience that were once only for STBs,” Jackson said.

A software-driven strategy for content protection is what Jackson, and others, are advocating. “When security is breached, a software system can be used to change the encryption keys. Studios are looking for that active response,” he said.

They’re also looking at VOD. “We’re staying close to the studios regarding earlier windows and trying to influence that debate. And the content protection technology due diligence is still there,” said Tony Kelly, senior vice president at SeaChange International.

Just how diligent the movie studios, vendors and others in the content chain are in advancing the technologies and strategies required to protect the sea of content being delivered across multiple platforms will likely be driven by the rising value of content.

One reality is certain, however. Concluded Kirstein: “All of these technologies must recognize that any DRM or CA can be defeated. It’s a cat-and-mouse game. So, better products must be offered than you can get through a pirated version. Now, it’s more of a business model and organizational change issue.”