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The Early Release Window Experiment Continues June 29, 2011

Posted by Niels Thorwirth in Video, Watermarking.
10 comments

The early release window, which offers Hollywood content for home consumption while it is still showing at theaters, has been debated for many years – in fact, I wrote about an enabling FCC ruling about a year ago. But now the debate about its success is raging more than ever.

Adding fuel to the fire is a current price tag of US $30. At this price point, the discussions revolve around the comparison of an expensive VOD movie to movie theater tickets that cost, on average, less than $8. Cinema owners and movie directors have voiced their concerns about the shift in content consumption habits.  Though after all, it is impossible to reliably predict consumer interest – otherwise every Hollywood title would be a blockbuster.

I think that it will be an interesting offer for, initially, a small percentage of consumers.  And while the rate of the adoption is questionable, it’s obvious to me that movie theaters won’t disappear any time soon and that electronic distribution will continue to grow.

The participating studios certainly have conducted their own research and it is evident that they have high enough hopes to shake the traditional models and to support this offer.

But I see the most relevant indicator in recent discussions that I had with operators. They are evaluating this opportunity seriously and investing time and resources in the studios’ requirement that early-window content be digitally watermarked as well as encrypted. This may be because even a small uptake by consumers will translate into a relevant chunk of revenue.

One technically interesting point is that operators often prefer server-side integration of watermarking. The tradeoff is whether the integration is done in the client device or in the video server before delivery. While a client-based approach has the advantage of distributed processing without head-end integration, server-side watermarking integration does not require modification to client devices.

The overall application is the same, yet the head-end component requires a very different technology approach. The manipulation of video pixels is too slow when considering the complex coding of compression schemes like H.264. The server-side manipulation has to be applied in the compressed and possibly encrypted domain, and applied while the content is delivered.

Efficiency is key, because the delivery infrastructure is all about delivering the maximum number of parallel streams.  If watermarking introduces overhead to it, it must be small and fast. This is a fundamental difference from previous watermarking schemes that only focused on survivability (robustness).  At the same time, with an expected broad deployment across multiple head end infrastructures, ease of integration is crucial to the adoption of digital watermarking.

This development will remain interesting because it’s an experiment on the technical front as well in business models, and I am sure there will be more progress to report in the future.

Selectable Output Control: What’s the Big Deal? June 27, 2010

Posted by Niels Thorwirth in Standards, Technologies, Video.
8 comments

[Editor's note: I had been intending to write a piece on Selectable Output Control for some time, but I just haven't had the time to do the proper research.  Niels Thorwirth of Verimatrix wrote this very informative piece about SOC for Verimatrix's corporate blog, which is reproduced here minus the Verimatrix commercial part.]

The FCC has recently granted a waiver filed by the MPAA to allow selectable output control for set-top box (STB) devices in the USA. The requirements for selectable output control are for a limited time and under certain conditions, but still a significant development in the evolving world of movie distribution windows.

It means that cable, satellite and IPTV operators are allowed to offer content that can only be displayed on screens with HDMI connections protected via high-bandwidth digital content protection (HDCP). Any analog or unprotected outputs from the STB device would be disabled during the viewing of that content.

The contention is that, by eliminating the “easy” piracy option of recording the signal from analog outputs of the STB, studios can now consider a new release window for their movie assets. As proposed by Time Warner Cable, it’s called “home theater on demand,” and enables operators to offer a movie for domestic consumption just 30 days after its theatrical release.

While most articles deal with the business dynamics of selling video-on-demand (VOD) movies closer to the theaters and before DVD or BluRay, let’s take a look at the security implications.

The mandatory digital watermark for digital cinema provides some forensic traceability of illegitimate recordings by identifying the theater location and screening time. This helps deter repeat offenders and inside jobs. Nonetheless, some movies are still pirated with a camcorder in cinemas. Apparently, the commercial benefits of selling that movie on illegal DVDs still outweigh the risks for professional pirates. The quality of these recordings is poor and the financial loss to studios is arguably limited in that many who accept that quality would not otherwise buy theater tickets.

It’s also unfortunate that, right after the release of any noteworthy movie on DVD or BluRay, high-quality digital movies can typically be downloaded from Internet file sharing sites in several versions and sizes. The source is of course untraceable in this situation.

This new concept of a home theater on demand window enables the delivery of movies to end user devices. Despite the restriction to HDCP protected outputs, there is no doubt that content released in this high value period will be subject to piracy of commercial and non-commercial flavor. While HDCP provides much better security then that unprotected analog output, it has vulnerabilities.

If these vulnerabilities are too difficult to exploit, pirates will be able to resort to copying content from their HD TV with an HD camcorder in the comfort of their own home – the quality of readily available equipment makes this a relatively easy option. This is where digital watermarking can be used to trace and identify piracy of either approach.

This new home theater on demand requirement takes watermarking into additional networks with specific infrastructure and legacy architecture, with new and interesting integration tasks. It also adds possibilities to make watermarking a standard solution to secure content revenues on this distribution channel.

The recent discussions we’ve had with content owners and distributors certainly indicate that the studios understand the potential of digital watermarking to plug the crucial security vulnerability that is opened by home theater on demand and is only closed in part by selectable output control.

The home theater on demand release window, after all, adds a consumer option, and I believe that the combination of selectable output control and traceability is a sufficient deterrent against piracy to keep this option valid and profitable for content owners.

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