Selectable Output Control: What’s the Big Deal?

[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.


  1. It’s just hard to believe the FCC has kept the STB marketplace from allowing content to be “outputted” to HD and other 3rd party devices. This is a function that PlayReady and Windows Media Rights Manager have supported since day one in the PC/Mac world. Thankfully it looks like we are soon going to have parity around the industry which will allow for more new releases to find an outlet on a PC/Mac or STB in a more rapid fashion.

  2. Eric ForReal · ·

    It is amusing that you write in the intro that “The Verimatirx commercial part” has been removed. Indeed, nearly this entire article is a commercial pitch for Verimatrix.

    The home theater in demand has no requirement whatsoever for watermarking, it is unrelated to SOC except in the minds of the Vermiatrix salesmen. They are making the case that Soc, in combination with their watermarking product, makes a good piracy deterrent. Indeed they are basically saying Soc is a weak deterrent, so studios need their product in addition.

    Worse, they make the case that even though the Soc is weak and may not prevent much piracy, there isn’t much downside so what’s the big deal. They are whitewashing the downsides even though they are farily well understood and documented.

    I thought this was a more balanced blog.

  3. It’s odd that Bill chose to re-post Niels’ blog post here for his audience to read and that you would then attack him or Niels for that. Relax. It’s a blog. Bill is just passing on some very relevant information from a trusted source who has years of working with this technology in the media and entertainment space.

    I, for one, enjoyed the read and I think that it was smart of Bill to post up Niel’s blog as I think that it provides very clear insight from the front lines of our industry. The assumption that SOC /HDCP is weak is, IMHO correct and it adds further fuel to the holistic security ecosystem in that all of these technologies, CA, HDCP, SOC, HDCP, Watermarking etc, have to use in conjunction with each other to be effective. Alone, each one of them will fall down at some point.

    Finally, why don’t you sign your posts? It’s hard to take anyone serious who’s using pen names.


    Christopher Levy

  4. Ross Cooper · ·

    Being at the early stages of Forensic watermarking I find this whole discussion silly.

    Windows have collapsed to the point that VOD content is available day and date with DVD. DVDs are now coming out while some titles are still in the theater.

    Also because connected TVs and Blu-ray player now have security and technology that allows for high quality streaming pre-DVD VOD is already happening without watermarking. This has the added benefit of the studio’s delivering direct so they can charge $49.95 for a title. Can you say goodbye hospitality window?

    It is way to easy to defeat forensic watermarking and the only ones that win are the lawyers. Watermarking failed to find a market years ago why would anyone think now is the time?

    – Ross

  5. Silly as it may be, the general consensus within the studios is that watermarking is a vital component to the entire Content Access Protection ecosystem.

    It’s used in previews sent to reviewers, it’s used in comps sent out to voters, it’s used with digital daily screening room platforms and widely used in broadcast and satellite T.V. I know that our larger studio customers use watermarking extensively in their digital offerings.

    This, combined with the fact that a small small fraction of consumers have Blu-Ray players or Internet connected TVs, it becomes understandable why watermarking is in use.

    Do you think studios really want to sell movies direct to consumers via streaming for $49.95? That seems kind of wild.

    Ross aren’t you one of the founders or the founder of Verimatrix?



  6. Ross Cooper · ·

    Yes, you guessed it, I was an early participant in the forensic watermarking market. Got burnt and got out.

    The examples you give are not money makers and are much easier to support because the viewer is one of a finite population.

    B2C applications where Selectable Output Controls would be used are intended for the unknown masses.

    It would be very easy to defeat the watermark by faking identity.

    It would be even easier to prove the chain of trust was unreliable. It is still easy to fake identity in most video distribution schemes. Have you ever used cash or used a prepaid American Express card?

    Most likely the defendant would prevail in trial. The consumer backlash if a studio tried to enforce anything based on watermarking would be huge. What about privacy laws etc.

    So for these reasons this application of watermarking is a non-starter. I am surprised Verimatrix is still trying to peddle this subterfuge.


  7. Verimatrix founder Ross Cooper’s thoughts on watermarking

    Over the last few days it’s come to my attention that someone impersonating Ross Cooper has been posting blog entries with disparaging remarks about watermarking. I read a few of these entries and concluded there was someone out there taking the name Ross Cooper who isn’t quite sold on watermarking. Then I saw the following blog entry:

    Christopher Levy: Ross aren’t you one of the founders or the founder of Verimatrix?
    Ross Cooper: Yes, you guessed it, I was an early participant in the forensic watermarking market. Got burnt and got out.

    Although I’m flattered that someone might find it worth while to masquerade as me I’m totally baffled as to why someone would take the time or effort. I am the original founder of Verimatrix and my experience in the world of watermarking has been one of the most valuable and personally rewarding in my life. In fact, I plan to continue supporting watermarking technologies and efforts moving forward. In case anyone out there is interested in my true thoughts, here they are:

    Watermarks have made a tremendous contribution in the effort to protect Hollywood content in ways that most people don’t realize. For example, screeners for the Academy Awards and Golden Globes are protected using sophisticated watermarking techniques to this very day. By the end of the 2004 Academy Award season, those watermarks were identified by major studios as being the single reason for the tremendous decline in illicit piracy sourced from screener DVDs. In fact, the watermarking of those screeners has been called the most successful anti-piracy campaign originated from Hollywood of all time.

    I think a point the impersonator may be trying to make is that watermarking may have lost a battle within the new world of early release windows and high bit-rate content. This is not true at all. I would counter that the battle has not yet begun. When the new release windows begin to appear with Blu-ray-like bit rates, the studios will take steps not only to protect the content in every way possible but to protect the fiduciary relationships they have with other stakeholders. The success of these new efforts to distribute premium content may be linked to the commitment of the major content owners to use every device available to protect the content and then initiate legal actions when content is compromised by nefarious individuals or groups. Otherwise, the loss of content from those new windows will result in chaos and ultimately, loss of those release windows to consumers.

    In conclusion, I would appreciate it if the person who claims to be Ross Cooper, the Verimatrix founder, would cease from publishing any other comments under my name. If anyone should be truly interest in my thoughts, I’m easy to reach.

    Ross Cooper, the real Verimatrix Founder

  8. Hey Glenn,

    Looks like there’s more activity in this space you declared dead after using a “pen name.”


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