[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.