The Early Release Window Experiment Continues

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.


  1. Server side watermarking (As I take to mean from this, is the act of backing in a visible watermark while streaming a file) in a context that is needed as the answer to the future of streaming digital media is not feasible. Sorry.

    Such technology would simply not scale etc. Nor can it change or turn quickly , that is the environment that is our digital future.

    Interesting idea, but really, you need to do it on the decoding device.

    And, don;t be fooled, this day in date release to premium VOD will kill off a lot of cinemas. Its just math. Take a small percentage of views out of the cinema going business means that business must also shrink. Its a matter of how much it will shrink is the problem, and will it vicious circle into a disaster. Its a serious issue. Scares the S*&% out of the cinema owners I know.

  2. James,
    we are working on the server side watermarking technology and do head end integration with VOD servers. We find that the additions to the server logic can be done while maintaining a reasonable throughput. Important here is that it’s not a visible mark but invisible watermarking. This allows us to apply targeted modifications to the bit stream as it is streamed – to do so a technology is required that is dedicated to work in this environment. I don’t have a bias towards head end marking and also initially expected the decoder side approach to be the logical choice, but I do see that the marked also demands the server side option.
    We hope it is future proof but certainly don’t know for sure.

  3. Niels,
    I didn’t say it was impossible but just not feasible. You are most likely using a custom streaming server that can inspect the, most likely H.264 code stream, adding in some type of message (Slowly effecting it over time) into the luminance of the signal. (There is a bit of real time calculations going on here…) To do this you have to adjust the code stream in real time if you plan to place different info in every stream.
    Firstly, its not hard to get around such embedded watermarks like this. Ie ad a noise component into the same message carrying area of the image on a re-encode. (Trivial in AfterFX for example)
    And mainly, this means that every stream has to come from these proprietary and most likely very secure servers. How can this be scaleable?

    How can it compete with the distributed Torrent systems people use today to get pirated content. Any ISP with any brain are implementing some type of Torrent proxy system.

    I just cannot see it competing. But I can see Hollywood making such restrictions for streaming system. (If it was feasible)

    Note: with some of these new HDMI splitters now available, its next to impossible to stop some one peeling of the uncompressed digital signal into a editing system. Torrent “Screeners(SCR)” are terrible, but you are opening the door for RIPS that are as good as DVDRips, and they will be out days after they hit this premium service.. Days after the Cinema according to where we are going. I imagine this is why this custom water marking system would probably be mandatory for this to go forward.

    Unfortunately I don;t give it much hope of succeeding like they want. Unless you have some black magic up your slaves..


  4. James,
    no black magic but years of research have gone into the solution and it is robust not only to white noise but also geometric distortions, heavy compression and also survives camcording. Security is never perfect but we did consider attacks that are targeted to obfuscate or remove the signal and had 3rd party experts evaluate attacks against the mark.
    A watermark that would modify luminance over time is indeed not feasible in this scenario and that’s why watermarking solutions are applied that analyze the stream in advance and the result is used to apply a mark during streaming. With that, a proprietary system is not needed but the watermark functionality can be integrated in the existing install base of VOD servers and CDN edges that can stream thousands of marked high quality streams in real time.
    I do agree that HDMI is vulnerable and even camcording is easy and can result in fairly high quality. How much this will impact piracy and how much watermarking will be a deterrent is part of the experiment, as I see it.


  5. So Niels, your telling me you have a technology that can use a based encoded files, and stream it to thousands of locations, while at the same time, for every stream, pull it apart in some way, embed the watermark that is complex enough to be as robust as your saying, put it back together.. all while streaming the file. And that this technology is then easily outlayed to third part CDN;s with their proprietory systems etc..

    See. That to me is black magic.

  6. James,
    the files are not taken apart and put back together. Indeed that does not scale. The compressions is applied in the compressed domain. To embed an individual number in the file no decoding/re-encoding is required not even of the entropy coding.


  7. Patrick Gregston · ·

    Sending an unmarked file out to be encoded at the user device is leaving multimillion dollar product out in the open to steal. So that doesn’t ‘scale’ nor is it feasible.
    And if it can be circumvented by ‘noise’ addition, then it doesn’t matter where it happens does it?
    The real problem with watermarks isn’t any of this technical stuff which Niels does a nice job of articulating without giving up too much of how his group is doing it.
    Watermarks aren’t about stopping theft, but enforcement. And we really don’t have a culture of enforcing intellectual property rights, and the industry has done a very poor job of educating the public about what a license is, much less what their legal use of it is.
    In LA, where the industry has a lot of presence and influence, the key police copyright enforcement is part of vice. So which crimes do you think they spend their time on? People attempting to capture the vagabond teenage girls at the bus station to pimp out, or the cart vendors with pirated DVDs? The challenge is much deeper and broader than this, but the budget at any studio to deal with the cultural challenge of enforcement is the same as zero.

  8. Florian · ·

    @James, re: “it’s just math”
    Yes, premium VOD will cut into cinemas’s profits, but it’s not simple math at all, because at the same time the overall market will be enlarged. For some people, it’s not possible to go to a movie theater, although they’d really like to see the latest and greatest. For example: kids, the elderly, or parents with young kids. I have the latter, and paying $30 for watching a premium VOD movie at home is OK, compared to 2x$8 + approx. $30 for a babysitter.


  9. @Florian, your reasoning does not make any sense. You represent a very small minority of potential movie viewer. The potential sacrifice compared to getting you to watch the film sooner rather then later (Which you will, netflix etc) makes no sense. In general it makes no sense.

    The only REAL argument is that due to piracy and the ease of getting free content, Day in Date releases have become very important as for convenience reasons, people go and pay to see it as there is no other way. This is why Hollywood wants to take this Day in Date idea to the full release platform. They want to make sure the first convenient option is to pay for it, not pirate it.
    All the money that goes into promoting content is better utilized. Bad films and the Twitter effect will have less of an impact.
    Will this be better for Hollywood? May be, but it will kill the cinemas. I can see in such an environment a reduction of 50-70% of cinemas closing down. They still have the night out and social aspect to keep it alive, but it will not be what it is today.

    So what option do you want? A or B?

  10. […] you are a digital video watermarking geek, check out the debate on Copyright and Technology […]

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