Keeping Online Media Safe

A new method for a burgeoning market in rich-content management

When it comes to offering protection for the rich media content pervasive on the Internet, the industry is at a bellwether moment. All companies are eager for the attention that comes from putting material online; many are wary of losing control of that material to new media upstarts. The right methods for safeguarding content are hardly cut and dried.

Market-research firm eMarketer expects the number of online video viewers who download or stream content at least once a month in the U.S. will total 135.5 million in 2007—up from 114.3 million last year. The firm conservatively estimates that the number will swell to 183 million by 2011—doubling the 2005 total of 90.2 million.

There are two common methods of protecting this valued asset. One is by streaming it, sending audio and video over the Internet from a media server and not saving it to a consumer’s hard drive. The other is by putting digital rights management on it; attaching DRM rules restricts how media files can be played or copied. In addition, some industries—Hollywood, for instance—also use digital copy-protection techniques like watermarking to track their files.

These methods, while successful, are frontloaded. At least one company, content delivery giant Akamai Technologies, believes companies could use more control on the back end.

In November 2006, the Cambridge, Mass.-based Akamai—one of the nation’s largest Internet service providers—purchased Nine Systems, a media-management company that had developed a new protection technology. Akamai tweaked the software, dubbed it Stream OS and signed up clients ranging from Anheuser-Busch to the NHL.

Stream OS simplifies media management by turning the entire process into a series of automated steps: A company uploads its rich media, via FTP, onto a specific folder on an Akamai server. Each folder has a series of rules attached to it that dictates how its contents are distributed over the Internet. Content can be made available, or not, by geography, affiliate site, date/time, authentication, bandwidth usage and other options.

Based on these rules, a company could stream a 700-kilobits-per-second (kbps) video to visitors within a specific Nielsen demographic, while a 200-kbps file is streamed to visitors elsewhere with an advertisement attached.

Akamai has grown since its founding in 1998 into a major Internet service provider for companies looking to consistently and quickly distribute their content online. Close to 20% of all HTTP files delivered daily to U.S. computers travel over the company’s 20,000 worldwide servers. It also offers analytics and acceleration software to customers ranging from all three branches of the U.S. government to seven of the top 10 Fortune 500 companies, and it stores the entirety of Apple’s iTunes library.

The company hopes that the trust it has built with customers will encourage them to try Stream OS. After using Akamai’s analytics tools for three years, the NBA, which uploads and distributes roughly 220 video files a day during the regular season, was one of the first to switch to the new system, which has “given us a way to extend our video outside of the NBA to our fans,” explains NBA Chief Information Officer Michael Gliedman.

Akamai is entering the market of content protection carefully. Its servers are format agnostic: they can stream videos in Apple’s Quicktime, Microsoft’s Windows Media, Adobe’s Flash and RealMedia’s Real formats. Akamai is pointedly not entering businesses like file transcoding, which allow companies with one video feed to transform it into multiple quality levels for different speeds.

Given its already profitable business model through storing and processing data, the company isn’t straying far from its comfort zone, leaving actual rights management issues to security concerns like Widevine, Verimatrix and Audible Magic.

This may be a savvy strategy.

Some companies are more relaxed about protecting material; others are overwrought. On the one hand, British label EMI is releasing its songs and music videos on Apple’s iTunes marketplace without attaching any DRM; on the other, Viacom has launched a billion-dollar suit against Google’s YouTube, with protection rights among the central issues.