Safer Digital Information

Protection technology tries to keep up with cross-platform spread

As television content migrates to an increasing number of digital platforms, the need for content protection becomes paramount. The technology used to ensure that copyright holders get fairly compensated for their investment is racing to keep up. It's an issue that will only get more important as high-value content continues to make its way onto the Web.

Two major types of cross-platform content protection technology currently do the work. Conditional access, or scrambling technology, blocks unauthorized viewers from watching premium content. Cable and satellite operators use this as the foundation of their pay-TV businesses.

Separately, copy protection helps prevent piracy by either making it impossible to duplicate a piece of content, or by inserting a watermark or other unique identifier, such as a digital fingerprint, that allows copyright holders to track down pirates. It has long been used in both television broadcasts and home video.

Vendors see two major trends in current protection types: an increasing move to software-based systems; and a desire by customers for multi-platform solutions that can protect content anywhere, whether it is delivered to a TV, PC or mobile handset. Some say increased video on the Web, where users can easily upload and illegally distribute premium content, is changing the nature of their business.

The shift to digital delivery is part of the reason Macrovision, the undisputed leader in analog copy protection, decided to acquire navigation giant Gemstar-TV Guide for $2.8 billion. The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company's technology, which inserts information into the vertical blanking interval (VBI) of an analog TV signal that disrupts the video synch, is ubiquitous among analog TV sets and set-tops.

It is also used to protect the analog outputs of new Internet streaming services from Netflix and CinemaNow. But it isn't included in high-definition TV signals, which rely on a different form of digital protection called HDCP.

“We've been doing copy protection for 25 years, and we've seen a clear shift from physical to digital media,” says Richard Bullwinkle, chief evangelist for Macrovision. “In that shift, we realized the revenue opportunities for the protection of content are not as clear in digital media. People are reluctant to pay for DRM [digital rights management], and there is not a whole lot of money to be paid for protection.”

So now Macrovision is focused more on consumers' “use cases” for consuming content and finding ways to make it easier to legally buy content electronically, which was part of the motivation behind the Gemstar-TV Guide deal. But Macrovision hasn't totally given up on the digital copy protection space. Last fall, it spent $45 million to acquire BD+, a key part of the content security platform for Blu-ray high-definition optical discs, from San Francisco-based R&D firm Cryptography Research.

Digital watermarking, which inserts a unique identifier in a piece of video, is becoming an increasingly important tool as more high-value content makes its way onto the Internet and other digital platforms. Key suppliers include Philips, Thomson, Digimarc and Cinea, which is owned by digital audio giant Dolby.

Richmond, Va.-based Cinea, which originally focused on the professional video market, is now working to bring its watermarking technology into the consumer domain. The company sees a big opportunity in film studios' plans to bring early window hi-def movies to cable's video-on-demand (VOD) platform. It has created a system that would install watermarking technology on VOD servers, and also insert a small piece of software code onto digital set-tops that would be integrated with existing conditional-access systems. That would allow studios to track individual VOD titles delivered to subscribers.

“We can install [our technology] at the headend on the VOD server and mark unique streams as they go out,” says Larry Roth, Cinea VP of marketing.

Cinea has already licensed its watermarking technology to conditional-access supplier NDS and is talking to other vendors. Roth says he has seen strong interest in watermarking from IPTV operators and hotel TV providers, as well as “over-the-top” video concerns that seek to deliver content directly to TVs through the Internet.


Another believer in watermarking is San Diego-based Verimatrix, which supplies VideoMark forensic digital watermarking technology as well as software-based conditional access as part of its Video Content Authority System (VCAS). The system has been adopted by IPTV operators such as TeleSonera in Sweden, Belgacom in Belgium and CenturyTel in the U.S., and over-the-top providers such as IOL Netcom in India.

The company, which currently supplies content protection technology to some 150 operators in 32 countries, has focused on securing content across two-way IP networks. It has developed a security solution called ViewRight PC that is designed for over-the-top providers and emulates the conditional-access functions of a set-top in the PC environment.

“We call it 3D content security,” says Steve Oetegenn, chief sales and marketing officer for Verimatrix. “Any screen, any network, any threat—our solution works across all of those. Whether it's a hybrid IPTV solution or true over-the-top Internet, it's all designed around the two-way capability of those deployments.”

Traditional conditional access suppliers like NDS and Irdeto, which have used smart cards to control cable and satellite subscribers' access to pay-TV programming, are also bringing their technology to new platforms. Irdeto has developed software-only solutions for IPTV and mobile TV, and last year acquired Vienna, Va.-based Cloakware, which makes security that is inseparable from the software it protects, to improve those systems. NDS, which has long provided conditional access to U.S. satellite operator DirecTV, is now securing the on-demand programming that DirecTV is delivering over the Internet to its set-top boxes.

NDS is working to bring its encryption technology to new devices, such as USB drives that can plug into a PC or laptop and facilitate the delivery of premium content through the Internet. While growth markets like the Far East and India are still gobbling up traditional smart cards for traditional set-tops, more established TV customers are eyeing new platforms, says Dov Rubin, VP and general manager of NDS Americas.

“Some of our more mature customers are looking at portable media players and cellphones,” Rubin says. “That's where content protection is also headed, and it goes beyond traditional smart cards.”