The Unending Battle to Protect Audio/Video Content in the Entertainment World

It is quite interesting, and even amusing, to see how the battle for content protection in the entertainment world continues even to this day. It was not too long ago that the entertainment industry, including the content providers, the content distributors (cable, satellite, etc..), and the manufacturers of content viewing devices, i.e., TVs, came up with the strategy of making analog video interfaces in the High Definition TV sets obsolete so that high quality video recordings could not be made on devices like VCRs.  Digital interfaces with content protection became the industry standard. The content owners managed to force the issue so that you could not be a player in the business without following particular rules for protecting their content. Content distributors had to toe the line with the content providers to be able to receive content, and the manufacturers of entertainment viewing devices depended in turn on the rules created by the content distributors in order to connect to their networks.

But eliminating analog interfaces in itself does not prevent the ability for the customer to make recordings. The digital format is perfect for recording!  The key difference from the world of the analog video interfaces was that the Industry recognized that this time they were still in a position to create rules for making digital recordings, something that they were not successful in forcing on consumers during the time of the VCRs.  Strategies were being devised to try to limit and eventually try to disallow consumer video recordings via digital interfaces.   The initial strategy taken was to try to manage the process for making digital copies of content in the home, either managing the nature of the copying process allowed, or limiting the number of copies allowed, or disallowing it completely.  This was enabled through rules that a manufacturer would have to agree to to be licensed to receive certain types of content.     It has now gotten to the point where a consumer finds it difficult to even make a decent quality copy of the content for his or her use, or for archiving, when receiving content on a television set.

You would think that the gradual tightening of the screws by the content providers would make piracy more difficult, but the truth is that it is only changing the nature of the process.   While the industry comes up with technical approaches to try to make pirating more difficult, the only way that they can really try to stop the piracy is through non-technical means – by licensing agreements, by monitoring, by regulations, and by legal action.  But can they even keep up with the technology and continue to be successful trying to manage it?

One of the fundamental issues with preventing piracy of audio/video content is due the very nature of the product itself. Video is meant to be viewed on a device and all you have to do is point a recording device at the viewing device, and voila!, you have the ability to record what you are receiving. Once you have this content, the world of the Internet allows you to share this content to others, and applications such as Youtube further enable the process by making this functionality easy to implement. It used to be that the analog copies that were made by pointing a camera at a screen were not very good, but that technology is also improving. Furthermore, the definition of the viewing device is also changing. Entertainment can now be consumed in devices other than TV sets, devices such as PCs, and smartphones, and the quality of the viewing experience on these devices is constantly improving. Since these other devices are primarily meant for non-entertainment purposes, the ability of the entertainment industry to force the issue of implementing content protection measures in these devices becomes more challenging.

I heard recently that there now are some Internet vendors who have implemented applications that are actually enabling the live streaming of video from one consumer location to others. As a practical matter this enables piracy to take place very easily, for example, high value Pay Per View (PPV) content being received by one paying subscriber can be streamed to a bunch of non-paying consumers. This kind of capability parallels what Youtube did for recorded video content. The content providers have a hard time shutting down these types of operations because it could be argued that the primary functionality that these companies are offering is not related to commercial content and piracy. They are primarily enabling sharing of content in general. Shutting this kind of service would be equivalent to creating an industry ban, or regulations, on camcorders on which families make recordings of family events because these devices can also be used for piracy. What the content owners are limited to doing is trying to influence the operations of companies that provide the services in question or the devices used to generate the content. As an example, in the case of Youtube, mechanisms have been instituted to try to identify pirated content within the network itself.   The content owners could even try to force the camcorder or camera manufacturers to include features their products that would automatically prevent recording of protected content. (It is actually technically possible using a technology called watermarking.)

But, it could be argued that all of these efforts are for a losing cause. With the development of cloud technology, including network storage and sharing capability via applications such as Dropbox and Google Drive, content sharing becomes more decentralized and difficult to track.   It is not just Youtube that the content providers need to focus on and deal with. Until network snooping and monitoring protocols are implemented and made legal for commercial purposes, it will become close to impossible to monitor piracy in such a scenario. It can also be an expensive proposition to implement this kind of functionality.  And with an abundance of bandwidth available to for the consumer, and device capabilities improving in the home, such functionality will also become more and more practical to implement.   To the extent that attempts at piracy are achieved through technologies that are becoming more and more common, that are legitimately meant for general purposes other than piracy, the content providers will be at a loss to prevent it from happening from a technical perspective. The only thing they can do is monitor content on the Internet, try to identify sources of pirated content, and shut down each of these sources (or put the fear of God into the common man, like the RIAA tried to do a few years back) by resorting to legal arguments and processes. While it might be technically possible for the content owners to do all of this, the democratization of the piracy capability can make this a very daunting challenge for the industry going forward. At some point they may actually have to depend on the goodwill of the average person, and it will be a fine line for them to walk between offering a product for a cost that the consumer is willing to pay vs. making a “pirate” out of the consumer, and the need to spend tons of money on enforcement. At the end of the day, it is a cost-benefit tradeoff, and analysis is based on the perceived value of the product that the industry is providing to the common man. Hard to imagine all this fuss is over entertainment, something that does not seem essential for our survival.

Published by

K. Joseph

I am an engineer by training. I am trying to explore new horizons after having spent many years in the Industry. My interests are varied and I tend to write about what is on my mind at any particular moment in time.

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