Content Security 101

Content creators, rights holders, broadcasters, distribution platforms, and enterprise organisations suffer from the theft and illegal distribution of their video content every day. Whether movies, live sports, scripted on-demand content, or proprietary corporate information, content piracy, re-distribution, and corporate espionage can have a detrimental impact on revenue, rights acquisition, customer loyalty, and brand image without protection.

Pirates use a wide range of techniques and technology to access, illegally share or redistribute content, attacking any weak points in the distribution chain and generating massive revenues from redistributing or otherwise sharing stolen content. Detecting, deterring, and disabling content piracy requires a multi-pronged approach with a comprehensive, end-to-end content protection strategy and platform.

Understanding content piracy

alt=""Theft and reproduction of other people’s work has been a problem for centuries, but in the digital age, it has become even more prevalent. With the click of a mouse, anyone can illegally download music, movies, software and more, but, however easy it may be, the distribution of content for which you haven’t paid or which you didn’t create yourself is a crime. While ignorance is no defence, it can be a complicated landscape, and piracy, its causes, and its effects are all things that need to be understood and combated on many fronts.

Education is key, as is working with legitimate sources to make sure that people have access to the content they want, in a legal way. Websites such as JustWatch and Get it Right From a Genuine Site collect legitimate sources of different types of content, from movies and music to live sports and events, allowing people to find legal ways to watch the content they are looking for.

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However, despite the work of these organisations, piracy will always be a problem in the digital era, and organisations that spend huge amounts of money on creating and licensing premium content have to protect their investment. Regardless of claims that those illegally distributing content may make, piracy is far from a victimless crime, with impacts ranging from the obvious, such as loss of revenue, to the more unappreciated yet equally damaging, including job losses and impacts on wider economies.

Where there is loss there is always gain; more often than not, pirate services are presented at a cost, and professionally presented services can make huge sums of money by offering content for which they have incurred no costs to create or licence. Broadcasters and content creators take their responsibility to their customers very seriously, and almost all have policies, procedures, and tools in place that are designed to protect themselves, and those whose material they licence, from copyright infringement and theft.

How do pirates steal content?

The process of getting content from its origin to its destination – e.g. transmitting a movie, TV series or a football game from the source to the TV, laptop, or mobile device – involves a chain of processes and equipment that can be quite complex. Every part of this chain is potentially a link that can be exploited by pirates to intercept and redirect the content. In this respect, there isn’t a single answer to the question “How does a pirate steal content?” The closest might be “In the simplest way possible”, and it is absolutely the case that the weakest and most exploitable part of the distribution chain will always be the one that is most widely targeted. However, there are many other factors that define which mechanisms and tools a pirate will use, including the type of content being stolen, the distribution model (e.g. via set-top box, OTT stream), the quality of material that the pirate wishes to distribute, and of course how robust the original distribution chain is. Only the most dedicated (and expensive) pirated services tend to attack platforms that are well protected by content security solutions; not only are these more difficult to evade, but often they are those that broadcast content that is more robustly protected in the legal arena, where infringement carries heavier penalties.

Pirate hiding behind a wall of data without security protectionAt its simplest, piracy can take the form of someone simply pointing a video camera at a screen and recording the content that it is playing; this is a low-quality capture, but may be sufficient for some uses. More sophisticated services strip the content from some earlier part of the distribution chain – perhaps by stripping the HDCP protection built into HDMI between a set-top box and screen, or by hijacking a subscriber’s stream.

As Peter Scott of Warner Media explains in this panel discussion, pirates can even be sufficiently technically sophisticated to hack software Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to steal content directly from the Content Delivery Network (CDN) – for which the organisations from whom they are stealing are paying, effectively funding the content delivery costs for the infringers. Pirates can mirror legitimate websites, steal content from downloads, hack CDNs, re-share via screen capture software, and steal subscriber IDs – there are multiple ways to gain access to premium content for which others are paying. To reiterate, however, they will always favour poorly-protected distribution chains over those that have content security in place.

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Pirate accessing content without security on a laptop

Why are content security solutions important to your brand?

By taking steps to protect your brand from online piracy, you can help to ensure that your content remains safe and secure. Content security and anti-piracy solutions can help to deter pirates from stealing your content; they can aid in the tracking down and prosecution of those who do steal it; and they can prevent your content from being distributed on illicit websites and file-sharing networks.

Content security is important for the simple reason that piracy has a genuinely damaging impact on businesses, economies, and people. At Friend MTS we’re always cautious about quoting statistics, as extrapolations of uncertain source material can lead to some relatively drastic estimates, but it’s a fact that piracy has a substantially negative impact on revenue, subscriber churn, and brand value, and further impacts issues such as ongoing rights values, job markets, and adjacent economies.

Content security solutions can’t entirely prevent all of the above, but a strategic, connected content security platform that protects your distribution chain not only acts as a deterrent but, should pirates attack, it enables swift detection and disablement through a variety of enforcement options.

Piracy has been detected – What happens next?

alt=""There are a number of options open to those organisations who have engaged monitoring services for pirated content.

Ultimately the content owner decides which actions they wish to take against those found to be infringing, but measures range from automated takedown notices via email, to notifications for social platform enforcement services and beyond.

Broadcasters, rights holders and service providers often work with law enforcement to help track down and prosecute those responsible for piracy. In 2017, the first real-time dynamic delivery server legislation was introduced in the UK, for the Premier League, and similar orders have subsequently been successfully implemented in territories around the world for various sports rights holders and broadcasters. These orders enable studios, sports leagues, and other content owners to secure their live and video-on-demand content against illegal retransmission and generate revenue from these broadcasts.

What would a security audit reveal about your operations?

A security audit can be a good first step in creating an effective content protection platform. These are conducted by specialist organisations, who examine various components and aspects of a client’s distribution chain and platforms, to establish whether any part of the chain is poorly protected, and therefore represents an easy point of access to content for pirates. By identifying these potential vulnerabilities – such as a lack of implementation of protective technologies like watermarking, Digital Rights Management (DRM), app hardening or code obfuscation – and suggesting steps to mitigate them, a security audit can really help an organisation understand how its network appears to those seeking to exploit it, and how this can be prevented. 

Let’s talk about how a security audit can help your organisation

A world of content protection

In an age where online security is more important than ever, it’s crucial to ensure your content is protected from end-to-end – i.e. through all stages of its production and distribution. By implementing a comprehensive content protection strategy, you can ensure that your videos, articles, and other online content are safe from unauthorised access, manipulation, and redistribution. In this section, we’ll take a look at what an end-to-end content protection solution encompasses, and how the different components work together to form a secure environment. We’ll also explore the benefits to a business or organisation that implements an end-to-end solution that goes from ‘glass to glass’ – and beyond.


Glass-to-glass – and beyond

The content protection landscape has changed dramatically in recent years, as the rise of digital streaming services has upended the traditional television ecosystem. To combat a complex web of piracy threats – ranging from illegal downloads to unauthorised streaming – the content protection industry has developed a variety of tools and technologies. These include digital watermarking, fingerprinting, and Digital Rights Management (DRM), VPN detection, geo-locking, code obfuscation and app hardening. 

These solutions enable full protection of the entire creation and distribution chain, from the point of capture or creation to the point of distribution (glass-to-glass), and beyond, i.e. during delivery or even after content has been delivered to the user’s device. This helps to ensure that only authorised users can access copyrighted material, protecting the rights of content owners and distributors while also providing a better experience for legitimate consumers. As the digital and TV industries continue to evolve, content security remains an essential part of ensuring a thriving ecosystem for all stakeholders.

When implementing a content security strategy, it is essential that all elements of the distribution chain are addressed. Pirates will always attack the weakest part in any chain, as this is easiest and involves the least effort and resources, and if not all ‘links’ in the chain are protected, then the rest of the protection effectively becomes ineffective at best – and pointless at worst. As an example, protecting content in flight via conditional access or DRM is only effective at halting fraud if the content cannot subsequently be shared at the point it is delivered to the destination (by forensic watermarking).

Digital rights management – a basic overview

Digital rights management (DRM) is a set of access control technologies for controlling the distribution of digital content to end-user devices. DRM technologies inhibit illegal copying, modification and distribution of the material under their protection. DRM systems are used by a variety of content providers, including movie studios, television networks, creative agencies, and video game companies. The DRM technologies used by these businesses vary depending on the type of content being protected and the business objectives of the content provider. 

A diagram displaying DRM protection in content security from pre-distribution, to display's glass, to post-consumer

DRM is a foundational digital asset and stream protection technology that is often compared to a door lock. In summary, DRM technology generates a content key, encrypts the video, and then provides the key to authorised devices so that they can unlock the content. The most widely used DRM technologies include Apple Fairplay Streaming, Microsoft’s PlayReady, and Google’s Widevine. Each of these technologies has been developed to protect specific content formats across different delivery systems. Platforms that wish to deliver DRM-protected content across as many device types as possible often use a multi-DRM management system, to ensure that content of all types can be viewed on different devices, apps and browsers. 

What is content monitoring?

Content monitoring is the process of searching and locating content that may be infringing someone’s content licence or copyright. Some broadcasters and service providers have their own monitoring teams, but monitoring is also often provided as a service by security organisations such as Friend MTS, often in conjunction with enforcement activities that are enacted when infringing content is identified.

Monitoring platforms use various technologies and processes to track and locate digital content across the internet, and can even be used to locate content on illegal IPTV services that sit behind paywalls. The level of service provided varies from provider to provider, dependent on the level of automated and manual systems that they employ and the amount of analysis and reporting that is provided.

The first step in an automated monitoring process is digital fingerprinting.

Digital fingerprinting

A digital fingerprint for securityMuch like the physical process from which its name derives, digital fingerprinting involves matching a source file to a target to confirm that they are the same. 

A client who has requested a monitoring service for a given piece of content (a movie or live event, for example) provides a legitimate stream of that content, which is analysed every half second or so and from which a fingerprint is created. When a monitoring service discovers what may be an illegal redistribution of the same content, this is also fingerprinted; if the fingerprints match, then it’s confirmed that the located content is the same as the source content. If the discovered content is being distributed by a source that is not licensed to do so, the monitoring service flags this as infringing content, and follow-up measures are enacted.


One way that broadcasters and streaming services can combat piracy is by watermarking their content. Watermarking technologies – which come in a variety of deployment models to suit content type and distribution model – identify the source of content that is illegally being redistributed. A watermark is a digital identifier that is overlaid onto the content itself, though in most cases it does not affect video quality. Watermarks can be applied at subscriber or distribution layers, allowing organisations to identify the source of purloined content. Watermarks are becoming an increasingly effective tool in the fight against piracy, and are already used by many of the world’s leading broadcasters to quickly identify and disable sources of piracy.

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