Beyond DRM: Fighting Content Piracy and Illegal Restreaming – Why DRM is Not Enough (part 1 of 3)

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Steven Hawley
Founder & Managing Director
Piracy Monitor
Diagrams sourced through Friend MTS

Piracy is a huge business. The US Department of Commerce estimated [1] that the US economy suffers at least $29.2 billion in revenue losses each year. By 2023, the revenue to pirates of pay TV and non-pay TV video may exceed $67 billion worldwide, according to a 2020 forecast published by Parks Associates [2].

Video pirates have become the biggest source of competition against pay TV and premium streaming services. Parks estimates that the US pay TV industry would lose about a billion dollars if just 10% of pay TV subscribers quit pay TV in favor of pirate services.

Today’s video pirates have high production values and offer good video quality, sometimes tricking consumers into thinking that they are legitimate. The appeal of a source with hundreds or thousands of video sources for one low price for all of your devices is compelling.

The value of today’s video content

It’s a fact of the video industry that content continues to grow ever more valuable and there are many examples to support that claim. Premium television programming developed for pay TV and streamed direct to consumer via TV Everywhere and OTT service models. Ultra HD programming, for which video providers can charge a premium in some situations. Premium live league sports programming such as the English Premier League and WWE. Early window movies via video-on-demand. Not to mention emerging experiences like multi-angle, immersive, and 360° viewing.

As quality and value continue to increase, it’s more important than ever to protect against theft and infringing use. Once the programming has been lost to piracy, its value is seriously compromised. One famous sports broadcaster has remarked that piracy has made its exclusivity agreements with the sports leagues essentially meaningless [3].

Traditional countermeasures are effective, but only to a point

Digital rights management (DRM) has long been a basic component of audio and video service delivery via the open Internet, to secure it against infringing use; by Internet service providers, content providers, and with pay TV services. Together, conditional access (CA) and DRM are used to enable pay TV providers to protect the services delivered as MPEG transport streams to conventional set-top boxes, and as IP-streaming services to every other screen, respectively. Broadcasters have also embraced DRM, as they take their own services online.

DRM has its advantages. Unlike CA, which protects services only within the context of a pay TV operator’s managed distribution framework, DRM protects content delivery even when it is made available outside of that delivery network, such as via the open Internet.

But CA and DRM are effective only up to the point of consumption.

What happens when the content ‘escapes’?

When the consumer requests a streaming session, the user is authenticated, and a license is issued by the DRM system to enable the content to be viewed on the consumer’s device.

Once the DRM protection is lifted and content is in the clear, there’s a risk that recipients may capture it and profit by re-distributing it outside of its legitimate intent, beyond the outermost point of legitimate consumption. This is the post-consumer world for the content.

Pirates obtain content through HDMI-ripping, video capture from a player or screen-scraping session, by linking to video streams or downloads that are hosted by other pirates, or from legitimate streams that were inadequately secured in the first place.

What happens to stolen content?

Pirates use a variety of illegal distribution models. One of them is hosted wholesale distribution, which caters to streaming sites that act as resellers by linking between the hosted content and consumer-facing websites. Another is hosting of content in online cyberlockers.

Pirates also commission illicit streaming devices (ISDs), sold online and in physical retail outlets, that are pre-programmed to access pirate app stores and stolen content.

The distribution itself is via streaming, downloads, torrents, and P2P streaming, to destinations that include web browsers and apps running on legitimate personal computers, mobile devices, streaming video, and hybrid-IP set-top boxes. Pirated offerings are promoted through social media, advertising and by word of mouth.

Figure 1: How DRM protects only the legitimate service domain

Source: Friend MTS

How can piracy be stopped?

It’s easy to see how valuable video content can be stolen and redistributed in a variety of ways even with CA/DRM present in the delivery chain. Now, how do we stop it? Before an instance of piracy can be stopped, the stolen content has to be identified as having been stolen, and the theft needs to be verified back to its outermost / last legitimate source.

We’ll talk about this next time.

Check out the other articles in our series:

Download the full series as a PDF


  1. David Blackburn, PhD., Jeffrey A. Eisenach, PhD., David Harrison Jr., PhD. Impacts of Digital Video Piracy on the U.S. Economy. June, 2019. Research report. NERA Economic Consulting for Global Innovation Policy Center, United States Department of Commerce. See:
  2. Steven Hawley. Video Piracy: Ecosystem, Risks and Impact. January, 2020. Research report. Parks Associates. See:
  3. This is reference to a comment made by beIN Media CEO Yousef al-Baidly at an October 2019 event in London. See:

There has been much discussion about the effect of ‘Kodi Streams’ on the piracy landscape in the last 12 to 18 [...]

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