Media piracy has long been a tremendous drag on the profits of broadcasting and streaming service companies. In 2019, the US Chamber of Commerce reported that TV and film piracy cost the industry between $29 billion and $71 billion each year. When illegal sports live streaming is added to the mix, the total revenue lost to piracy leaps to $229 billion.

Now, during the pandemic, with more people staying home and spending more time watching digital content, consumers are looking to cut costs – and the issue has only gotten worse. The piracy-tracking firm Museo found that online movie piracy increased 41 percent in the United States at the start of the pandemic.  Google searches for the popular video piracy site Soap2day were 100 times higher in mid-April of 2020 than during the prior year. Such sites allow people to stream TV shows and movies for free and often look so authentic that customers may not even realize they’re viewing stolen content streams.

Clearly, content distributors who wish to maintain their profitability need to improve their content security. But any content security approach is only as good as its weakest link. While many content producers use digital rights management (DRM) to protect their content workflow from filming to delivery to the users’ devices, content can still be pirated at the point of delivery, putting your entire business model at risk. The solution is to install a well-rounded, end-to-end approach to premium content security that takes advantage of both Digital Rights Management and Watermarking technologies.

Digital Rights Management (DRM)

Digital rights management (DRM) refers to the tools, standards, and systems used to protect intellectual property and copyrighted materials from misuse or theft. DRM performs two logical functions: encryption and governance. Encryption protects streaming or video-on-demand content by using a secret key to encrypt the content and make it unwatchable to unauthorized viewers. Only someone who has the key can decrypt and watch the content. Policies govern how content can be used to ensure that users have only the level of access and entitlements that they’ve paid for. For example, DRM policies can be used to:

  • Set an expiration date on assets after which users can no longer access it
  • Limit the number of times content can be accessed
  • Restrict users from editing or saving content
  • Prevent users from taking screenshots of content
  • Restrict users from sharing or forwarding digital products or content
  • Restrict users from printing content
  • Lock access only to specific IP address, locations, or devices

By policing access to paid content, DRM enables content providers to ensure that everyone who puts the time and effort into creating content is compensated and thereby increases the level of trust between content providers and subscribers on the internet.

There are many DRM suppliers on the market. Key DRM capabilities to look for include the following: 

  • Rapid implementation—A cloud-based, multi-tenant DRM solution will speed implementation and integration with your service.
  • Seamless for consumers—the solution should let consumers access their content quickly and without impacting the playback experience.
  • Multi-DRM support—the solution should be compatible with all device types and platforms.
  • Support for a variety of content standards—the solution should give you the technical capabilities to respect the security standards that content creators want distributors to adhere to. It should honor as much of the functionality that exists within the DRM specifications from Microsoft, Google, Apple, and MovieLabs. For example, be sure that it won’t allow users to playback 4K Ultra HD over HTMI 2.0 (high-definition multimedia interface)connections because that makes it easy to insert a device into the chain that could grab the content and redistribute it.
  • Support for privacy standards—If you distribute content to customers in regions governed by privacy regulations, such as GDPR or CCPA, the DRM must support appropriate privacy requirements. For example, the solution should be able to hide/obfuscate IP or Mac addresses or support the right to be forgotten if the customer cancels their contract.
  • Up to date—The longer a DRM is on the market, the more opportunity there is for hackers or pirates to find ways to circumvent the DRM. The DRM should be continually updated to maintain the highest level of security as possible.
  • White glove support—the DRM solution should provide a breadth of expertise and excellent technical support to help customers as they implement the solution.


DRM protects content as it flows from the source to the target customer. But once the content reaches the customer and is being played on their TV or device, pirates can potentially record the content and redistribute it. Watermarking is a process that embeds a unique mark that identifies the individual customer into the content stream. If the broadcaster finds a site that is restreaming pirated content, they can extract the mark to identify where the content was restreamed from.

If someone pirates content, the watermark gives the legitimate content distributor the incontrovertible proof they need to take legal action.  Because modern watermark solutions offer extraction services that can identify watermarks within a matter of minutes, distributors can demand that the pirate take down a site streaming a live sports event immediately or face legal action.  

Content distributers make large investments to acquires licenses from content owners. Indeed, licenses are their greatest operational expense. If customers access content that has been pirated instead of purchasing it legitimately, content distributors miss out on the revenue they would have otherwise received from these customers.  By integrating a watermark in an easy-to-perform process, content distributors can ensure that they receive the full benefits from their investment in content.

Modern watermarking solutions offer a wide range of capabilities:

  • DRM agnostic—modern watermarking solutions can be applied to any DRM system, not just one that comes from the same vendor.
  • Distribution-side watermarking—Studios provide content or premium content to different broadcasters or streaming services to distribute on their channel. Distribution-side watermarking capabilities allow studios to track the distributor of that content. This type of watermarking works side-by-side with digital rights management
  • Client-side watermarking—distributors have the option to insert a watermark into the content at the target device or media player. This type of watermark is applied when the content is decrypted and played on the target device, such as the customers’ TV or mobile phone and is able to track the content at the device level.
  • Visible watermarking—some watermarks are visible to the consumer when the content is displayed. While such watermarks make it faster for the operator to identify the source of the content, they have the potential to detract from the customer experience. They also make it easy for pirates to see the mark and remove it.
  • Forensic watermarking—this type of watermarking embeds the identifying code into the stream in a manner that is invisible to end users, which improves the customer experience and makes it difficult for pirates to remove the watermark.
  • Support for different encoders—The watermarking platform should enable the watermark to work with all the streaming formats customers require.
  • Support for live or VOD—it should be compatible with the broadcast of live events or video on demand.
  • Support for different video qualities and resolution standards—it should support standards such as Ultra-D, 4K UHD, 8K UHD, as well as different screen sizes while remaining transparent to the users.

How DRM and Watermarking Work Together

DRM ensures that honest customers receive content with the rights and permissions that they paid for. But to find the dishonest people who are pirating and redistributing content—skimming off profits that would otherwise go to the bottom lines of the content distributors and creators—you need watermarking. When criminals pirate content, watermarking allows the studio or content distributor to identify the culprit and provide the proof necessary to bring a lawsuit that forces them to stop.

In the past, content distributors had to use four to five different technologies to cobble together a solution that delivered both DRM and watermarking. Technology is now available that delivers an end-to-end solution that manages digital rights, is compatible with all the different devices your customers use to play content, provides watermarking at both the distribution and customer layers, and delivers extraction and take-down services.

Want to learn more about how to develop a comprehensive content security approach and launch a successful TV service? Tune into our webinar, “5 Do’s and Don’ts of the Most Successful TV Operators” to learn leaders as they share their secrets to help you avoid pitfalls and come out on top.