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Tackling Video Piracy Head-On

We are clearly in a "new" golden age of TV. Audiences around the world have never had so many viewing options available. This has led to a creative surge in new groundbreaking storytelling and entertainment as both broadcasters and digital giants try to maintain the loyalty of their viewers. This is a double-edged sword however, because as the production of great content increases, so do the opportunities for video pirates. Akamai has, perhaps unsurprisingly, identified a dramatic rise in illegal pirate services that offer access to TV and movies and a corresponding rise in viewers who watch their content. While piracy has been prevalent for many years, improvements in digital technology and the lack of adequate global rights protection mean piracy is now a scaled and often lucrative business. Any industry would struggle to survive with "product shrinkage" caused by video pirates, which accordingly has the potential to impact the long-term viability of many businesses in the media value chain.

In-depth analysis through the "Inside the World of Video Pirates" white paper reveals that those exploiting the industry generate more than €941.7 million per annum in the European Union alone across 14 million households, as cited by the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO). Although revenue losses often catch the headlines, the TV and film industries also support millions of jobs, from set designers and musicians through to carpenters and technicians -- and piracy is putting these at risk. A report on the impact of digital piracy estimated that in 2019 between 230,000 and 560,000 jobs were lost in the United States alone as a direct result of pirating activity.

Moreover, we are beginning to see signs that piracy is impacting licensing -- the lifeblood of
the creative industry, and arguably a more damaging strategic issue. Put simply, why would potential distributors pay significant sums of money for rights when the same content is readily found for free through pirate sites? Oscar-nominated producer Jason Blum described how piracy is having a direct impact on funds being made available for innovative, risky TV and film. He argues that the numbers are just becoming too unsustainable, and companies will eventually need to cut back their risk.  

So we need to ask who is doing this, can we stop them, and how?

The pirate's profile

Whilst real insight is understandably difficult to come by, we do know that there is a complex array of pirate groups and subgroups, each with their own drivers and levels of sophistication. As examples, the release groups see themselves as altruistic revolutionaries. They are technically competent and prize early release assets but are not necessarily motivated by financial gain. Site operators certainly make money out of the process and often run highly scaled, very sophisticated businesses. Some site operators have passed themselves off as entrepreneurial chancers, but many have links into organised crime. As a contrast, we also see amateur pirates who are ambivalent to the fact that piracy is illegal and simply stream a live sports match over social media platforms using their phone.

The presence of these different groups makes fighting the problem complex and often frustrating, and the term "whack-a-mole" is often used to describe the approach.

The pirate's methods

As with most forms of cybercrime, if there is a weakness, the pirates will find and exploit it. With so many organisations and individuals involved in the production and delivery workflow, the structure of the industry itself presents a smorgasbord of opportunities for piracy to take place. Documented methods for video pirates include data centre breaches resulting in the theft of video assets, employee ID theft, providing access to video content through various production and edit systems, ripping content from legitimate sources (e.g., iTunes), and the tried and tested cinema filming systems.

One of the fastest-growing forms of piracy is the capture and redistribution of TV channels or live events. Popular methods include intercepting decrypted video using HDCP strippers, using stolen legitimate viewer details, or simply recording screens using a mobile device.

The pirate's kryptonite

With piracy so prevalent, the pertinent question is "can it be stopped?" Unfortunately, the answer is "not entirely." As long as great content is being created, there will always be pirates looking to exploit it. However, steps can be established to mitigate its prevalence and impact. 

We can obviously try to reduce piracy demand by continuing to educate viewers about the impact on livelihoods whilst at the same time improving access to legitimate sources. But in order to make a real impact, we must also interrupt its supply. 

This can only be achieved through improved data and insight, renewed emphasis by regulators and legislators around the world to prosecute pirate gangs, and companies across the value chain reviewing and mitigating any technical vulnerabilities. The era of allowing content to be unprotected is long gone. What that means in practice, however, is taking a strategic review of operations and identifying weak links in the technical value chain from production to distribution, and applying appropriate measures. 

Video piracy is a complex, nuanced subject -- and unless the industry comes together to tackle it head-on, it has the potential to threaten its long-term viability. The good news is that the industry is starting to mobilise. Research into the subject is becoming more considered, tougher legislation is starting to appear, and technology vendors are combining their capabilities to maximise potential. Finally, we are seeing signs that rights owners are insisting on minimum standards of content protection across the technical workflow. Today, these are isolated instances or "suggestions," but moving forward we see these becoming a necessary function of doing business. 

With these initiatives in place, we can minimise the issue so that financial losses are reduced, job opportunities are protected, and licensing can continue to thrive in a global marketplace.