Using Dynamic Watermarks to Prevent Plagiarism & Piracy

Staying safe in the video stream...

SafeStream LogoWatermarks have long been one of the most powerful tools for visual artists to protect their work online. They’re heavily used by stock image companies, including Getty Images, to prevent others from using photos without a license, TV networks routinely add watermarks to their video to alert others where the program came from and the list goes on.

But watermarks, whether visible or invisible, tend to be static. Every copy of a work that’s distributed carries the same watermark, making them both easier to remove and of limited value when trying to determine where a copy came from.

One company, however, wants to change that.

SafeStream is hoping to make a business out of providing dynamic, on-demand watermarks that are unique to every viewer of a video.

While the idea is fairly straightforward, and is not entirely unique to SafeStream, they are making it available to a much larger number of content creators. This may include many smaller content creators, such as those who produce education content for sites like Udemy and Pluralsight, that have been the victim of plagiarism and copyright infringement in recent years.

Dynamic Watermarks: A Brief Primer

Revenant Poster ImageMost watermarks placed on visual content are static. That means the watermark doesn’t change based upon who views it. For example, while Getty Images includes a different watermark for each image, it doesn’t change each time its viewed.

Dynamic watermarks, in this context, are custom to each viewer. They usually incorporate some information about the viewer into it, including their name, the date the work is being viewed and, in some cases, their IP address or other information about their system.

The idea is fairly simple:

  1. If the content is reuploaded with the watermark intact, it’s trivial to determine where the content came from and how it was leaked to the broader web.
  2. Removing the watermark becomes much more important and much more critical. Since removing watermarks in video is more difficult and time consuming, it discourages unlawful sharing in the first place.

Dynamic watermarks are already widely used in other types of media. For example, Adobe offers the ability to insert such watermarks into PDFs to discourage unwanted distribution in corporate environments.

The idea has even been used in video before. For a very long time, screener copies sent to reviewers in advance of movie releases have contained a combination of visible and invisible dynamic watermarks that let people see where a leaked copy of a film has come from.

However, even that approach has somewhat broken down. Last season, several episodes of the upcoming series Game of Thrones were leaked online. As was pointed out then, the watermarks did not necessarily prove who posted the video online because the screener likely passed through many hands and there wasn’t information about who viewed or distributed it.

The problem was serious enough that HBO has avoided sending screeners of its current season of Game of Thrones, which, to date, has avoided pre-release piracy (other than spoilers).

Still, with the issue of physical security making it difficult, even with watermarking, to trace back the source of leaks, there has been a push to switch to digital screeners. This has been especially strong in the wake of screener leaks for films such as Revenant and The Hateful Eight.

One company, Prime Focus Technologies, already provides that service to studios. Not only does it provide strong certification of who is accessing the video, ensuring the work is only being viewed by the intended reviewer, but also providing visible and/or invisible watermarks that can track a film if it is leaked.

But what if a creator other than a major Hollywood studio wants to experiment with dynamic watermarks? That’s where SafeStream steps in.

When and Why Dynamic Watermarks Work

Safestream ImageDynamic watermarks, to be clear, are not designed for situations where a work is released to the public. For example, it works best with screener copies, of which there are a limited number, rather than the full release.

While some films are watermarked so that filmmakers can learn from what theater a movie leaked, they aren’t watermarked for the individual patron, which would be impossible in a movie theater anyway.

But what if you’re a filmmaker who releases to a smaller audience but doesn’t have the resources (or the needs) or a major studio? Whether you provide educational videos, videos for viewing with a company or just releasing screeners to an independent film, this is where Safe Stream can help.

Rather than distributing the video yourself, you provide the video to them and connect their service with your site (a process they are simplifying) so that those who purchase your video stream it from them. They will then put it inside a secure player that helps protect the content from being downloaded and overlay a dynamic watermark on the video, one that survives even if it is downloaded or screen captured.

The cost varies but it can be as low as $0.10 per minute of watermarking time or $0.10 per clip depending on your approach. According to Safe Stream’s site, the average clip sees between 9 and 25 seconds of watermarking time.

Since users only pay for what they use, the only time fees are accrued is when content is viewed. Furthermore, the watermark can be customized in terms of what it shows and where on the screen. This includes images, moving watermarks and the various dynamic element.

But while the pricing is certainly reasonable, it clearly favors those who are selling limited access to a work. For example, a screener or a video rental makes a great deal of sense, but a video that’s being made accessible to repeat viewings could rack up additional costs. Depending on the price of the film, it could be burdensome.

The other issue is that the process for setting up SafeStream, at this time, is not very simple. There are no WordPress or other plugins to help someone get going. Instead, you have to use SafeStream’s software development kits to add it to your site, including ingesting your videos and allowing access to your now-watermarked content.

In short, don’t attempt this process unless you are fairly experienced or can have someone help you.

Still, for creators wanting to protect their work with dynamic watermarks, SafeStream currently provides the easiest point of access and, according to them, it’s only going to get easier as they work on plugins and easier implementations.

Even if it’s not right for you today, it’s likely worth keeping an eye on.

Reminder: Dynamic Watermarks Are Not Perfect

It’s important to note in all of this that dynamic watermarks, like all forms of digital rights management (DRM) are not perfect. They can be defeated with enough time and attention.

For example, in January of 2015 DVD screener copies of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies made it onto BitTorrent sites sans watermarks. However, by that point the film had been out in theaters for about a month and the pirate group that did said, “It was hours of work…”

But while the time and expertise might be worthwhile for some when pirating a major blockbuster, it probably isn’t the case for a smaller video. However, even in the case of blockbusters, the protection slowed down the release process enough so that the film had four weeks without a cleaned pirated edition rather than competing with pre-release piracy as other films did.

Still, it’s important to remember that no protection is perfect and there is no silver bullet to piracy. That being said, for many creators, a system like SafeStream could prove a powerful deterrent to both piracy and plagiarism.

Bottom Line

Though SafeStream has worked with large industry players such as Hulu and BBC, it’s approach to dynamic watermarks makes it accessible to much smaller creators. Once the technical hurdles are lifted, it’s likely we’re going to see a lot more videos watermarked this way.

While no system is perfect at preventing piracy, when a protection scheme drastically increases the amount of time and energy it takes to safely copy/share something, the less likely someone is to do it. In the end, this is an approach that’s about deterrence, not prevention.

Still, it will be interesting to see if this is a true game changer or another round of cat and mouse. So far, these watermarks have proved strong enough to have a serious impact but they are just now entering the mainstream, due largely to Hollywood’s reluctance to move away from physical screeners.

However, with recent leaks, change is in the air and, even if it’s not quick, there’s definite momentum.

In the meantime, SafeStream provides video producers a way to deter both piracy and plagiarism at a price and business model more creators can access. That could, in the long run, lead to a democratization of content protection, something videographers have been in desperate need of.

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