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Rampant Piracy Is the Elephant in the Live-Streaming Room
Tokens? Watermarking? DRM? Content owners try them all, but as of today there's no foolproof solution. Perhaps the way forward isn't with higher walls, but new experiences.

There’s no doubt that live streaming is one of the next frontiers in the online video landscape—right behind artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain. OK, I’m being a little sarcastic, but it’s true that everyone is talking about offering live linear events over the internet. Unfortunately, as of late, the industry discussion of the live-streaming experience has really been about latency and how live-streaming providers can ensure that their online viewers get as close to a traditional broadcast as possible. And while minimizing the “time behind live” (that’s the difference between a live stream and the linear broadcast) is important so that social media users next door don’t spoil the big goal or touchdown, it’s nothing compared the elephant in the room.

That’s right, stream piracy.

In a conversation I had with a North American operator earlier this year, they estimated that between 8 percent and 12 percent of their broadband subscribers were getting their television through illegal means. Do the math. If that operator had 15 million subscribers and 8 percent–12 percent them were opting out of a $75/month TV subscription (in favor of illegal streams), that equates to about a $113 million loss each month. That’s insane. And London-based Digital TV Research predicts that by 2022, the total loss from stream piracy will hit $52 billion. Right now, a broadcaster’s or distributor’s only recourse is to go after the pirate services. Send them cease-and-desist letters. Coordinate with local authorities (which can be very problematic and time-consuming) to shut them down. But when you terminate one, it seems another dozen pop up. One of my colleagues, in testing the piracy waters, purchased a Kodi box from a provider who offered to come to his house and configure it for him. Piracy in live streaming isn’t something to scoff at. It’s a major economic problem that, ultimately, gets passed on to legitimate subscribers in fee and rate hikes.

Part of the problem is the lack of meaningful, real-time security measures that stream providers can take. Yes, you can tokenize the origin URLs. You can employ forensic watermarking. You can DRM the stream. But nothing really prevents a stream pirate from just putting an HD camera in front of a screen and rebroadcasting the transmission. No, the solution isn’t ideal for the viewer, but you’d be surprised—the quality is not terrible. I’ve even heard of some startups (and skunk works in major operators) exploring the application of blockchain and AI technology to verify viewer identity and content rights. That may be the way to go in the future, once the scalability issues of blockchain have been overcome and AI is better, but it’s not a solution now. And, honestly, it doesn’t stop the scenario I outlined above with a camera in front of a screen.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There are lots of smart people who are trying lots of different things—combinations of technologies and approaches (both manually and automated) to thwart illegal re-streaming of their content. Earlier this year, I spoke to someone entrenched in a major sports broadcaster who described its process for preventing stream theft, and it involved manually culling through logs for patterns that might indicate illegal activity. That’s not a tenable, long-term solution as the scale of streaming continues to grow.

The problem with preventing stream theft is just that—it’s a best effort. There’s no configuration setting that makes a stream safe from theft. Stream piracy is going to continue to be a major industry problem for the foreseeable future. Even as distributors layer security technologies on top of one another, ultimately reducing the amount of theft, piracy will continue to grow because there’s a demand for it. Perhaps, though, the solution isn’t trying to prevent the pirates from stealing the content at all. Maybe the answer is for the distributors and content owners to figure out something to offer their viewers, some aspect of the experience that the pirates can’t replicate? Better content discovery? Some sort of reward program? Interactivity? I’m not sure what it is, but the endless whack-a-mole of trying to stop pirates with technology solutions that they ultimately work around isn’t doing the job.

[This article appears in the November/December 2018 issue of Streaming Media Magazine as "The Elephant in the Live-Streaming Room."]

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