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Content Licensing Gets Complicated: Who’s Minding the Store?

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As the amount of content multiplies exponentially for viewers, in both what and where they can watch, video services and content distributors have an even more pressing need to manage the evolving global content licensing business.

In a few clicks, viewers have more video choice than ever before, and the precise location of the viewer has serious implications. Where previously geo-gating might have been enough, now customers have many more locations and methods to view content. Buying or renting? Mobile, desktop, or connected TV? Streaming or downloadable? SD or HD? AVOD, TVOD, or SVOD? Are there content blackout rights? Subtitles or dubbed? Was a promotional offer used?

This is a story about how some video retailers and content distributors use automation for license management, as well as many who, as of yet, don’t. Manual license management has been the status quo, and that’s been fine with a lot of video services. What is forcing change is the challenge of tracking too many permutations of content licenses.

Nothing is straightforward or standardized in the world of online video. The matrix of varying delivery requirements is complicated by another business matrix of what legally can be consumed—by territory, device, subscription level, promotional offers, and purchase type. “There are very few standards, and the industry hasn’t adopted a unique identifier yet for content,” says Amos Biegun, managing director (UK), global head of rights and royalties, Vistex. If there’s no standard for something as simple as a title-naming convention, it’s no wonder this is a confusing market.

Personalization and Worldwide Delivery

Providing personalized access to TV and online video has led content owners to want to fully optimize their rights in ways that perhaps no one would have anticipated. “Licensing deals have become more complicated because licensees get niche licenses for different geos or different devices or a variety of permutations of where they can play content,” says Nate Thompson, managing director, Globant.

“We’ve done implementations where we will do an avails call and that will then tell us what can be available in that country. In some cases, there will be an integration into a video CMS [content management system] or an OVP [online video platform].” From there, a lot of content is protected by digital rights management (DRM), depending on the publisher, but this article is really about what happens before DRM is used to enforce business rules.

The advent of new devices and over-the-top (OTT) delivery worldwide has led to a growing challenge around the tracking of the actual content playback rights, with respect to not just geographies but also devices. “If we take iFlix as an example, they are in so many countries now and they address their audience in so many languages, multiple languages per country very often. They have different rights for each country. They may even have different rights for each audio and different rights for subtitling,” says Helge Høibraaten, CEO of OVP Vimond Media Solutions. “Sometimes you don’t have the same rights windows for all the different screens. Maybe mobile rights are different from smart TV rights, for instance.”

Since content licensing rights don’t seem to be getting simpler anytime soon, the solution for the trend of personalization and worldwide distribution rests with automation. “We’ve seen a couple of companies that have developed rights management and avails software that will plug in as part of an overall media workflow. The two we see in the market the most are Mediamorph and Rightsline,” says Thompson.

Content Licensing Management

Content licensing management is based on avails, the content availability metadata that outlines specific license terms about when movies or TV content can be shown. The Entertainment Merchants Association (EMA) has developed recommended digital supply chain standards for this metadata.

“Many of the major digital video storefronts have embraced a nonproprietary TVOD [transactional video on demand] avails solution we developed called EMA Avails and are incorporating that into their workflows. Major studios and service and technology providers who support those content suppliers are adapting their systems to be EMA Avails compliant,” says Sean Bersell, senior vice president of public affairs, EMA.

The lack of standards in metadata is also mirrored in the uniqueness of each media owner or distributor’s architecture. Vistex engineers say their implementations are very customized, and each customer has slightly different needs for their licensing and avails management technology. Even if requirements differ greatly to coordinate different systems, the order request processes are the same.

Buying Content

“When content is negotiated for purchase, the avails are sent out from content distributors. Those agreements are registered in our system and once the retailer has confirmed the licenses they wish to have the rights to sell, that information is sent to an OVP. The OVP then triggers the creation of products,” says Mike Sid, founder and chief strategy officer, Mediamorph. What’s going on now is that a lot of people are still using spreadsheets to enter the avails information that they need to legally distribute content into an OVP, he says. “That probably is really more common than not.

“You can always do it by hand,” says Sid. “When a new service is started, people say ‘Well I have to do the automation on the OVP side to automate that and make that work. There’s other stuff I can get by with typing it in for a while or managing by spreadsheets.’ These back-end systems kind of get neglected,” he says.

While the back-end systems may be neglected now, for companies going direct-to-consumer the value is in the relationship with the customer and the ability to acquire and manage that data. “We are going to see a transition in the media industry to enormous amounts of transactional data that the industry is going to need to deal with,” says Biegun. When people start to stream unlimited subscription services, on multiple devices, it’s crucial to ensure these backend systems can manage all those rights.

Back-end system end users often span different areas of responsibility in an organization. “The people who are in charge of the media management are not the same as the people in charge of the rights,” says Hervé Obed, CEO, ProConsultant Informatique, which has a business management platform for broadcasters. He says a lot of data is still stored in silos, and unlocking that information is key to introducing a system that will work. While traditional broadcast customers have been doing avails management for a long time, newer digital native businesses or OTT providers may not have access to solutions like this.

The OVP: Vimond Media Solutions

Video platforms are the most common location where content business rules to date have been created and enforced. “When we looked at how our customers were addressing rights issues we saw there are a lot of Excel spreadsheets being used today in order to keep track of what rights are we purchasing, what rights are on their way to become available for publishing, what rights are currently in use, how long can we have those rights there, etc.,” says Høibraaten. “There was a lack of coherent rights management from the very second you started talking to somebody about buying their rights from them.”

When management is done manually, distributors take a spread sheet and input rules into an OVP or CMS. Vimond created a product called Acquisition Manager that “fetches video, audio, and subtitles directly from external storage, and maps the content through a predefined filename convention to the rights and metadata. This convention and the location of the files can be set up using our Content Provider Template tool. This enables full automation of ingest processing as soon as content is available,” says Høibraaten.

“All rights are kept with the content in our platform, so that you cannot break the rules of business when planning windows and publishing the content through our OTT platform. Also, when content is exported to external systems, the rights metadata will follow the content through our APIs,” says Høibraaten. “This way, we eliminate having multiple manual processes with possible human errors resulting in rights breeches.”

Evolving Business Models

Let’s assume that a distributor decides to purchase content from a studio. The distributor gets the avails, which include data like title, viewing timeframe, wholesale price, territory, episode number, language, episode title, license type, format profile, caption availability, total run time, price type, license rights description, and myriad other classifications within the EMA standards.

“It’s like 60+ columns for movie avails and 75 columns of data for TV,” says Nazim Pethani, SVP of product strategy, Deluxe Entertainment Services Group. Deluxe is well known for postproduction services and now has a new platform called Deluxe One that helps content owners with their whole workflow from preproduction through to asset delivery, including content rights management.

“However, those avails columns don’t represent the evolving business models that the distributors are using. So even though it calls out, ‘OK you can do VOD,’ it doesn’t call out AVOD or SVOD or TVOD. It doesn’t call out what are the streaming permissions with regards to how many times you can download a particular piece of content for offline viewing,” says Pethani.

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