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CEO Interview: Christopher Levy, BuyDRM

As consumer demand for streaming goes up, so does the demand for digital rights management (DRM) licenses. We spoke with BuyDRM CEO and co-founder Christopher Levy about how his company is keeping up with the demand, how CMAF is changing the video landscape, and how watermarking and DRM are working hand-in-hand to thwart piracy.

Eric Schumacher-Rasmussen: I'm back with Christopher Levy of BuyDRM, Christopher, how are you doing today?

Christopher Levy: I'm doing great. Thanks, Eric. It's been a long night, but really it's exciting to see democracy in action.

Schumacher-Rasmussen: It is. If you're watching this a little later, we are recording this interview the morning after election night, and you shouldn't read anything into the colors of our shirts or our walls or anything like that right now. But anyway, we spoke a little bit with Christopher a few weeks back about DRM and sort of the big picture of what's going on with content protection. And today we're going to dig in a little bit deeper. Obviously in the last few months with the pandemic there's been a massive movement towards people watching more stream video. A recent survey said that 50% of viewers have added at least one streaming service subscription to their household. Online content consumption has doubled in the last 8 to 10 months. So with all of that, I know some of your larger clients have seen considerable uptake on their platforms. How is by BuyDRM keeping up with that demand with the KeyOS Multi-DRM platform?

Levy: There are obviously some very well-defined touch points in a DRM platform like KeyOS. Those are pretty common across the industry, just like most CDNs have the ability to publish content, to push it out to the edge, to expire the cache, to link to it, to pass the link, and stream protect it. DRM is no different. BuyDRM started by focusing on the very first step, which is our encryption key API. And we've spent a considerable amount of time kind of taking a dual path exercise, because before CPIX came out (which stands for the content protection information exchange format, which was a phrase coined by the DASH-IF many, many years ago), every DRM company in the business had their own content encryption key API. And so in our case, we had, you know, over 150 partners who had deployed our API on their platforms and with kind of this perception that CPIX was now a universal specification. To be clear, it's not, it's a baseline spec.

We decided to go ahead and embrace CPIX to some extent and what started to happen was we were seeing encoding companies and server companies and cloud and code companies coming up with their own CPIX specs, which was kind of weird. So we came up with our version of CPIX, our flavor if you will. And we started to roll that out to our partners and it's gone very well. It's definitely a step above our existing API. Although our existing API is just as secure, CPIX does offer some different ways to secure the encryption key pipeline. And so we spent a lot of time scaling up the CPIX interfaces and really improving it, working with you know, first fast adopters. You know, we have different partners who have deployed it both on-prem and coding in the cloud and coding and on the server side.

Unified [Streaming] and Wowza are partners of ours. Now, Unified uses any CPIX spec for the most part, but we've been modernizing all of that. And we've modernized our plugin for Wowza to be able to increase the throughput of getting the content encryption keys. Secondly, what we've done is we've divested our analytics from our licensing platform. So with the big kind of move in the past two years—I'm sure you've seen, and I've seen myself firsthand—analytics is now kind of the premier data science in our business, because we mostly figured out how to encode, host, deliver, and play and protect content. But now it's into the nitty gritty, really understanding what's going on on a per-transaction basis. And when you're doing billions of transactions a year, like we are, it's important to be able to refine the data and present it a way our clients can easily view it.

We did a press release about three weeks ago. We came out with a new platform called KeyQ, which is our new analytics platform. And what we've done is we've changed the way that we harvest DRM statistical data. And we've divested that from the platform so that it's more modern, it's more secure, it's more robust, it's more timely, and it's more accurate. We've also added a portal, a standalone portal, KeyQ.com, where our clients can go—non-technical people who don't want to have access to the KeyOS account sales, marketing, finance, legal management—they can go and just see the analytical data around their DRM consumption, which is a big step. Lastly, we've just scaled up and improved the performance of our licensing platform significantly. At the end of last year, we announced that we had done over 10 billion licenses in a year.

That was a new record for any DRM company that's in the business. You can go out and look at other announcements by Verimatrix or Castlabs or others and see we have some clients that are doing more licenses in a day than their biggest client is doing in a month. And you know, I'll talk about that a little more later, but we've really gotten aggressive about decreasing the latency in the playback platform because latency is also now a very big focus on our industry low-latency streaming. We are the first DRM company to kind of step out with a low-latency DRM message. And we published tons of information about how our clients can lower latency. And we've seen that information adopted by other companies like enter trust. Who's now taken our low latency DRM message and integrated it into their message.

Schumacher-Rasmussen: Okay. you talked about CPIX quite a bit. Let's talk about another C, and that's CMAF. CMAF is of course all the rage in the industry right now. You know, for years we've been seeking, or the industry has been seeking sort of the holy grail of video containers, right? That is at intersection of new encryption modes and manifest formats. What impact will see CMAF have on how by DRM supports the market demand for DRM in the coming year?

Levy: CMAF has been another one of those C's, that's kind of been creeping in the background. I mean, obviously the industry is kind of looking for this holy grail format, and really the big issues around it have been DRM and how to unify the encryption mode. That's really the big lift with supporting CMAF is unifying the encryption mode from CTR to CBCS across the board. And so, you know, with Apple and Google and Microsoft adopting that, we now see real movement towards CMAF. So a couple of things: One, we have a webcast on the 10th with Bitmovin during their security protection week where we'll be talking extensively about CMAF. I'm the founder of the CMAF group on LinkedIn. We have over 1,600 members in the group. We have a lot of CMAF discussions in there where we post a new story about CMAF every day from somebody in the industry.

And you know, what we're doing is we're going to educate our clients about CMAF. Because it's not a showstopper for us. It's more about the playback and the formatting of the content. We're kind of in the middle of that. So we've announced that we'll be rolling out a new improvement to the multipack utility. That's our encryption utility that our clients can use where we'll support CMAF across the board, HLS and CMAF, DASH and CMAF, with common encryption. And then we're also going to roll out a new update to our Wowza multipack plugin, which will support all flavors of CMAF except HLS and CMAF, which Wowza is working on right now on their side. And we have a great blog coming out about CMAF and how to move to CMAF.

But in general, we're kind of helping increase the thought leadership around CMAF, because it seems like a daunting, complex task, but it's really not. It's really just about encapsulating your HLS and DASH content inside a CMAF wrapper and then using the proper encryption mode on the DRM to enable the playback. And then lastly, ensuring the player supports that rendering of the, let's say DASH inside CMAF with Widevine, for example. So the tweaks are kind of to the left of us on the encoding and to the right of us on the playback, but we're ready to go. Our platform is entirely CMAF-compliant with all forms of CMAF. And we do believe it will render, you know, significant cost savings to our clients, which will allow them to scale the reach of their business further.

Schumacher-Rasmussen: That's excellent. One of the things I've noticed is that BuyDRM has been talking more in the last year about watermarking and the, the intersection or marriage of watermarking and DRM, specifically around the success you've had with the 2020 Academy Award screeners that you were one of the many companies working on. What are you doing to innovate new solutions that combine watermarking and DRM either as a service or software?

Levy: That's a good question. We have a case study on our website at BuyDRM.com about the work we did with the Oscars and the Academy Awards. I'm not sure there'll be a repeat performance next year, considering the lack of theatrical releases. So we're kind of taking that message, which we have published pretty extensively through StreamingMedia.com. we've done a lot of co-contribution and work with Jan and other writers—Troy, I believe—to kind of introduce many years ago at Streaming Media East the concept that watermarking and DRM are going to continue to move closer and closer in the marketplace. And here's why. Because DRM is now ubiquitous, it's pervasive. It's a studio-mandated technology that's supported across the entire video workflow from the encoding to the serving, to the delivery, to the playback. And so as a result of that, we are closing down more and more openings in video offerings that are driving up the need for pirates to focus on screen, capturing camera, capturing content.

And so as a result, we've kind of closed all the doors to the home and now people are trying to climb in the windows, and that's where watermarking comes in. Because DRM will drive all of the dishonest people to try and do screen capturing or video recording because they can't defeat the cryptography. And although there's a lot of talk this month about, let's say Widevine being hacked, which is actually not accurate at this point, there's always these kinds of illusions. We've had different companies in the industry make these odd statements that DRM libraries can be compromised. That encryption key APIs and license key APIs can be compromised. That's all a bunch of rubbish, where the traction and movement is, is around screen capture and it's around camera recording. And so we started kind of telling clients that first off, if you want to eliminate screen capturing use native DRM and a native browser on a native platform.

If you want to eliminate screen capturing and cut down on how much watermarking you're going to need, you're going to use DASH with PlayReady and Edge on Windows. You're going to use HLS with FairPlay and Safari on Mac OSX. It's only when you try and use Chrome with Widevine on non-native platforms that screen capturing becomes a factor. So that's the first thing. The second thing is that by tying together watermarking and DRM, you're basically creating more confidence in the market and enabling your clients to be more successful. So what we've done is we've taken several years of experience in the space, and are tentatively are launching a service in Q1 of next year. I say tentatively because there are some kind of market things that are going on with different watermarking vendors, but we're going to be announcing our watermarking as a service, probably the third week of January for rollout in Q1.

This is going to be a publicly available watermarking as a service platform where each user can get a unique file that's forensically watermarked and DRMed on the fly, we're going to start offering it in AWS. And then based on the success of that, and kind of the lessons learned and the evolution of the core software that's running the watermarking as a service, which is what we call the QoS Media Engine, we're going to offer the KeyOS Media Engine as a standalone watermarking product for clients to use that will apply forensic watermarking and DRM. So just like we had the multikey service, which we later on then pulled the server out of an offer the multikey server. We're going to do the same thing with the watermarking as a service. And that's where we're headed in 2021. And I think you're going to see a lot of movement around watermarking and DRM in the coming year.

Schumacher-Rasmussen: Earlier, you mentioned the number of licenses that you had done in 2019, and in fact in early 2020, you issued a press release saying you did more than 10 billion licenses in 2019. Can you talk about what you've seen so far for 2020, how you think the year's going to end up, and maybe even where you think you might be next year?

Levy: It's real clear on our end that we have a significant growth phase that we've just gone through over the last 9 months ever since the lockdown started, all of our clients have started to see dramatic increase in screening hours and consumption. That's no secret. We are conservatively, and without giving our CTO heart palpitations or getting in trouble with our chairman, I'll just say that we are close to about a 22% to 25% growth. So we're looking at anywhere from 12 billion to close to 13 billion licenses this year which is no small task. So we'll definitely keep the Streaming Media audience availed of that. And we've got a couple big months here with the holidays coming and streaming hours tend to go up. So we'll keep you posted. And Streaming Media will be the first to know for sure.

Schumacher-Rasmussen: Like you said earlier with the theaters being—they're not entirely closed, but there's nothing much going on in the theaters—we're going to see even more people turn to streaming during the holidays for big entertainment where they might have otherwise bundled the kids up and gone to the movie theater. So it'll be very exciting.

Levy: Right? A lot of direct releases coming for sure. And Apple has some surprises coming too with regard to expanding their platform to other platforms which will even drive up our licensing more significantly.

Schumacher-Rasmussen: Terrific. We'll be on the lookout for that. And we'll be on the lookout for what else has to come from BuyDRM in the next year or so. All right. Great. Thanks so much, Christopher.

Levy: Thank you, Eric. Have a great day.

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