Anyone familiar with the annual leak of awards season movies onto the Internet will recognize the watermarks used to identify the purpose of a copy.
The “For Your Consideration” watermarks are perhaps the most widely recognized additions to DVD screeners, notifying the viewer that the copy was originally provided for the scrutiny of Oscars and similar voters.
Other watermarks, with “Property of Studio XYZ here” splashed across the screen, serve a similar purpose.
While these watermarks are designed to ensure that any leaks result in heavily defaced ‘pirate’ copies, other less visible watermarks can be used by studios to track a leak back to its original source, including back to a single person. These provide a deterrent but in the event a copy is diverted or stolen, they do nothing to stop a leak that has already happened.
In the case of pirate streams of live events, such as TV and sports programs made available online via websites and illicit IPTV services, watermarks have the ability to help anti-piracy efforts much closer to real-time.
Since pirate streams are often captured from consumer decoders, a watermark denoting which subscriber account is being used can be embedded into the video. Once the mark is identified and matched with a customer device, the stream can be cut off at its source by the broadcaster.
Watermark hashcodes during the Mayweather v McGregor fight
While it is possible to remove these codes, doing so isn’t always straightforward. Systems can place the watermark in any place at any time, meaning that some always slip through the net. However, others are more easily dealt with, as a report from security company Irdeto reveals.
“So-called ‘HashCode removal tools’ work in near real-time to strip away any kind of visual marks from a video feed. This ranges from unique fingerprints right down to the broadcaster’s on-screen logo that’s so familiar on many channels, both helping pirates to cover their tracks,” the company explains.
“These tools are so smart, they take a sample of the surrounding pixels and re-use them to replace the visual marks, so the viewer of the pirate stream barely notices any disturbance in the picture.”
Irdeto says that its work with TV companies has revealed an uptick in the use of such tools in recent months. That’s partially down to how readily available they are.
“Research by Irdeto’s anti-piracy team found HashCode removal tools openly on sale via popular selling platforms like eBay and Alibaba for less than US$2,000,” the company reveals.
Remove watermarks automatically
“These devices fall into a legal grey-area. They don’t actively ENABLE piracy, but they do help pirates to mask their identity. This means the sellers don’t even need to be shy about describing exactly what their products can achieve,” Irdeto notes.
Indeed, some companies are happy to publish demonstrations on YouTube showing their systems in action, complete with before-and-after videos supplemented by behind the scenes action.
Live watermark removal in action
While these devices have their uses, Irdeto says they cannot tackle the most sophisticated watermarking systems that use covert methods.
“A unique User ID is still inserted into the stream and persists through different screen-capture and transformation techniques, but because the pirates can’t see the watermarks, they have a hard time obscuring them,” Irdeto explains.
While both overt and covert watermarking has its uses, to date they haven’t managed to prevent the major IPTV ‘wholesalers’ from putting together packages consisting of thousands of pirated TV channels from most major broadcasters worldwide.
With these consistently available for just a few dollars, euros, or pounds per month, the cat and mouse game will continue.