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Content piracy: Is it a game of whack-a-mole or collaborative cat and mouse?

NAGRA's Tim Pearson argues that the content industry needs to collaborate in order to defeat piracy – that includes content owners, operators and even governments

Today’s content landscape is unlike any that has ever been seen before.  

Consumers hunt down content that they’ve had recommended to them via social media, influencer videos or referrals at a pace that would put Sherlock Holmes to shame. But this voracious hunt for content has also changed the dynamic in the industry – from long-term relationships with operators to increasingly short-term relationships with content providers such as new entrants like Disney+ and HBO Max alongside their traditional foes Netflix, Amazon Prime and pay-TV operators. To a number of consumer segments within the market, if the content they want is no longer available as part of their current subscription, they terminate and take out a new subscription with someone who can offer the content. This subscription economy has made consumers far more transient as they pursue their quest for the latest content.

But to paint a picture that shows consumers subscribing to multiple services is to project a false summit.  The challenge is that subscription fatigue is a growing problem. In fact, The Trade Desk recently reported that consumers in the US and the UK are only prepared to pay $20/£20 per month for all their subscriptions – and worryingly, 33 per cent of the UK cohort said they’d ideally want to get to £10 per month.  Now, monetisation models aside – with targeted advertising a likely victor, this increasing view that content ‘should be free’ is driving consumers to search out illicit means of accessing their favourite content and, some of the illicit sites they discover can be surprisingly convincing.

So, is the industry doomed or is there a way that it can collectively fight back?

For some time now, a number of vendors such as NAGRA have offered comprehensive anti-piracy solutions designed to target illicit use of content by an operator’s consumers. With recent advances in AI/ML, these tools can offer a comprehensive level of protection to pay-TV operators and content owners looking to secure their boundaries against leaks. When combined with watermarking, and leading-edge technologies such as IP-blocking, the solution becomes even more compelling with impressive results.

However, there are a group of pirates that need a far more tactical approach. This group have sophisticated tools and technologies and approach piracy more as organised crime than their consumer counterparts hellbent on getting access to the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Therefore, a far more collaborative and strategic game of data-driven cat and mouse is required.

This approach takes the anti-piracy services discussed above as a baseline alongside comprehensive investigations, tracing, intelligence and data analytical capabilities to identify the depth and breadth of the piracy problem alongside its geographical spread to identify the main sources of piracy and eventually neutralise them, as content and service piracy does not recognise international boundaries. 

In some situations where it is not possible to ‘hack the hackers’ to disrupt pirate services, tools such as website blocking, IP-blocking and DNS redirection are required with the sole aim of preventing viewers accessing video content offered by rogue providers.

To illustrate this, the English Premier League have some of the most valuable sports rights in the world and NAGRA has been working with them in Singapore since 2018 for judicial blocking measures against pirate apps and websites. The approach has been successful in a market that is both commercially significant and often used as a reference for the region. 

Such industry-wide collaboration is key to tackling some of the larger piracy challenges faced today. To provide another example, a cross-industry coalition of La Liga, the DFL, Nordic Content Protection, NAGRA and the Alliance for Creativity and Entertainment (ACE) were recently successful in filing a criminal complaint with the Spanish National Police against a major international piracy ring who were providing access to over 2m paying users with over 40,000 video channels and associated video-on-demand content that spanned a wide range of channels, sports events, films and documentary series. This collaborative effort shared insight, intelligence and legal expertise that created a dossier of evidence that allowed the Spanish National Police to raid the HQ of the pirates in Barcelona during June 2020. Over 50 servers were shut down across Europe as the service was dismantled resulting in a termination of services in many countries. Commenting on the coalition’s success and the key role such collaboration plays, Melcior Soler, audiovisual director at LaLiga said, “Piracy is a global problem and it’s critical for the industry as a whole to come together to fight it, share knowledge and leverage key partnerships and anti-piracy technologies to preserve high-quality content for our fans.”

Content and Service Piracy has and will continue to be a major issue for content owners and operators alike and current trends suggest this has been heightened further by the recent Covid-19 outbreak.  It is therefore through continued industry collaboration, new anti-piracy solutions and increased alignment of regulators around the world that illegal content distribution can be tackled, terminated and convictions secured.

As collaboration evolves to meet the needs of the industry from a regulatory perspective, broadcasters, operators and content providers must ensure they have a comprehensive anti-piracy strategy in place that enables them to protect the value of their product, but also contribute to the industry’s understanding of the piracy problem to drive concrete actions that have a positive business impact, bringing consumers back into the legitimate fold.