SafeStream: The Ultimate Guide to Preventing Video Piracy

The history of video piracy and the biggest reasons you should consider investing in video piracy prevention

Introduction

Whether you’re in charge of a multimillion dollar movie production or the owner of an eLearning service, your heart and soul goes into the content you’re creating. Imagine putting in all of that work...and then someone steals and shares your video illegally. What could be more frustrating or harmful for your business?

SHIFT, the makers of SafeStream, has heard the stories about content leakage and piracy from customers around the world. It inspired us to develop world-class content protection software, and we’re happy to share our thoughts on how to keep your content safe with The Ultimate Guide to Preventing Video Piracy.

In this guide, we’ll cover the history of video piracy, the biggest reasons you should consider investing in video piracy prevention, terms with which you should be familiar, a few technologies and products to consider, and ideas on how to get started.

What is Video Piracy Prevention?

“Video piracy prevention” is a broad term. Let’s define it the way SHIFT sees it. Video piracy prevention is the implementation of an organizational strategy to restrict, detect, and/or pursue the illegal sharing or retransmission of high-value video content. 

Some conflate scattershot protective or legal measures with security, but simply applying encryption or filing Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notices (more on this later) without a stated and known strategy is insufficient.

Video piracy prevention means that you understand the business risk associated with piracy, you are aware of the potential security loopholes that expose your content, and you have a plan (with budget) on how you will restrict, detect and pursue piracy.

The History of Video Piracy

Piracy of high-value video is nothing new. From the first days of cinema to present day, unscrupulous actors have used any technology available to steal and profit from piracy. 

The silent movie period

Video piracy actually dates back to the very advent of movie distribution. Unsurprisingly, even back then people were looking for loopholes! Theatres and exhibitors who purchased rights to films would participate in what was called “bicycling”. This meant that they would exceed the limits of their agreements with studios by hosting unauthorized screenings of the film, and/or show the film in unauthorized theatres or locations. This allowed them to significantly increase their gross revenue at the expense of creators.

The 60s bootleg videos

As camcorders became available in the 1960s, pirates began setting them up in theatres to illegally capture movies. As highlighted in this Gizmodo article, pirates calling themselves collectors would gain access to film prints and sell low-quality, bootleg copies to others.

80s VHS piracy

Many in the movie industry predicted doom with the advent of VHS. VHS allowed bootleggers to mass produce cheap copies of feature films, offering viewers a cheaper way to catch the newest that Hollywood had to offer. As explained in this Gizmodo article, video masters were sold for almost $1,000 per video, with cheap copies then peddled on the streets. The truth is the film industry both suffered and benefited from the arrival of VHS. While piracy spiked due to the availability of cheap copies, it opened eyes as to the benefits and power of the direct to consumer (D2C) business model. Revenues from D2C grew in leaps and bounds with the arrival of DVDs, as consumers purchased DVDs instead of renting (as they did with VHS).

The online era

As the 80s turned into the 90s, the world slowly went online and so did piracy. New online communities starting sprouting through Bulletin Board Systems, or BBS. While BBSs were also used for chat rooms and gaming, many were used for the transfer of illegal content and pirated software (also called “warez”). Given that connection came through dial-up modems, most BBSs and their users were locally oriented.

Anti-piracy Legislation

While the barriers to information and file sharing fell with the widespread adoption of the internet, so did the barriers to theft of high value IP. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) took the first steps to addressing this issue, with the WIPO Copyright Treaty and WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty being enacted in 1996. These treaties were brought to life in the United States in 1998 through the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, more commonly known as the DMCA. DMCA was notable for several reasons:

  • Limited liability of online service providers for copyright infringement of their users. This enabled the growth of platforms like YouTube, Digg, Reddit, and others who wouldn’t have been able to guarantee against copyright infringement by their users 
  • Notice and Takedown provisions for copyright holders discovering infringement. The ability to request takedowns offers creators of high value IP recourse when piracy occurs, thus protecting their investments and revenue. Criticisms remain as to if notice and takedown is abused, particularly by larger copyright holders

Piracy in the High Speed Internet Era

Widespread access to high-speed internet changed the game of piracy. Instead of waiting for slow dial-up internet speeds or disconnections interrupting downloads, hundreds of millions of internet users worldwide now had access to lightning fast connections - and downloading capabilities.

Everything came to a head during the heyday of Napster. Napster offered the ability for users to upload and download copyrighted materials with little technical know-how: all you needed was a computer and internet connection. With millions of registered users (57mm, according to the Guardian), Napster acted as an unfettered marketplace of stolen IP. Copyright holders took no mercy on unsuspecting “pirates”, with many lawsuits continuing over a decade. Many copycat P2P marketplaces such as Kazaa and Morpheus offered similar access to stolen IP, but lawsuits and judgments against these services have primarily shut them down.

Today, for the most part, piracy consumption is available via streaming sites or download. Pirates have the ability to access a multitude of streaming sites that either have built brand power (such as The Pirate Bay) or ephemeral sites that pop-up, get taken down, and resurface under different names. Similarly, BitTorrent and web download options offer the ability for pirates to download content to their machines for offline viewing. Much of the sensitive stolen IP first circles around what is called “the Scene”.

The Scene

The Scene is an exclusive Warez group that is predicated on uploading highly sensitive IP onto high speed FTP services, or “top-sites”. There are different groups and corresponding rules for content type. While the Scene focuses primarily on feature films and television shows, there is also illegal trading and access to instructional content, sensitive business related videos, and a host of non-media assets like user credentials.

Some lingo you might come across when it comes to the warez “Scene”:

  • Topsites: these host movies, music, tv shows, software, and other pay-walled content for access by other “Scene” members. Topsites aren’t allowed to charge for access, and aren’t meant for broad public consumption.
  • Credit System: Scene members gain access to Topsite content through a credit system, wherein they are given 3x filesize credits for the files they upload. So, if a user uploads a 50 MB file, they would receive 150 MBs in credits to download new content from a Topsite.
  • Nukes: When a user uploads a file that suffers from glitches, flaws, poor cropping or is a duplicate of another file, that file is “nuked”. A nuke can be considered a “local” nuke that is only impacted on one site, or a “global” nuke that is removed from all sites. Just as a user is given credits for uploading quality content, a user is docked credits for uploading a file that is nuked.

Piracy in 2020

2020 has been a year of change in many ways, many of them unfavorable. With most of the world under mandatory stay-at-home and work-from-home orders, streaming video consumption behavior has accelerated dramatically. Brightcove stated in Q2 there was a 40% global increase in streaming of media and entertainment content and a 93% increase in enterprise video views (including training and corporate communications videos). While increased consumption is positive news for rights owners and holders, piracy experts MUSO have noted a 33% increase in global piracy behavior since the arrival of COVID-19. Over at SHIFT, we have seen a 73% increase in watermarking demand from our customers in response. Thus, piracy behavior and mitigation efforts have mirrored the spike in consumption. 

One thing is for sure: piracy is here to stay. As storage and streaming costs diminish and content production continues to spike, both supply and demand will have no ceiling in sight. And the stakes are only getting higher: the Global IP Center estimates that piracy costs the television and movie industries $200 billion in lost revenue every year, and the US Department of Commerce estimates IP theft costs our economy $300 billion each year.

What Sorts of Attacks Should You Prevent Against?

Video pirates have many ways to attack video streams and services to steal and share content. You can think of piracy as broken out into two stages: the process of gaining access to the content, and the actual act of stealing the content.

Gaining Access

There is no piracy if content is only viewed as it should be, by the people who should have access. Obviously, this isn’t the case. 


Pirates take a multitude of different routes to illegally access highly sensitive content, including:

  • HDMI access: pirates can use a splitters from the HDMI outputs on set-top boxes and TVs as a mechanism to intercept high value content and record to their computers
  • Credential sharing/theft: OTT services, learning and development platforms and pre-release content screening platforms are susceptible to sharing of or theft of user credentials. When these credentials get into the wrong hands, the entire library of content is available for capture and distribution to piracy sites and torrents
  • Credential stuffing: When credentials aren’t available to be shared or stolen directly from users, they turn to the dark web. Consumer databases for services are available for purchase, and then pirates use an automated process to try as many log-ins as possible to access the service. Once the service has been penetrated, pirates either steal/distribute content and/or sell the credentials for a deep discount price. Akamai reported a 63% increase from 2018 to 2019 in credential stuffing attacks against video media services, showing that this problem is only increasing.
  • Compromising DRM systems: Digital Rights Management, or DRM, offers an additional level of security by encrypting content with a layer of business rules. Recent issues with DRM circumvention have centered on the creation of browser extensions that trick DRM into thinking the pirate is an approved viewer, then providing them unilateral decryption keys.
  • Use of VPNs and Proxy Rotation: Some pirates use VPNs to access content in geolocations where rights are not offered or use proxy rotation to represent a geolocation friendly to the service (and different from the end user). For example, if a User is in Territory A and the content is not available, the user could use a VPN or a proxy to make it seem as if they are in Territory B where the content IS available.

Content Theft

The pirates have gained access to the content! This isn’t ideal, but they still need to actually capture the content. 


Here are some different methods they could take:

  • Cam rips: Cam rips vary in sophistication, from a wobbly smartphone capture to a sophisticated in-theatre set-up. Generally, these are the first versions of pirated material after content is released
  • Webrips: in a Webrip, the media file is extracted from RTMP, HLS or MPEG-DASH streaming protocols. This method allows pirates to steal content directly from a streaming source, ideally maintaining high quality.
  • Web Downloads: Web Downloads are complete files losslessly ripped from VOD services and content marketplaces. They are generally high quality.
  • DVD or Blu-Ray rips: Extracting DVD or Blu-Ray content to put on a hard drive has become harder over the years, but is not impossible. There are several ripping software options to copy content onto a hard drive. The process also requires certain types of harddrives and some trickery with firmware downgrades, but a motivated hacker can accomplish this easily.
  • High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP) circumvention: HDCP helps encrypt/decrypt content so that viewers can’t directly record content streamed to their televisions. However, circumvention is possible when pirates use HDMI splitters on set-top boxes, connected TV devices, etc. 

Benefits and Considerations of a Video Piracy Prevention Strategy

Now you know where pirates put the video, how they access it, and how they capture it. But before you start gearing up for the fight, it’s important to know what you’re getting into when you start to lay out your video piracy prevention strategy. Where do you start, and what will you get out of it?

Direct Benefits

  • Establishing a strategy will ensure the time, money and effort that went into producing your content was not in vain. Much like insuring your car or your home, it doesn’t make sense to have your most valuable assets for which you’ve worked so far sitting naked for piracy.
  • Protecting your video will communicate to your customers that you value their investment in your business. If I’m a customer, do I really want to pay a company or even let them handle my data if they can’t protect their business?
  • Locking down against video piracy also offers the halo effect of avoiding unknown downstream costs such as organizational disruption, legal fees, loss of brand reputation, and more. 

Considerations

  • Implementing anti-piracy strategy requires much collaboration, and dedicated resources. Unless you’re a true small business owner who runs the shop end-to-end, you’ll want someone dedicated to the task full time. This isn’t a hobby!
  • Keeping up to date on what macro trends, legislation and new efforts by pirates requires attention. Video piracy is truly a game of whack-a-mole. When one piracy effort is solved, two new ones pop up. 

What Can I Do to Defend Against Video Piracy?

The ultimate question: how can you actually stop video piracy altogether? Well, the answer is that you can’t stop all video piracy. However, taking a Restrict + Detect + Pursuit strategy allows you to be prepared at each stage of the video piracy workflow. 

Restrict Piracy

Use secure storage 

Ensure that whatever tool you’re using to host your most valuable content has security features like password protection for links and multi-factor authentication (MFA). This prevents rogue actors from cracking into your library.

Use Signed URLs and SSL/TLS protection

It’s easy to find the video URL in the page source of your website. Is that URL secure? Using signed URLs and Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) or Transport Layer Security (TLS) will ensure that only the right people can access the source file, and only for a set period of time. If you don’t secure your URLs, you could be paying store and bandwidth costs for pirates to stream your content elsewhere.

Use a secure video player

Enterprise grade video players offer capabilities such as IP restriction, single sign-on (SSO), and encryption to prevent rogue actors from accessing and publishing your content where they shouldn’t. 

Encrypt Your Videos

You want to be able to control who watches your video, right? Well, by using encryption, only authorized users get access. SHIFT’s SafeStream uses AES-128 encryption. AES-128 encryption secures your videos with an encryption cipher, and then only authorized users with the decryption key can play back the content.

Source: Streamingmedia.com

Enforce Domain restrictions

What if someone gets access to your publishing code and attempts to post it on a piracy site? You can counteract this by proactively restricting playback access to only videos posted on your domain(s), preventing playback elsewhere. SafeStream allows you to identify only the domains where you want your videos hosted, eliminating the ability to stream your video on a piracy site.

Visually watermark your videos during production

A great way to deter piracy is to let potential pirates and leakers know you’re watching them. By dynamically burning user data into a video stream, viewers are more likely to reconsider ripping, screen sharing or capturing the video. SafeStream actually burns the user details into the video file instead of just overlaying them at the player level, as there is watermark stripping software that can easily remove an overlay. For eLearning and Training videos, we offer visible watermarking with our SafeStream for Business solution.

Consider DRM

Digital Rights Management, or DRM, is another layer of security in the vein of encryption. DRM can enhance security measures by running access licenses through a secure third-party provider, and implementing business rules that can restrict offline playback, limit windows for playback, and authorize access only in select regions or territories. There are three main DRM technologies that map to each provider’s respective browsers and operating systems: Google Widevine, Apple Fairplay and Microsoft PlayReady. DRM does have its drawbacks, however: it comes with an added cost, and can lead to support issues if there are user issues playing back content.

Source: Streamingmedia.com

Understand the security capabilities of your LMS (if your focus is eLearning)

For those producing online courses, you’re likely using a Learning Management System (LMS). LMS vendors prioritize ease of use more than security, so the best products include the bare minimum to keep your content safe with features such as IP restriction. We recommend ensuring your videos are encrypted and watermarked to keep content leakage and piracy at bay.

Detect Piracy

Leverage data 

To understand what content is leaking and where it’s being linked, it’s important to constantly review your video analytics. A baseline way to start is to check the data provided by your video player to see if there are unexpected viewership spikes on certain files, or in certain regions. You can also supplement this data with third party piracy data vendors, who can either supply raw data on files being consumed on piracy sites or specifically crawl piracy sites for instances of your content.

Forensically watermark videos

Unlike visible watermarking, forensic watermarking imprints an imperceptible payload onto a file. This maintains the visual integrity of the content, while allowing you to detect who the offending party is when a leakage or piracy event occurs. We prefer and offer bitstream watermarking through our SafeStream for Television and Film product, as it is less costly and requires minimal latency at playback.

Pursue Piracy

Use notice and takedown services

Once you have identified instances of piracy of your content, you can order notice and takedown of that content. These takedown notices often come in the form of DMCA takedown notices. While DMCA is legislation specific to the United States, many sites hosted internationally will honor requests.

There are many piracy experts who are also able to remove piracy sites featuring your content from search engine results pages (SERPs) so that new viewers are unable to find that content.

How Should You Get Started with Video Piracy Prevention?

We’ve thrown a lot at you here. Piracy prevention can be overwhelming. So what are your first steps? SafeStream is here to help. Reach out to us at info@safestream.com if you have any questions on where to get started, and visit safestream.com to get started with a free trial.