No matter how advanced streaming platforms are, video piracy continues to be a problem. However, it may not be exactly the kind of piracy we know from the past – illegal DivX downloads, torrents and P2P services. Instead, today’s piracy has morphed and taken on multiple novel, advanced forms, and is as difficult to combat as ever.

Most users knowingly choose pirate services because they are cheaper and offer more content in a single place. But because many of today’s pirate services have a decent user interface and design, consumers may not even realize they’re breaking the law – especially because these services are often paid.

What types of video piracy exist in 2020?

Parks Associates estimated that revenue lost to video pirate operations could exceed $61 billion in 2020 and $67 billion worldwide by 2023. But piracy is no longer involves storing files on hard drives. Modern day’s pirates continue to pillage and plunder video content in a variety of other ways unheard of before. Many of these methods involve illegal “access” rather than illegal copying of files:

1. File sharing piracy

To enter pirate distribution, files need to be grabbed from an original streaming source and then redistributed across the network. This is especially popular for live sports events which may not be available to people not owning a cable subscription.

Every DRM (digital rights management) scheme has a hole (aka The Analog Hole) – due to the fact that any media must eventually be consumed by a human, it will eventually have to be displayed on a screen and seen by someone’s eyes. Pirates use software to record the video content as it is playing on the screen – capturing the video output of a set-top box, PC, or other streaming device and then re-encoding it e.g. to a DivX. This type of DRM bypassing has the downside of a loss of quality due to the necessity to decode and re-encode the captured audio and video. 

The only way to keep the original quality is to capture the decrypted content immediately after decryption but before decoding. This method requires access to the keys used in the cryptographic process and the interception of the decrypted content. 

2. Credential sharing piracy

For streaming content providers having robust content protection systems is critical for the business. But credential sharing is possibly the simplest, most popular, and most difficult form of piracy to handle.

Credentials abuse can take several forms. This is a popular phenomenon – unauthorized households or users use the same login and password to access a video streaming service. This type of piracy is expected to be a $10bn problem by 2021. Revenue loss due to password sharing is estimated to almost triple over the next four years.

Credential sharing piracy typically takes three forms: 

  • Casual – when it’s only among friends and family. 
  • Swapping/pooling – when users (often strangers) swap their credentials to benefit from each other’s services without actually subscribing. 
  • Commercial – when accounts are sublet in exchange for money.
  • Theft of credentials – this form of piracy happens when accounts are hijacked from unsuspecting legitimate subscribers. Pirates can resell stolen credentials. In 2019 alone there were over 5 billion stolen credentials and passwords in circulation on the open or dark web combined.

Endless trials – pirates create fake accounts (often using different credit cards) and then resell these credentials significantly undercutting the video streaming provider’s price.

Bypass of concurrency controls – pirates hack the providers’ systems controlling the number of devices connecting to the service from one account. This allows many consumers to use a single account.

Token theft – because streaming apps or web browsers use tokens to identify the user, they can be copied to other devices and re-used to access streaming content’s CDNs.

Key distribution attacks – by hacking the key used to encrypt content, pirates can redistribute it, allowing content to be accessed directly from the CDN and decrypted.

Why does piracy still exist in the age of cheap and high quality streaming?

It is hard to compete with anything that’s free, although streaming services are the next best thing. They are super convenient, affordable and fast. So why does streaming piracy exist in the first place? Mainly because no streaming service will ever be able to own all the content and make it available to subscribers forever. 

There are a few reasons why people resort to piracy for their content needs:

1. Too many subscriptions

Today, it’s becoming a norm that families subscribe to several streaming services. For example, to watch The Handmaid’s Tale, Stranger Things and Friends, you will have to pay dozens of dollars in subscription fees monthly. Such fragmentation spells frustration, and frustration is a fast lane to piracy. 

Exclusives are a blessing in disguise. They, on the one hand, may be the main draw to specific platforms, but on the other, they are also the cause of many subscribers’ choosing paralysis: no matter how many services you subscribe to, you may never gain access to all the content you like.

Streaming compared

Comparison of the leading streaming platforms and their exclusive content, source.

Every service hosts specific valuable exclusives intended to draw audiences, but for some people the choice may be just too much to handle. Instead of several subscriptions, it pushes them towards a cheaper and more convenient alternative – piracy.

2. The decline of ownership

Just like almost anything else in the world, people hardly own anything anymore. Instead, we are expected to pay monthly fees for access. This model may sound like a sweet deal if you subscribe to just the one service you regularly need… but much less so when you realize you are paying tens or hundreds of dollars in subscriptions for content you neither have time to watch nor actually own in any way.

This is when the pirate instincts take over…

3. Regional limitations

Many pirates are regular subscribers of many services, but there are specific shows they would like to see which may not be available due to regional limitations. But no content is off-limits when you know where to look, and piracy extends its crooked hook.

4. Privacy confusion

Piracy can also happen when users unknowingly download or access content. People often assume that if there is a membership fee, then the online video streaming website must be legitimate – but this is not always the case.

What anti-piracy technologies are there?

Streaming Piracy Prevention (SPP) – an umbrella term for all the efforts aimed and stopping streaming privacy. This typically covers several techniques listed below.

DRM

Conditional Access Systems (CAS) and Digital Rights Management (DRM) have been used to securely deliver TV content via broadcast and IP networks, ever evolving pirate technologies are putting pressure on to deploy more advanced security solutions. DRM is a studio-mandated requirement for premium live or VOD content.

The DRM ecosystem

The DRM ecosystem

To combat piracy, DRM should be combined with watermarking

  • DRM works to prevent piracy
  • Watermarking helps services (or content owners) to track pirated content

HDCP

HDCP (High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection) is a form of digital copy protection developed by Intel Corporation was designed to encrypt the output devices, but the protection was cracked in 2010 and since then can easily be bypassed. Less sophisticated methods include using a screen capture application on a PC or a video camera to capture content directly from a movie theatre or TV screen.

Watermarking, aka digital tattooing or forensic watermarking

Watermarking involves embedding digital information in a video signal to identify its source of origin. It aims to identify the redistribution source of illegal streaming services. All content is marked, or tattooed, with a unique identifier that can be extracted in case of piracy in order to find the original source.

Website blocking

The owners of content can collaborate with individual Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block access to large-scale illegal streaming websites. 

  • Internet Protocol address blocking
  • Domain Name Server blocking
  • Uniform Resource Locator blocking

Conditional Access System

The transmitter (for example, the pay-TV operator) encrypts their content and provides subscribers with the means (specific encryption key from the provider to do so, together with an entitlement that confirms the user may decrypt this content) to decrypt it via their set-top boxes (STB) aided by some CA-specific messages.

DRM vs Encryption

Summary

No matter how advanced anti-piracy technologies become, completely eradicating the phenomenon is rather an unlikely scenario. This cat-and-mouse game will continue as long as people want to watch movies. This situation will continue until operators re-aggregate and re-bundle their content and services to make them more cost-effective to the consumer.

In combating streaming piracy, service providers need all hands-on deck to make sure content is secured end-to-end. It seems publishers have never been so close to solving the problem through a combination of CAS, DRM, and anti-piracy partnerships for piracy tracking, pirate activity monitoring and response are all required to turn the tide on video piracy.


Get in touch

If you’re looking to partner with a developer experienced in custom video platforms, you’ve come to the right place. Better Software Group specializes in building mobile applications, web and backend solutions for broadcasters, content owners, telecommunication and media companies. Check our portfolio so see our previous projects. We develop iOS and Android apps and specialize in Smart TV platforms, custom apps and launchers for Android TV, Apple TV, and HbbTV.

Contact us