Drawing the Line: Movie industry gains leverage to fight piracy in new digital playing field


Shortly before award screeners of The Hateful Eight and The Revenant wound up online this past Christmas–alongside other Oscar contenders–the Motion Picture Association of America had dealt a stinging blow to several piracy sites including a popular version of Popcorn Time found on many distribution sites. In a major legal victory, the MPAA forced them offline after obtaining an injunction in Canada and an interim injunction in New Zealand as part of a larger comprehensive approach to combat content theft.

Still, the game of whack-a-mole continues for Popcorn Time as the so-called “Netflix for pirates” reemerges in modified forms. The creators uploaded the source code in 2014 to allow anyone to download and develop it, including, incidentally, themselves. Now their new Butter app still allows pirated movies to be seen but reduces the MPAA legality threat by removing that particular element from its infrastructure.

Legal measures alone are simply not enough. A more comprehensive approach against piracy must also include significant technological actions. Imagine the effective one-two punch of the MPAA legal offensive and widespread implementation of an existing technology that simply stops playback of unauthorized content on any consumer-electronics device. In fact, the technology, known as Cinavia, has already been implemented in hundreds of millions of devices. They simply detect an inaudible audio watermark embedded in the soundtrack of a motion picture and prevent unauthorized content from being played back. The impact of Cinavia reaches well beyond a physical disc and a player to impact consumption of pirate content online, whether via P2P, torrents or lockers.

I first became aware of Cinavia in 2004 during its early development stage, when I was chief technology officer of Sony Pictures. (Full disclosure: I now consult for Verance, which makes Cinavia, because I so strongly believe in this technology.) Voluntary detection was not on the table then, as device manufacturers simply refused. They did not care if their devices were used to play illegal content, as many believed it gave them a commercial advantage as motion pictures and television content became easy to find from P2P sites, torrents and cyber lockers. More importantly, studios did not have direct deals in place with device manufacturers necessary to require such detection.

As the industry was gearing up to launch high-definition, the studios were reluctant to release high-definition movies on optical discs unless HD players stopped playback of pirated content. A line was drawn. A deal made. The HD content-protection agreement required that all HD players–whether Blu-ray, HD, DVD or computer drives–detect the Cinavia watermark and stop the playback of stolen content. As a result, today optical-disc piracy is on the decline and will soon be a thing of the past as more consumers replace aging DVD players with new Blu-ray players. And, more importantly, in today’s increasingly digital world, Cinavia can reduce online piracy as well.

In yesterday’s “disconnected world,” consumers primarily watched movies from DVDs. iTunes had yet to launch its video service. Android did not exist, Google Play had not launched, PlayStation did not have a movie store, and Xbox video service was still many years away. Broadband penetration was in its infancy and the PC was the primary OTT device in a browser-based world. Device manufacturers designed products based on industry standards, such as for DVD and Blu-ray players that were, for the most part, standalone devices. But digital distribution has changed dramatically over the past decade. All of the major online services now control the most popular platforms all the way to the display.

In this new environment, the content industry once again has the opportunity to take advantage of the demand for premium 4K content and require playback control in the most commonly used consumer devices. Based on its own independent strategy, each studio could simply say: If you want to license our premium 4K content, you must take steps to protect against unauthorized playback of intellectual property. If you want your platform to deliver premium 4K content, the devices you control must stop playback of stolen content. This leverage simply did not exist when Cinavia first launched.

This is a pivotal time for the content industry as it rolls out 4K. It’s time to revisit the same successful approach the studios took with the rollout of HD and draw that line, make the deal and usher in a world where all consumer devices refuse to play stolen commercial entertainment content, where organized crime no longer views stolen movies as a cash cow, and where cyber lockers and torrents become niche players in the illegal distribution playing field.

Mitch Singer, formerly chief digital strategy officer at Sony Pictures Entertainment, is an industry consultant and president of the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem, the 75-member, cross-industry consortium behind UltraViolet.