Thursday, May 18, 2006

The Water Margin

As the media world opens up and more content producers and owners seek to protect the dissemination of their products, a new old idea is resurfacing.

Watermarking is an old idea, originally used to prove the veracity of paper products such as banknotes and certificates.

The idea was transferred to images in the early days of the internet, but never really seemed to catch on somehow. One of the big problems was security - jpg files were routinely used to hide worms and trojans.

Now, watermarking to TV has arrived. One system, introduced by Dutch electronics giant Philips can embed a watermark when content is transcoded - into Windows Media or MPEG4, for example. A problem with this system is that it needs around a minute and a half of content to be effective, although it is claimed that it works even for very heavily compressed content.

But a curious thing has happened on broadcast tv - small, strange symbols have started to appear on everything from sports matches to police dramas; I can only imagine that this is also an attempt to prevent, or at least trace, piracy.

IMHO, watermarking really isn't a substitution for good Digital Rights Management (DRM) - and products such as Microsoft's Janus work extremely well even with heavily distributed content.

The difference is that DRM works on a spoke-and-hub principle - to access the content you have to connect and get a token or certificate from an approved source before the content can be viewed. The random distribution over P2P networks is far harder to track and watermarking is, at best, a marginal solution for a serious problem.

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