Companies that purvey copyright protection for online video sites are quickly becoming the belles of the ball in the technology business.
About 40 content providers and online video sites have contacted Audible Magic co-founder and CEO Vance Ikezoye in the past three weeks to inquire about copyright protection technology offered by his company. Audible Magic implemented a deal with MySpace earlier this month to help the social networking site filter out unauthorized video and audio from its site.
Audible Magic and its brethren, companies such as Gracenote and Philips Content Identification, possess the tools that can solve one of the biggest overhangs in the online video business: the rampant availability of unauthorized video material on online video sites.
“This genie has to be put back in the bottle, or the entire economics of the entertainment industry on a global basis are subject to ruinous counterfeiting,” said Laurence Moskowitz, president and CEO of MediaLink Worldwide, which provides content protection tools via its Teletrax subsidiary.
While Web sites such as YouTube and MySpace have inked above-board deals with many content owners, including NBC, Fox, CBS, Warner Music Group and the National Hockey League, those sites’ users often still upload illegal versions of TV shows. In January, for instance, 20th Century Fox subpoenaed YouTube requesting the names of two alleged digital pirates who had posted illegal copies of “24” and “The Simpsons” on YouTube. The video-sharing site complied with the subpoena and turned the names over earlier this month. And in early February, Viacom requested that YouTube take down 100,000 clips of its content; the site complied with that request.
Because of these ongoing infringements, copyright owners are starting to demand that sites include built-in tools to protect their assets, while sites themselves are recognizing they must be more proactive in protecting material. “It’s natural this is coming to a head now,” said Richard Neff, the lead technology partner at Los Angeles law firm Greenberg Glusker. “There’s a frustration that [content owners] aren’t going to play this cat-and-mouse game for five years.”
Indeed, rights holders are growing weary of issuing constant take-down notices and instead want the sites that benefit from their videos to play a more proactive role in protecting copyrighted material.
That’s why NBC, along with Fox, is participating in the pilot program introduced last week by MySpace. Audible Magic’s tools filter out video uploaded by users that matches copyright-protected content in MySpace’s database. The new tool also lets content owners flag content and request that it be removed.
NBC contends that copyright protection needs to come in two ways — via legitimate business deals, such as the one the network inked with YouTube, and through technological tools such as Audible Magic’s that weed out ill-gotten video. “Sending take-down notices is not a long-term solution,” said Rick Cotton, executive VP and general counsel for NBC Universal.
MySpace has said it’s committed to protecting artists and their work. “MySpace is dedicated to ensuring that content owners, whether large or small, can both promote and protect their content in our community,” Chris DeWolfe, CEO and co-founder of MySpace, said in a statement.
The Audible Magic technology uses digital fingerprinting. That process matches a piece of video posted on a site with a database of existing video from a rights holder, in the same way that physical fingerprints are matched.
Philips Content Identification is currently testing its fingerprinting software called MediaHedge with content providers, said Alex Terpstra, the company’s CEO. “We can identify from a small clip of only a couple seconds, and we can find that in our database,” Mr. Terpstra said.
Gracenote operates under a similar premise. Its digital fingerprinting technology has been used primarily for audio files. The company works with MySpace to weed out unauthorized audio recordings on its site. But Gracenote has moved into the video arena and also is marketing its technology to filter unauthorized video clips from Web sites. After Universal Music Group sued Grouper last fall for copyright infringement, interest in the filtering technology shot up, said Ty Roberts, Gracenote co-founder. He said about 30 content owners have contacted Gracenote since then to learn more about the technology, and he expects to announce deals soon.
In addition to deals already signed with MySpace and Grouper, Mr. Ikezoye said Audible Magic expects to ink several new content partnerships in the next few months. “It’s becoming a necessity for a video-sharing site to start a business and get licensing deals,” he said.
Filtering tools also can be used to strike revenue-generating deals with content owners, not solely to block illegal content, he said. A video site could use the technology to identify popular content. “You could approach a Sony Pictures and say, ‘We are generating this amount of revenue from the traffic and we’d like to give you a revenue share.’ That is a way the content stays up but it’s legitimatized,” Mr. Ikezoye said. “Any time there is traffic to be generated, there is money to be made.”
Teletrax has tracked video for content owners through a technology known as digital watermarking, which embeds a code into the video. That lets copyright owners track their video as it’s sent into the marketplace, in much the same way tagging can track an animal released into the wild.
Teletrax tracks video in 50 countries for more than 35 content owners and is exploring whether to expand its technology to track video online, Mr. Moskowitz said.
YouTube has not yet introduced filtering tools the way MySpace has, but relies on other copyright protection measures. “From the start, we’ve led the industry in developing a content verification tool to help copyright owners locate their content on our site and send us DMCA [Digital Millennium Copyright Act] notices with the click of a mouse,” said a YouTube spokesperson. “We also take a unique ‘hash’ of every video removed for copyright infringement and block re-upload of that exact video file prospectively.”
YouTube is also working with a number of business partners to implement audio fingerprinting technology.