Document watermarks are popular as a replacement to Digital Rights Management (DRM). But do watermarks really match up and do they go far enough?
DVDs and Blu-rays require a watermark to distinguish between licensed and non-licensed content, protect against copying, and increase confidence in the transfer of content, particularly for those buying an AVC, DivX or MPEG4 codec-encoded title.
Watermarks can be placed on an object in-theatre, or just as it’s being recorded digitally, but can also be applied to recordings that are legally made for viewing offline, rather than being distributed through DVD or Blu-ray players, as a way of preventing copyright infringement.
But do watermarks prevent piracy?
Yes and no. Some researchers investigated the use of watermarks to cut down piracy, before copyright clearance certificates, or labels, were introduced. Their findings found that using watermarks doesn’t impact the overall pirate rate, though “the watermark is likely to be less visible than the label”.
In a similar report, British security researchers found that watermarks don’t reduce piracy rates. The study – which found that watermarks don’t slow down piracy – included an experiment to control for piracy rates. Other researchers have suggested that watermarks cause consumers to stop listening to a CD just because the watermark has been peeled off, but remain silent when the watermark is there.
Despite their perceived failings, researchers argue watermarks can play a role in monitoring the movement of media through networks, preventing losses of licensed content and providing sufficient legal proof of ownership. For instance, by proving that copyright was purchased before a broadcast, when every copy of the same clip is in circulation.
But what do critics of watermarks say?
Critics, who believe watermarks should be used with more restraint, argue that their effectiveness isn’t robust, they are unsightly when added to content. There are also concerns about their potential to be exploited for piracy purposes.
Many also argue that watermarks don’t necessarily help protect the interests of the artist for copyright infringement, without the proper implementation. For instance, as a watermark is placed on a piece of media, the watermark can’t be controlled by the rightsholder.
In the case of money-making content such as video games, critics argue that by making them to easily transferable digital files, content owners are encouraging consumers to copy games to an unauthorized platform, and engage in copyright infringement.
Watermarks don’t always work
Recent research by security researchers, who examined the filtering approach used to prevent copying of content downloaded via peer-to-peer networks, has discovered that watermarks introduced in TV series don’t actually work, and didn’t decrease copyright infringement rates.
When it comes to documents, watermarks are even more ineffective. A research study examining watermarks applied to executable files found that the watermarks were removed by anti-virus software and left behind the watermarks of the file creator, creating a piracy loophole.
An area of particular concern to researchers is the use of watermarks on DVDs. Anti-piracy researchers have found that watermarks are frequently removed by copy-and-paste, rendering them ineffective.
Due to their potential for abuse and need for robust implementation, not all are convinced by watermarks as a viable solution. Others contend that the intended benefits of watermarks are being lost, and in some cases their use is simply a headache for content owners, who may be forced to pay tens of thousands to watermark a file for each country.
What do experts say?
Some industry experts believe that watermarks can help combat piracy, providing a tool for rightsholders to ensure compliance with their licensing terms.
For instance, watermarks can help indicate to consumers that they’ve purchased a legal product, without requiring the rightsholder to provide physical proof of purchase.
And while watermarks may not be practical to apply across all media and sectors of the content industry, there are various alternative solutions and strategies that have proven to be successful. For instance, streaming video giants Netflix have implemented a system that tracks the use of its platform. As more content is watched, the system can identify users that are sharing content, with consequences for infringements including loss of access to content.
Document security watermarks become most effective when they are part of an overall DRM system and not a single item. They also perform best when they are placed in the right places at the right time and are well communicated.
There is not one single answer to stopping piracy. But watermarks may be the right answer in the right cases — they leave no ambiguity. They give copyright owners, in theory, greater control and flexibility in how and when the watermark is applied. And they work.
So watermarks seem to have both supporters and critics, but for how long? Perhaps, most importantly, when document security watermarks are used as part of a more complete DRM system they give the publisher or distributor access to powerful control features that are not available in a pure watermarking system, such as number of times a document may be viewed, or the length of time, or regional viewing limitations. These are all additional document security measures that help prevent document piracy.