Microsoft (MSFT) technology research partner Activated Content will be working with Universal Music to test their watermarking technology on DRM-free music files in the wild. CNET’s Matt Rosof suggests that this could be an effective replacement for DRM, and I think it’s a step in the right direction. The results of this experiment should be watched closely by video content creators, because the same technology is applicable to them as well.
For the uninitiated, watermarking is the practice of encrypting a unique digital fingerprint in a file that can then be used by software to identify a particular piece of media. The image above, from a good primer by Cheryl Cramer of Willamette University on existing solutions for images, demonstrates how a watermarked image could be tracked through a distribution chain.
For instance, video-sharing sites like YouTube’s long promised “claim your content” system could check for watermarks by rights holders to prevent unauthorized uploads — even aggressive ISPs could employ watermark filters. It would allow companies to automate the process of issuing DMCA requests as well, by setting up bots to spider media files.
Originally reported by Wired, there was some concern that not just songs but individual files would have unique watermarks, making it possible to track copies back to the source who purchased them — but in a follow up, Contentinople cites sources at Universal who say that no personally identifiable information will be included. Other potential watermarking uses include identifying content for the purpose of reporting views or running relevant ads against them, as Activated Content’s ActiveNow promises, or making it easier for sites to index Creative Commons content by comparing watermarks to a rights-licensing database.
A number of passive fingerprinting techniques exist, such as Audible Magic, which has had mixed results in field studies. A hash-based system, FileRights, is being used by torrent trackers ISOHunt and Torrentspy as part of a court settlement. A quick search of Torrentspy still turns up copyrighted content such as the Bourne Ultimatum. Something tells me that when it comes to hacking content-protection schemes, where there’s a will, there’s a way.