How DRM Works to Protect Video

Any content that can be played can be pirated, but there are ways to make it much harder for streams that matter. Because we are using true streaming servers instead of web servers to deliver streaming media, ours is already harder to steal than most. But, when your media matters, you should take a close look at protecting it.

Downloads are Easy (to Steal)

Did you know most service providers that offer “streaming” aren’t really streaming? They serve the files from web servers instead of media servers. It’s called “progressive download”, and it’s the way most online video is served today.

To steal progressive videos, just right click a file and “Save As…” to put it on your own drive. Or, if that’s too much trouble, just grab any of dozens of for you. This is so easy because web server links are designed to be downloaded. True streaming servers only send video directly to your media player as it plays, but video from web servers is completely unprotected.

“As a pioneer in the development and delivery of pay-per-view video on the Web, we worked to build a solution that could solve key challenges our clients face in selling their content on the Web … to ensure this system handles in real time the enormous volumes required by our clients such as Showtime Boxing, Earthcam, and UFA Sports.”

― M. Terretta,
Feb. 2000

A better level of protection is hosting the files on true streaming servers, which generally only deliver the content in proprietary formats to proprietary clients. However, clever software tools exist in the hacker community that can conceivably store the stream on the client-side hard drive at the same time as it’s being played. And that leads us to Digital Rights Management, or “DRM.”

How Does DRM Work?

Digital Rights Management is a genre of software designed to wrap digital media in special protections that allow the content owner or content distributor to assign particular viewing rights to users and content. They can specify a certain number of views by any client, or an unlimited number of views by a single particular client, or any combination in between. DRM software most often packages the content for viewing by one particular client, meaning only the person who paid for it can watch it. There are several companies marketing digital rights management solutions. We find only Microsoft’s solution is capable of handling high volumes of traffic. And we’re very familiar with Microsoft’s DRM solution because we helped develop it and have been using it since 1998, longer than anyone else.

DRM lets people play or download video content but doesn’t let them give it to their friends or play it more than you want them to.

What’s Needed to Use DRM?

There’s a catch with DRM though. It’s expensive to implement, so it’s only really appropriate for people who can make enough return on the investment in DRM to warrant the expense of setting it up. A real DRM solution requires a full-fledged e-commerce store, with shopping carts for the media content, credit card billing fully integrated (users MUST get charged before the download, otherwise they have the content and it’s too late to do anything if the card doesn’t clear) and a set of powerful servers. The reason the servers have to be powerful is that the content has to be encrypted for the particular user with the DRM wrapper specifying that users’ rights, and encrypting content is about the most demanding thing you can make a computer do these days.

If you’re serious about DRM, we’ve helped big names like House of Blues Digital and World Wrestling Entertainment show a profit online, and we can do the same for you.

“Our experience enabled us to work closely with Microsoft on the development of Digital Broadcast Manager to ensure that it solved these challenges, and we have depended on early versions of this technology over the past two years for some of our most high-profile events like pay-per-view sports entertainment and concerts…”

― M. Terretta,
June 2000

But first, we recommend a strategy session to help ensure the business model is a good one, because a custom digital media e-commerce store can run around $5K – $45K in development costs, then the Media Plan may be $1k a month or up, depending on bandwidth and storage. Sounds expensive? Not really, when you consider that by using DRM you can sell video worldwide for a monthly charge that is less than staffing a couple clerks at the local video rental store.

Our goal for our DRM systems was to let you sell or rent video for less than the cost of sending a DVD by the post office. And it turns out, we’re not all that expensive. By 2007, it cost one-fifth as much to use our DRM as to mail a DVD one way.

What About PPV or PPM?

Somewhat less expensive than full DRM is simple “PPV” which password protects live or on-demand streams in real time. It doesn’t encrypt them, it only limits access. Our PPV is designed for extreme volume situations, which means it can handle most anyone’s traffic.

Instead of setting up a whole e-commerce store for PPV, we recommend setting up a “membership” database in LDAP, or we can (for lesser volumes) authenticate off of an LDAP-compatible database you already have. Then every stream requires a name and password, only lets the same name and password get used once at a time (we call this “one ticket, one seat”), and tracks how many plays there are from any given username.

Learn more about DRM

Here’s a couple great resources for learning about DRM and its ins and outs, particularly the system we helped develop, and links to two early Microsoft press releases discussing our founders’ involvement with early versions of digital rights management:

The and articles are very good introductions, while the rest of the content may be less interesting unless you’re a developer.

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