Hollywood has a new hero hunting down video pirates

New technology developed by researchers at Tel Aviv University detects pirated clips with what they call a "genetic code."

By ARIEH O’SULLIVAN / THE MEDIA LINE
December 26, 2010 11:29
4 minute read.
"Avatar" was the most pirated video this year

piracy. (photo credit: coutesy)

 
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Hollywood’s search for a technical elixir that can curb the billions of dollars worth of lost revenue to people downloading television shows and movies from the Internet may now have a solution that mimics the techniques used to map human DNA.

Researchers at Tel Aviv University say they can hunt down pirates by using what they call the video’s “genetic code.”  The system is designed to search videos as quickly as search engines seek out texts. Its developers say the technology will let film producers’ trawl the vast ocean of the Internet in the search for video pirates.

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It works by slapping an invisible grid over the original video and using it to detect changes in color, resolution manipulations and geometric transformations, much like DNA is used to trace genealogy.  

“The method actually allows a search of a video clip in the same way that bioinformatics are used to detect basic gene sequencing,” said Alex Bronstein of Tel Aviv University's Department of Electrical Engineering, an expert in bioinformatics using algorithms in human genetic research and one of two twin brothers who in the team that devised the technology.

The illegal downloading and streaming videos of movies on the Internet are responsible for up to 40% of the movie industries losses to piracy, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. The rest comes from illegal DVDs and other physical means of storing and transferring video content.

Global losses for the entertainment industry video piracy were estimated to about $9 million last year, according to Havascope, an online database of black market activities. In the Middle East, movie pirate losses in Iran were $100 million, Saudi Arabia $95 million, Israel $61 million and Turkey $29 million.

The most pirated video this year, according to The Hollywood Reporter, was the American-produced science fiction hit Avatar, which was downloaded over 16 million times. Even after such monumental theft, the movie still was the highest grossing box office hit with $2.8 billion.



Digital encryption has proved ineffective in stopping pirates bootlegging movies, who use high-definition recorders to make a new master. But while technology has been the major factor enabling piracy, Bronstein’s new technique proves technology can be used to combat it.

According to Bronstein, downloading movies on BitTorrent and other file-sharing applications on the Internet are commonplace and the movie studios don’t love them to say the least. These applications work by splitting up movies into thousands of pieces and then assembling them again so that the source can’t be detected.

Bronstein said his video-search technology replicates the process by video sequencing.  Called “video DNA matching,” the system automatically sweeps Web sites where suspected pirated videos are offered to locate not only aberrations of the original video’s fingerprint, but common ancestry.

"It's not only members of the animal and plant kingdom that can have DNA," Bronstein, said in a press release. "If a DNA test can identify and catch criminals, we thought that a similar code might be applicable to video. If the code were copied and changed, we'd catch it."

This data would be taken to the owners of the video who would then decide whether to press charges of piracy or not, said Bronstein, who developed the technique with his twin Michael and Israeli researcher Ron Kimmel.

One of the major video-sharing sites, YouTube, has attempted to detect copyright infringement, but the system they use doesn’t work when a video is altered. According to The New York Times, more than one-third of the two billion clips viewed on YouTube each week contain content uploaded without the original owners’ permission.

YouTube has an automated system that detects music uploaded without a license. But its video detection relies on sweeping the text attached to it rather than the video itself, and that can easily be manipulated to get through. Bronstein said his method could save thousands of man hours of search time since it is fully automated and can detect altered videos. 

Production companies have been engaged in automating the detection of bootlegged and pirated videos and the introduction of an automated “Video DNA” system is bound to be a welcomed.

Still, some have argued that Hollywood could reduce the incentive to pirate videos if it lowered download costs. Yet, there will always be those who will try to get videos for free no matter what.

David Blumenfeld, a documentary film maker, told The Media Line that the simple knowledge that a film someone is watching was pirated wouldn’t stop the general public from watching it.

“Most people know that when they pay five bucks or download a video from the Internet that they are pirated and I’m not sure they care. A lot of people don’t even think that is stealing, even though it is.”

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