Will Watermarks Work?

A number of major studios want to settle on a digital watermarking standard, according to Laurie Sullivan’s recent article in Red Herring. Digital rights management schemes are by no means ironclad, but by putting unique digital signatures in their movies, studios would in theory enable file sharing networks to filter out copyrighted material.

The drive to promote watermarking will get a big push on Monday when a consortium of Hollywood associations releases a white paper that urges the industry to adopt one set of watermarking standards and start testing technologies that will enable the studios to securely distribute their content over any P2P network.

271688620_30e4b6c47c_m.jpgStudios have already been using watermarks extensively, both in theaters and on DVD screeners, in order to track pirated content back to its source.

Of course, this would seem to require the file sharing networks to cooperate. While legitimate efforts like BitTorrent surely will, others most certainly won’t. The studios can’t even get Disney on the team (thanks to their relationship with Steve Jobs and his pet DRM, Fairplay) — what makes them think that file sharing software developers will all play ball?

On the other hand, once you get past the privacy concerns, watermarking could potentially make it easier to monetize video. Not by protecting content, but by making it easier to build reporting tools for advertisers. For instance, Nielsen NetRatings could set up some users with software that reports what video media they’ve watched online. It’ll be interesting to see if the white paper is released publicly, and how it will specifically address issues of content protection and privacy.

Photo by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid.