What is Forensic Watermarking in Digital Content?

by | June 5, 2023

Whether you’re a video editor or social media content creator, digital content piracy is a grave threat to anyone who makes a living from content creation.

TV and film piracy comprise nearly 60% of all digital intellectual property theft, making it an especially urgent problem for filmmakers and video professionals.

Forensic video watermarking is one effective way to stem the rising tide of digital content theft. Here’s what it is and how it works.

This post was reviewed by Ken Negard, Security Architect and Systems Engineer at Robot Talk, a security and systems design consultancy for VFX, film and TV studios.

Table of Contents

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What is Forensic Watermarking?

Forensic watermarking is one of the most effective deterrents and methods of digital content protection against piracy and illegal use. It involves embedding an imperceptible mark within digital audio, image, text, or video files (even 3D models) that includes metadata about who created the content and other information. That’s why it’s sometimes called invisible watermarking.

A forensic video watermark is typically impossible to replicate or remove from a video without destroying the source material. These digital, session-based watermarks include unique identifiers that give content creators information about specific users viewing their content. Such unique identifiers stay with the asset across all digital environments — from mobile phones to desktop computers — and can help content owners discover the source of a leak.

After all, digital piracy soared to an 18% year-over-year increase in 2022, according to a Variety report. The need for trackable content is a must in today’s digital ecosystem.

Traditional or analog watermarks (also known as visible watermarks) date to the 13th century, when they were developed by Italian papermakers for use on paper documents. This visible image watermarking is what you see on copyrighted images before purchasing their rights.

Dynamic watermarking is another form of visible watermarking, but it changes based on different factors, such as the user watching it or where the video is being played. Dynamic watermarking is more effective than using a static watermark, but because it’s still visible, data pirates can still get around it.

Forensic Watermarking

A photograph with visible watermarks. – Shutterstock

Digital watermarking made its first appearance in 1993. The first session-based forensic video watermarks — which generated viewer information from cable subscribers’ set-top boxes — appeared in 2007. Forensic watermarking has been a go-to method of tracking and protecting digital content ever since.

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How Does Forensic Watermarking for Video Content Work?

Forensic video watermarking is done by one of two generalized entities:

  • Studios that release movies and TV shows, to gather intelligence and spot vulnerabilities;
  • And live broadcasters who need to track pirated streams of their content.

These entities work with a forensic watermark solution provider, like MediaSilo or ContentArmor, to inject watermarks into their content.

Forensic watermarks should have the following characteristics:

  1. Imperceptibility: Markings shouldn’t be audible or visible, and all watermarked copies should be indistinguishable from the original to a human viewer.
  2. Robustness: Forensic watermarking should maintain its metadata no matter how severely the host file is altered, and it should be impossible to attempt a watermarking removal without also destroying the host media.
  3. Capacity: Watermarks should have the ability to store large amounts of data.
  4. Security: It should be impossible to alter or modify a watermark or create a false watermark.
  5. Efficiency: Watermarks should be generated and extracted into and from a media item using minimal time and computing resources.

The easiest and most efficient way of applying a forensic watermark to a video requires the asset first to be uploaded to a forensic watermarking service. The asset’s digital makeup is then profiled to determine where to apply watermarks.

This creates a chain of custody for the asset, which can be tracked across the following steps:

  1. Creation: A watermark is added to a video, which contains information like the creation date and information about the owner.
  2. Sharing: Every time someone else shares the video, a new layer of information can be added on top of the original one, which contains information about who is sharing the video and when they are doing it.
  3. Verification: If someone is watching the video, the watermarks can be checked to make sure the video is the real one, and hasn’t been tampered with.
  4. Intervention: If the video is somewhere it shouldn’t be (like on a pirate website), the watermarks can be used to find out where the video was taken from. Watermarking can also serve as evidence if the owner of the video decides to take legal action.
  5. Record Keeping: The watermark information on the video can be used as a record of where the video has been. This is useful for keeping track of who has been sharing the video, and whether they’ve been doing it in the right way.
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Types of Watermarks

Several types of watermarks exist, including visible overlay (which overlays the mark on top of the video) or burn-in (which encodes the mark in the video at point of play) techniques. These techniques, however, require distracting information to be shown on screen.

Forensic watermarking in the media and entertainment industry, on the other hand, encodes a unique mark into the video file that acts as a unique identifier of whoever consumes the content.

These imperceptible marks also provide a clean image without other distracting information.

But there are also different types of forensic watermarks:

  1. Server-side watermarking, considered the most secure, is integrated into the video processing platform and is applied at the video’s encoding stage. This style of watermarking, however, takes longer and is more expensive to implement, can cause playback delay, and requires longer video clips than client side watermarking to enable detection.
  2. Client-side watermarking, while common, is faster to execute but considered less secure because it is applied on the consumer’s device. Because of this, watermarking logic can be inadvertently exposed to clients. Still, most sports and other live broadcasts use client-side watermarking because extracting the marks from unauthorized streams is faster.

Why is Forensic Watermarking Important for Digital Content Protection?

We already mentioned the vast (and growing) presence of video piracy, which is why video forensic watermarking is important for digital content protection.

Once a video file is injected with a forensic watermark, the watermarks can then be used to automatically detect when pirates attempt to distribute, alter, or manipulate a leaked or unlawfully copied video.

Most pirates deliberately change the format of video content through transcoding, transrating, filtering, or other techniques, which disposes of any metadata attached to the video in its previous form.

Even if someone alters a video and its metadata is destroyed, however, the forensic watermark remains. Content owners can then use the watermark to locate the video in the wild, extract the watermark’s metadata, determine the source of the leak, and act accordingly.

Forensic watermarking can also be used to alert users they have received an unauthorized video file, and to track and measure the popularity of online content.

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Challenges and Limitations of Forensic Watermarking

One of the biggest advantages of forensic watermarking is that it doesn’t affect video quality. Most big studios make sure of this by using so-called “golden eyes” — trained viewers able to detect even the smallest difference in an image — to scan the material before release.

There are, however, some notable limitations to forensic watermarking:

  • It requires an asset length of at least two minutes. In most cases, shorter videos don’t have enough data to work with to provide effective forensic watermarks.
  • It works best with a large variety of visuals. Videos with static or rarely-changing imagery can’t produce very effective identifiers.
  • It takes longer to watermark. The video processing time of forensic watermarking is about double that of other types of watermarking, but only needs to be performed once.
  • It’s not always reliable. Some video clips won’t provide automated detection during forensic investigations.

Forensic Watermarking: Leveling the Playing Field for Content Creators

Content pirates hell-bent on copyright infringement had it pretty easy for a long time. No one pays any attention to those FBI warnings, after all.

While not perfect, forensic watermarking has helped combat digital piracy. Pirated online content can now be tracked, detected, and dealt with no matter where it lives on the internet thanks to unique identifiers that are not visible to the human eye. Forensic watermarks are imperceptible, robust, secure, efficient, and have a high capacity for data storage.

Filmmakers and other content creators can, in turn, protect their content much more efficiently than ever before through forensic watermarks for audio, video, image, and other digital files.

But forensic watermarking is only one part of the overall security equation for filmmakers and studios. If data gets into the wrong hands, forensic watermarking can find where the leak happened. It can’t prevent it altogether.

That’s where MASV comes in. It’s the world’s fastest, most reliable, and secure file transfer service that’s trusted by remote teams the world over.

MASV can work hand-in-hand with forensic watermarking to protect digital content:

  • MASV is certified under ISO 27001, SOC 2, and HIPAA — and is a member of the Motion Picture Association’s Trusted Partner Network (Gold Shield status).
  • All transfers sent through MASV are encrypted both in-transit with TLS 12 and at-rest with AES-256.
  • All files have multiple layers of protection with user access controls such as password protection, file expiry dates, multi-factor authentication (MFA), SAML-based single sign-on (SSO), and download limits. These features allow you to control who can access files and when.
  • Senders are notified when their file is being downloaded, for extra visibility.

By combining MASV’s security features with forensic watermarking, content creators can ensure that their video projects and other digital content is protected against unauthorized use or distribution.

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