The facts and figures bandied about on the subject of Internet piracy are mind-boggling. According to a market insight report published last year by anti-piracy specialists MUSO on film and TV piracy alone, pirate sites notched up over 141 billion visits in 2015, with the United States topping the list of countries the pirates prefer to operate in. Almost 80% of this illicit activity centred on streaming sites and their multiple proxies, streaming whole server farms of pirated small screen and movie content; these sites are tricky to identify and notoriously difficult to take offline in any permanent way.
The damage to creative industries just based in the UK is tallied at costing a whopping £500 million per year and the authorities are forever playing catch-up. For every illegitimate operation shut down, another two spring up to fill the void, like some kind of virtual simulation of Whack-a-mole. Help may soon be at hand though – and from a somewhat unconventional direction. The solution, apparently, is just to add a dash of bitcoin to the mix.
Online gamers were among the first groups to experience the potential benefits of the bitcoin revolution firsthand when the cryptocurrency was first introduced as a payment option on iGaming websites. You can try it for yourself to take advantage of real-time and automated payouts, or that data stored in the blockchain, the technology behind the cryptocurrency, cannot be altered; meaning its impossible to lose that winning ticket. Learning from example, other sectors would soon follow.
As more businesses lend their weight and credibility to the bitcoin revolution, blockchain technology is being put to work in fields of industry ranging from medtech through to international finance.
One such application that is currently attracting a great deal of interest among the movers and shakers of the UK film industry concerns the race to develop an innovative anti-piracy strategy using the operating principles of bitcoin tech. Custos Media Technologies is a South African high-tech start-up formed by professor G-J van Rooyen in 2013 that claims to have found a viable solution to the challenge posed by the internet pirates. Based at the University of Stellenbosch just outside Cape Town, van Rooyen’s team have found a way to embed bitcoin into the digital content of media files, bringing the blockchain to bear on the all-too-exposed loop that exists between movie studios, reviewers, and distributors.
As things stand, it is reckoned that most digital piracy is conducted somewhere between the new film’s journey from studio or distributor to reviewer. Files get copied and no-one can identify the original license breaker. Forensic accuracy is impossible in most cases – and prohibitively expensive in all cases. Embedding bitcoin code into the movie file at source changes all that, allowing the signature blockchain to reveal pirates’ identity in a way that has never been practical before. The customary pre-release publicity push by studios to get their content reviewed can now be safeguarded by a license agreement that appoints the content recipient (typically a reviewer) as legally responsible for keeping the digital content and the bitcoin code inside it free from the clutch of digital pirates. If piracy is attempted, as soon as the pirate copy hits the Internet, the bitcoin code within is released into the public domain where anyone can claim it – in effect, a virtual “bounty” on the pirate’s head.
“The technology provides a unique solution to a very large content market, across media types. The company has a very large market to grow into,” says van Rooyen, who anticipates cross-sector interest from the publishing industry, games developers, eBook producers, and the music business. Custos’ approach is certainly a refreshing one, crowd-sourcing the struggle against Internet piracy could prove infinitely more effective than targeting the pirates on a case-by-case basis. Time will tell. It usually does.