As the entertainment world embraces digital distribution, the major studios have been reluctant to join in, fearful that piracy would render their product — and their libraries — essentially worthless to them as pirates racked up profits in their place.

So the Digital Cinema Initiative spec made a point of spelling out the need for solutions that protect content all along the digital pipeline, from production to distribution.

Two companies, French-based Thomson and Philips Research in the Netherlands, have each developed DCI-compliant systems for limiting piracy. Both systems, Thomson’s NexGuard and Philips’ CineFence and CompoTrack products, utilize watermarking technology to help thwart the efforts of thieves, both in the post-production pipeline and in the theater (most notably via camcorded copies made from the auditorium).

For the latter, the watermark is introduced within a theater’s playback server, adding data that is invisible to audience members, but which can be picked up by even the crudest recording devices.

“We’ve even done tests with the video captured by digital still cameras, which is very poor quality, and we were still able to retrieve the watermark,” says Pascal Marie of Thomson’s strategic marketing.

In both systems, the watermark provides information as specific as the theater complex at which the video was captured, which theater within that complex, and date and time. That helps studios track the flow of digital content across the Internet.

Not yet developed, but on the drawing board at both companies, is “camjamming” technology, which not only captures an embedded watermark but makes the captured content unusable. “It’s something which has been quite difficult to develop,” notes Ronald Maandonks, Philips’ general manager of content identification. “It has to be imperceptible to the human eye but disturbing to the camera.”

Equally important is protecting content in each step of the production phase — everything from digital dailies to visual effects to color grading. “With the migration towards digital workflow, in post-production, content security becomes a very hot topic,” says Marie, noting the leakage of an uncolor-corrected copy of Universal’s “Hulk” in 2003 helped give critics and potential audiences the wrong impression about the green superhero.

Both Thomson and Philips offer watermarking systems for post (Philips with its CompoTrack and RepliTrack products, depending on format) to dissuade copying of content during that phase of production. Additionally, Thomson includes an integrated encryption system. “By encrypting the content and giving very specific tokens to specific individuals within a post house, etc., you can limit the access to the content to only the people who need to access it to accomplish their task,” Marie explains.

Both companies note the next step in content security will involve video-on-demand. “We want to make the watermarking technology available to set-top box manufacturers, so that when premium content is available on video-on-demand services, it’s possible to identify individual transactions,” Marie says.

Maandonks notes Philips’ CompoTrack MPEG watermarking system is already available for such use and that the company is working with manufacturers to integrate the product into video processors as well.