‘Spying’ Watermark Technology Aims to Wipe Out Music and Movie Piracy

By ghostdad (Flickr: Novation demo) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By ghostdad (Flickr: Novation demo) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Adding watermarks to music or audio is nothing new. It aims to prove ownership and prevent piracy but has so far been ineffective in achieving the latter goal. Things may change, however, as audio watermark technology advances. Just recently, it was announced that a new audio watermark technology has been developed and is viewed to have the potential of wiping out video and music piracy.

Watermarking to Locate the Piracy Source

Researchers from Deakin University in Geelong and Japan’s Aizu University have created a new watermarking process designed to effectively address seemingly insurmountable problem of piracy worldwide. This new technology is designed to leave “breadcrumb trails” that will lead to the source of the illegally downloaded media. Actually, the developers are saying that it is capable of identifying every user who has illegally distributed the watermarked file. We’re just not sure what kind of effect it will have on the file as it continues to accumulate data regarding the illegal downloads. The data being collected including IP addresses and credit card details.

This new watermarking technology is designed to be hidden deep into the media itself to prevent attempts of having it removed. Obviously, it can only work if it continues to be embedded in the audio file so it has to stay concealed until it is intentionally detected and extracted by those who have the right decrypting key. The watermark data usually included are the publisher’s name, signature, logo, and ID number.

The researchers have not come up with a name for this new watermarking system yet. The lead researcher for the project is Yong Xiang from Deakin University. Professor Xiang said that this technology “enables music file owners and relevant law enforcement authorities to use a secret key to extract the watermark data.”

By The Pirate Bay [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

By The Pirate Bay [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Highlight Features

So what makes this new watermarking technology better? What are the features that stand out? How will it be able to curb online piracy down?

  • One of things that make this technology significantly better is its ability to not affect the quality of the audio file being shared. It is meant to be discreet so it should not show hints of its presence. As Yong Xiang said, this new watermark is intended to not compromise the quality of the watermarked music or audio file. The watermarked file can be shared as many times as possible without the watermark’s tracking function causing any material changes on the file.
  • Another important feature of this new watermark is its tamper-proofing. The developers say that it cannot be modified or removed from the audio file. Hence, the watermark itself can provide irrefutable evidence of illegal or improper file use. Data collected by the watermark can then be extracted to find out the IP addresses and other important details of those continue sharing the file illegally. The technology is a patchwork-based audio watermarking method designed to be resistant to de-synchronization attacks.
  • The technology is also usable on videos. According to Waniel Zhou, another Deakin professor involved in the project, the technology could also be used to stop TV and movie piracy. In an interview with Daily Mail Australia, he said that they only did it for audio “but anything you do for audio you can apply to video.” This means movies and TV shows being regularly shared online can also benefit from the technology.
  • This new technology was compared by the researchers to the top five watermarking programs available on the market. It was found that it is the most effective in keeping the watermark integrity and leaving a trail even after the audio files had been altered. The researchers were still able to detect 100% of the watermarks after the file modifications while others only managed to detect around 40% to 90%.

Will It Really Eliminate Piracy?

The developers of this new watermarking technology are confident that their method is more resistant to attempts of tampering and can provide a good way of tracing the source of the illegal downloads. However, an article on Billboard expresses doubts that it probably wouldn’t impact piracy.According to the SVP for Technology at the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), David Hughes, “That’s well and good but watermark removal isn’t the problem.” Hughes believes the the problem lies in marketplace adoption.

The idea is that keeping track of all the songs released will be a very difficult challenge. If a publisher, for instance, aims to sell hundreds of thousands of copies of a new single, a big database will have to be maintained. David Hughes things this is a “big pain in the a*s.” Publishers wouldn’t probably see a lot of value in it unless it’s a pre-release. Besides, the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre showed that online piracy didn’t adversely affect music sales.

By Peter Morgan [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Peter Morgan [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


Waniel Zhou and his a team, after publishing their paper on their new watermarking technology, will be looking for corporate sponsors to help spread promote it for wider adoption. He said that he has received a lot of calls from various parties interested in the technology. However, it’s still too early to say if the watermarking method Zhou and his team developed is really going to successfully eliminate or at least materially reduce digital piracy.