A number of companies have introduced digital watermarking software and services that allow webmasters and copyright owners to embed information within graphics and audio and video files that can be used to identify the owner's rights to those works. Nevertheless, market research firm Gartner says that, while watermarking is useful for tracking and managing content and, particularly, for identifying illegal use of that content, it still does not constitute true content protection.
"Watermarks can be removed or obscured and they are vulnerable to cropping and other types of file manipulation," says Gartner analyst Ray Wagner. "A further limitation is the lack of standards for watermarks, which could allow perimeter security mechanisms to filter content based on internal-use-only types of watermarks."
Wagner warned watermarking is a passive protection mechanism that can provide only a psychological deterrent to unauthorized use of content.
"Watermarks can be used as forensic evidence by embedding specific distribution data within documents," says Wagner. "But it should not be considered as a foolproof protection, because digital watermarks can be removed or obscured."
He emphasized, though, that just knowing that content is watermarked will deter illegal use by a majority of users who have access to that content.
"However, the inherent weakness of watermarks - they are alterable because they must be readable - leaves watermarked content vulnerable to being intentionally compromised," Wagner says.
According to Gartner, key drivers of enterprise adoption of watermarking technologies include the growth in collaborative commerce and web services, which significantly increase the sharing of intellectual property. A logical place for watermarking technology is within document management and workflow systems where electronic protection of content is extremely important for enterprises and particularly for providers of consumer products and services.
For example, digital watermarking can help various segments of the entertainment industry where piracy or bootlegging can endanger enterprises' viability. Without some type of deterrence in place, such inappropriate use of intellectual property could be detrimental.
Adobe Systems, which focuses on document control as well as digital signatures, works to ensure that only authorized individuals can view and modify documents delivered in the globally accepted Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF), the de facto standard for the secure exchange of electronic document forms. John Landwehr, group manager for security solutions and strategies at Adobe, pointed out that permissions assigned remain attached to the document at all times, no matter who has access or what modifications are allowed.
"We've been seeing a significant shift in organizations towards privacy and confidentiality," he says. "You want to protect information especially in sectors where there are sensitive design plans and no one wants that information to leak out."
Another company, Digimarc, which was the first to have its digital watermarking products bundled with Adobe Photoshop, confirmed there has been a substantial increase in demand over the last nine to 12 months, with enterprises focusing increasingly on digital watermarking technology. Scott Carr, president, digital watermarking solutions at Digimarc, says watermarking can help enterprises detect and, if necessary, take legal and other action against the misuse of their intellectual property.
"The intention was to protect the security of intellectual property and, from a security perspective, most of the recent focus has been on identity theft and current documents," says Carr. "The issues became a lot more important after September 11."
Digimarc uses digital watermarking technology to identify the source of digitized content and to block unauthorized access and copying. The organization's layered security architecture is built on features that range from biometrics, digital watermarking and multicolor UV printing, through to tamper-proof document design and construction.
Carr says the company recently made public a new wireless application that turns printed materials into wireless launching points, delivered in a mix of streaming audio and video directly to a user's smart camera phone or PDA.
Brand owners can enable printed advertisements, logos and product packaging with imperceptible MediaBridge digital watermarks to create printed hot spots that offer direct delivery of relevant audio, video and media content streamed to the mobile user. The Wireless MediaBridge system is the mobile version of the company's MediaBridge system, which embeds an invisible digital watermark into printed materials, such as a magazine advertisement or direct mailing piece.
Meanwhile, Finjan Software, which delivers proactive content security solutions, intends to pursue the market through a recent acquisition of digital rights management software company Alchemedia Technologies. Shlomo Touboul, founder and chief executive of Finjan, says his company will integrate the DRM software in its Mirage product, which tracks and audits access of sensitive digital documents and prevents unauthorized copying, printing and screen capturing of important information.
"Intellectual property can be kept up-to-date by preventing users from saving or copying," he says.
Taking a slightly different approach, a small San Francisco-based firm, Cryptography Research, has developed a technology that associates security measures with each piece of content instead of using a generic protection scheme for all copies.
The company says the combination of forensic marking and programmable security can enable publishers to control piracy using risk management techniques similar to those used to protect credit/debit card payment networks.
The architecture includes a digital watermarking function that would let content owners identify every legal copy of a given piece of content. If a legal copy is duplicated, the illegal version could be traced. Under this system, which the company calls self-protecting digital content, each playback device will have a unique set of keys for decrypting content. During playback, content-specific code running on the virtual machine would obtain information about the playback environment from player APIs and would analyze the results to decide and control whether and how decoding should proceed.
The content's code can also authenticate output devices, support player-specific security features, validate user actions, check for malicious software on PCs and determine whether media is consumer-recordable.
Benjamin Jun, vice-president of Cryptography Research, says that investments in security have been inadequate relative to the major economic threat posed by piracy.
"After successfully lobbying for the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, (DMCA), publishers have failed to present a coherent long-term technical strategy," he says.
Even though the computer industry has not yet agreed on a universal standard for digital watermarks, efforts by the software industry, the recording industry and the political arena continue to take place as the groups work towards a completely secure system for digital content.
For instance, new legislation that was introduced by Senator Joe Biden is now pending in the U.S. Congress which will specifically penalize those who alter watermarks.
Additionally, a series of treaties recently drafted by WIPO, the World Intellectual Property Organization, requires countries to penalize citizens who remove digital watermarks from media. The U.S.' DMCA also provides that "no person shall circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work protected under this title."
Currently, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is talking with watermarking technology companies to review different options and will eventually decide on a universal standard.
It is not hard to see why this industry in particular is so eager to find a solution. According to the RIAA, the value of illegal copies of music distributed over the Internet could soon reach $2 billion a year.