'Video DNA' could catch out pirates

It seems that no visit to the pub these days is complete without a pirate DVD seller thrusting a large satchel full of knock-off discs in your face. 

And as anyone who has ever seen a pirate DVD one can attest the quality can range from those that are filmed in the back row of a cinema to ones with half finished special effects, like the notorious Wolverine bootleg.

Aside from the frequent bad quality of recordings, the film industry reckons billions are lost each year.  Scientists at Tel Aviv University’s Department of Electrical engineering have looked to DNA as a means to stop the unwarranted distribution of films.

Twin brothers Dr Alex and Michael Bronstein have, alongside Israeli researcher Professor Ron Kimmel, have been attempting to develop a method of tracing video footage by creating a DNA analogue, like a fingerprint, that can be applied to every individual film on the planet.

“It’s not only members of the animal and plant kingdom that can have DNA,” says Dr. Bronstein, who was inspired by DNA sequencing tools used in bioinformatics laboratories. “If a DNA test can identify and catch criminals, we thought that a similar code might be applicable to video. If the code were copied and changed, we’d catch it.”

The method involves employing an invisible sequence and applying a series of grids over the film. The technology is then able to turn the footage into a series of numbers.  Afterwards, it’s possible to scan the internet, focusing on websites where pirate films are  downloaded, before pinpointing subsequent mutations of the original.

According to Dr Bronstein, when films are altered, colours changed, or the film is bootlegged in a cinema the film can then be tracked online.

The technology, dubbed ‘video DNA matching’ detects aberrations in pirated video in much the same way that a biologist is able to find mutations in genetic code, such as when determining an individual’s familial connections.

According to the researchers, the technique works by identifying features of the film that remain basically unchanged by typical colour and resolution manipulations, and geometric transformations.

It is also noted that the technology is still effective even with commercials added in, border changes and even with scenes edited out.

The researchers believe that the technology will have useful applications with regards to user generated sites like YouTube – they say it automates the detection of copyright infringement to a degree, but not when the video has been altered, unlike the ‘video DNA matching’ method.

Furthermore they believe that the problem with catching pirated video is that it requires thousands of hours to watch the content being downloaded.  The researchers believe that production companies’ only hope is to fully automate the process, something that video DNA matching may be able to assist with.