Interview: Fighting intellectual property pirates with the cloud

Herman Lintvelt, Chief Technology Officer of Custos, a South African startup which embeds imperceptible bitcoin private keys in the digital files.
Herman Lintvelt, Chief Technology Officer of Custos, a South African startup which embeds imperceptible bitcoin private keys in the digital files.
 Herman Lintvelt, Chief Technology Officer of Custos, a South African startup which embeds imperceptible bitcoin private keys in the digital files.
Herman Lintvelt, Chief Technology Officer of Custos, a South African startup which embeds imperceptible bitcoin private keys in the digital files.

The modern-day pirate has a new target. By stealing original digital content like books and films, they rob hard-working creatives of their intellectual property and income.

To address this problem, masterminds at Stellenbosch University devised a solution to redefine the bounty hunter as we know it, by luring pirates with bitcoin in order to find out the source of the contraband material.

IT News Africa has a chance to chat with Herman Lintvelt, Chief Technology Officer of Custos, a South African startup which embeds imperceptible bitcoin private keys in the digital files.

What brought the idea of venturing into the industry and how was the industry like when you started out?

Before Custos there were two approaches to fighting piracy. The first was the widely hated hard DRM that attempts to block people from copying media by restricting their access. Unfortunately, all this technology has ever managed to do was to make the viewing experience worse for the user. A motivated pirate will always be able to crack the restrictions. The other approach was forensic watermarking.

Although forensic watermarking forms an essential part of our technology, without our blockchain tracking technology you need a team of people looking for your content online for it to be effective. Even then, you cannot reach into the dark web where pirated content is disseminated from, like we can. Neither of these solutions were effective at stopping piracy. Between 20 and 60% of movies were leaked prior to release, which posed an existential problem to smaller producers who didn’t even have access to the incumbent solutions. This is why we decided to target the film market first, although we have started expanding into the ebook, sensitive document and music industries.

When we developed the technology, it was still the early days of blockchain technology. Ethereum had not launched yet, our options were restricted to a couple of Bitcoin or Litecoin copies. We opted for Bitcoin because of the support infrastructure available at the time.

Over the years we have seen the industry booming, and attitudes to it changing in a great way. When we started we were frequently had to defend our choice in using ‘internet drug money,’ as made famous by the Silk Road. Last year there was a massive boom in ICOs and we received various request to invest in Custos Coin when it launches (which is not currently on the roadmap. After all the hype and the hundreds of scams, we are now seeing larger industry players showing interest in Custos as a company that has an actual real-world profit generating application for blockchain technology with VC and institutional backing.

Right from the start, Custos has been underpinned by AWS cloud. The low-latency AWS platform allows Custos to scale easily to address the fluctuation in the demand for its services. As customers upload new media files, such as films and eBooks at unpredicted times, Custos Media systems need to scale, on multiple regions at different times, from almost no activity to massive load, so that they can process hundreds and thousands of files for watermarking.

What brought about the initiative to tackle the global problem of online privacy?

When a movie is leaked prior to release, it leads to a 19.1% reduction in lifetime revenue. This is a massive problem for the major Hollywood studios, but an existential crisis for indie producers and distributors all over the world. Custos has protected thousands of indie titles without a single leak. We give filmmakers and distributors away to send their movies to reviewers and potential buyers without the threat of it leaking. In markets where 20-60% of movies are leaked, this makes a massive difference. Custos makes use of AWS CloudWatch to collect and track metrics, collect and monitor log files, set alarms, and automatically react to suspicious changes. We have used this to gain system-wide visibility into resource utilization, application performance, and operational efficiency.

How do you plan to keep creative industries sustainable in an age of digital distribution?

Screener Copy uses cutting edge blockchain and forensic watermarking technology to help filmmakers and distributors distribute and secure their content. Whether you only want to send out a couple of screeners to reviewers, or are marketing thousands of copies daily, Screener Copy is the seamless video distribution software the creative industry’s been waiting for.

Can you unpack the process of the monitoring technology that alerts media owners to know when their content leaked?

Say you are a filmmaker, and you have just finished editing your final copy of a movie. You want to drive up the hype so you want to get it in front of some reviewers. You go on, upload your movie, and input the emails addresses of some reviewers that you know. On the back end, the platform generates unique copies for each reviewer. In each copy, using cutting edge forensic watermarking, we embed a Bitcoin wallet. A Bitcoin wallet is just a special string of numbers. This number is not visible to a viewer, but encoded into small variations in the colour and brightness that a human eye won’t be able to see, but that will remain in the copy even if you copy or compress it. In each Bitcoin wallet there’s a bit of Bitcoin. Anyone in the world that finds a copy in the wild can take this Bitcoin as their reward, and through the blockchain we are informed whose copy was found somewhere it should not have been.

With security at our centre, we really benefit from AWS network architecture. An advantage of the AWS cloud is that it allows us to scale and innovate, while maintaining a secure environment. We pay only for the services we use, meaning that you can we get the compute resources and security we need, but without the upfront expenses, and at a lower cost compared to than in an on-premises environment.

How are blockchains going to change the way we buy, sell and track assets?

The killer app for blockchain technology is digital scarcity. This can be in the form of a currency like Bitcoin, or a token that is connected to a physical, digital or societal asset. Digitising these assets means significantly lower transactional cost, and as such the market can be democratised through decentralisation.

Highly transferable assets can enable radical market economies, which could change the way we as a society fundamentally think about property. The most fundamental changes are not going to be in the way we buy and sell, but in the way we create. Crypto-economics enables creative coordination in a way we have not seen before. There are already early experiments in replacing business as we know them with crypto-coordinated voluntary collectives.

Are you looking into any other projects this year?

We are excited to expand our film offering into education and training applications. We are also planning to move into ebook, sensitive document and music protection

By Neo Sesinye
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