Content Licensing Gets Complicated: Who’s Minding the Store
Originally featured here in www.streamingmedia.com.
The video ecosystem is getting more complex, so managing licenses manually is becoming impractical. Learn how publishers and broadcasters are turning to automation to solve the problem.
As the amount of content multiplies exponentially for viewers, in both what and where they can watch, video services and content distributors have an even more pressing need to manage the evolving global content licensing business.
In a few clicks, viewers have more video choice than ever before, and the precise location of the viewer has serious implications. Where previously geo-gating might have been enough, now customers have many more locations and methods to view content. Buying or renting? Mobile, desktop, or connected TV? Streaming or downloadable? SD or HD? AVOD, TVOD, or SVOD? Are there content blackout rights? Subtitles or dubbed? Was a promotional offer used?
This is a story about how some video retailers and content distributors use automation for license management, as well as many who, as of yet, don’t. Manual license management has been the status quo, and that’s been fine with a lot of video services. What is forcing change is the challenge of tracking too many permutations of content licenses.
Nothing is straightforward or standardized in the world of online video. The matrix of varying delivery requirements is complicated by another business matrix of what legally can be consumed—by territory, device, subscription level, promotional offers, and purchase type. “There are very few standards, and the industry hasn’t adopted a unique identifier yet for content,” says Amos Biegun, managing director (UK), global head of rights and royalties, Vistex. If there’s no standard for something as simple as a title-naming convention, it’s no wonder this is a confusing market.
Personalization and Worldwide Delivery
Providing personalized access to TV and online video has led content owners to want to fully optimize their rights in ways that perhaps no one would have anticipated. “Licensing deals have become more complicated because licensees get niche licenses for different geos or different devices or a variety of permutations of where they can play content,” says Nate Thompson, managing director, Globant.
“We’ve done implementations where we will do an avails call and that will then tell us what can be available in that country. In some cases, there will be an integration into a video CMS [content management system] or an OVP [online video platform].” From there, a lot of content is protected by digital rights management (DRM), depending on the publisher, but this article is really about what happens before DRM is used to enforce business rules.
The advent of new devices and over-the-top (OTT) delivery worldwide has led to a growing challenge around the tracking of the actual content playback rights, with respect to not just geographies but also devices. “If we take iFlix as an example, they are in so many countries now and they address their audience in so many languages, multiple languages per country very often. They have different rights for each country. They may even have different rights for each audio and different rights for subtitling,” says Helge Høibraaten, CEO of OVP Vimond Media Solutions. “Sometimes you don’t have the same rights windows for all the different screens. Maybe mobile rights are different from smart TV rights, for instance.”
Since content licensing rights don’t seem to be getting simpler anytime soon, the solution for the trend of personalization and worldwide distribution rests with automation. “We’ve seen a couple of companies that have developed rights management and avails software that will plug in as part of an overall media workflow. The two we see in the market the most are Mediamorph and Rightsline,” says Thompson.
Content Licensing Management
Content licensing management is based on avails, the content availability metadata that outlines specific license terms about when movies or TV content can be shown. The Entertainment Merchants Association (EMA) has developed recommended digital supply chain standards for this metadata.
“Many of the major digital video storefronts have embraced a nonproprietary TVOD [transactional video on demand] avails solution we developed called EMA Avails and are incorporating that into their workflows. Major studios and service and technology providers who support those content suppliers are adapting their systems to be EMA Avails compliant,” says Sean Bersell, senior vice president of public affairs, EMA.
The lack of standards in metadata is also mirrored in the uniqueness of each media owner or distributor’s architecture. Vistex engineers say their implementations are very customized, and each customer has slightly different needs for their licensing and avails management technology. Even if requirements differ greatly to coordinate different systems, the order request processes are the same.
“When content is negotiated for purchase, the avails are sent out from content distributors. Those agreements are registered in our system and once the retailer has confirmed the licenses they wish to have the rights to sell, that information is sent to an OVP. The OVP then triggers the creation of products,” says Mike Sid, founder and chief strategy officer, Mediamorph. What’s going on now is that a lot of people are still using spreadsheets to enter the avails information that they need to legally distribute content into an OVP, he says. “That probably is really more common than not.
“You can always do it by hand,” says Sid. “When a new service is started, people say ‘Well I have to do the automation on the OVP side to automate that and make that work. There’s other stuff I can get by with typing it in for a while or managing by spreadsheets.’ These back-end systems kind of get neglected,” he says.
While the back-end systems may be neglected now, for companies going direct-to-consumer the value is in the relationship with the customer and the ability to acquire and manage that data. “We are going to see a transition in the media industry to enormous amounts of transactional data that the industry is going to need to deal with,” says Biegun. When people start to stream unlimited subscription services, on multiple devices, it’s crucial to ensure these backend systems can manage all those rights.
Back-end system end users often span different areas of responsibility in an organization. “The people who are in charge of the media management are not the same as the people in charge of the rights,” says Hervé Obed, CEO, ProConsultant Informatique, which has a business management platform for broadcasters. He says a lot of data is still stored in silos, and unlocking that information is key to introducing a system that will work. While traditional broadcast customers have been doing avails management for a long time, newer digital native businesses or OTT providers may not have access to solutions like this.
The OVP: Vimond Media Solutions
Video platforms are the most common location where content business rules to date have been created and enforced. “When we looked at how our customers were addressing rights issues we saw there are a lot of Excel spreadsheets being used today in order to keep track of what rights are we purchasing, what rights are on their way to become available for publishing, what rights are currently in use, how long can we have those rights there, etc.,” says Høibraaten. “There was a lack of coherent rights management from the very second you started talking to somebody about buying their rights from them.”
When management is done manually, distributors take a spread sheet and input rules into an OVP or CMS. Vimond created a product called Acquisition Manager that “fetches video, audio, and subtitles directly from external storage, and maps the content through a predefined filename convention to the rights and metadata. This convention and the location of the files can be set up using our Content Provider Template tool. This enables full automation of ingest processing as soon as content is available,” says Høibraaten.
“All rights are kept with the content in our platform, so that you cannot break the rules of business when planning windows and publishing the content through our OTT platform. Also, when content is exported to external systems, the rights metadata will follow the content through our APIs,” says Høibraaten. “This way, we eliminate having multiple manual processes with possible human errors resulting in rights breeches.”
Evolving Business Models
Let’s assume that a distributor decides to purchase content from a studio. The distributor gets the avails, which include data like title, viewing timeframe, wholesale price, territory, episode number, language, episode title, license type, format profile, caption availability, total run time, price type, license rights description, and myriad other classifications within the EMA standards.
“It’s like 60+ columns for movie avails and 75 columns of data for TV,” says Nazim Pethani, SVP of product strategy, Deluxe Entertainment Services Group. Deluxe is well known for postproduction services and now has a new platform called Deluxe One that helps content owners with their whole workflow from preproduction through to asset delivery, including content rights management.
“However, those avails columns don’t represent the evolving business models that the distributors are using. So even though it calls out, ‘OK you can do VOD,’ it doesn’t call out AVOD or SVOD or TVOD. It doesn’t call out what are the streaming permissions with regards to how many times you can download a particular piece of content for offline viewing,” says Pethani.
“I think what’s happening is that the distribution channels are evolving faster than anything can keep up with it,” he says. More platforms, more locations, and more end users wanting to download content for offline viewing is making content delivery more complicated.
“The concept of people wanting to take their content with them on their phones for offline viewing has been around for a while. However recently it’s [become] almost a common factor in every distribution method,” he says. There are also requirements like the new EU digital single market rules which came into place in April that require European customers have access when traveling to the same content they are licensed to consume within their home territory.
There is usually a time, for both retailer and distributor, where the math becomes too complicated to handle manually. “If you’ve been doing video on demand rentals only and now all of a sudden you want to do digital HD downloads,” says Sid, “that’s often a trigger point because the amount of information that you’re going to track now has probably quadrupled or quintupled. So there’s just so much more stuff to type in.” While viewing downloadable content may have gotten its second wind, another familiar business has become popular again too.
The Retailer: Blockbuster
Casper Hald heads up Blockbuster in the Nordics. The once-ubiquitous video rental store name was licensed to the Danish telecommunications and media company TDC Group in 2013. Blockbuster has more than 10,000 movies and 500 seasons of TV content that it makes available for 2-day online rental or purchase. These 16,000–17,000 assets are licensed from approximately 60 content providers.
“The trick here is that there’s a high degree of complexity behind all of this, because the agreements with the content providers have terms in their agreements that change over time,” says Hald. A new release often has one set of revenue-share terms, and they change as the release ages.
“We have 500,000 transactions and we have to [process] those transactions to approximately 60 agreements which all contain numerous categories and where every category includes various commercial schemes,” says Hald.
So the math looks something like this: “One title in four territories, that’s four licenses. But it’s offered both for rental and sell-through. So then four becomes eight licenses. Then if you have SD & HD then you can double this to 16 licenses. If you do campaigns or if you do several cycles you have first, second, third, fourth, and fifth cycle—then you can multiply [by] five again.”
Follow the Money
The real benefit of automation is the efficiencies it creates. Modern rights management systems automate and operationalize the process of rights. Content can be output with the proper variations of elements, such as subtitling or dubbing. For a studio, rights management can help more efficiently prepare content for distribution.
“When you have 900+ distributors that we deliver to on a regular basis, being able to efficiently order stuff is really important,” says Pethani. “Even placing an order to figure out what state your asset is in and what underlying workflows need to happen to get it to the distributor, the investigation is really expensive.
“We know what can or is not being monetized the way it should,” he adds. Content promotions and analytics can be used to optimize ROI for both content owners and distributors. An automated system easily manages updates and promotions for individual or bulk changes to content licensing and pricing, flowing out to all distributors.
For a retailer like Blockbuster, automation helps the company see exactly where it makes the most money, then slice-and-dice this to understand whether profit comes from a promotion, type of content, format, or whatever else he’s tracking. “Transactions from many different platforms may come with various data set and having that data well-structured is a prerequisite,” says Hald. Mediamorph does the financial settlement for Blockbuster customers. “We’ll take in the billing system data and generate out how much should be paid,” says Sid.
“An important KPI for us in using the system was simply that without adding more resource that we could actually oversee a more complex and diverse distribution and handle many more revenue streams with a system where only very few people are necessary,” says Casper. “It doesn’t matter if you handle one or five territories, or if you handle SD, HD, 4K, 3D, whatever format as long as everything is built in the right manner. You are actually able to manage a more complex business with less resources.”
There are two steps to creating automated content management: creating and sourcing metadata. Whether standards come from EMA or from one of the stores like iTunes, there’s published information that license management technology references for distribution terms.
“We have an enormous amount of metadata,” says Biegun. “Each customer will look different; some of our customers have it sit in our system, other times it sits in our customers’ MAM [media asset management] or DAM [digital asset management].” When they go to package that content to push it to a third party, they have to check the rights and push the metadata and the physical asset together and ship that through their digital supply chain to the end recipient.
“No matter who you use, whether you go to us or one of our competitors or you build your own system, it’s really your OVP—any sort of commercial OVP already does this—needs to be able to be fed with this information. You can make an API call to set that up,” says Sid. “Or you’ll set up a watch folder and periodically push files into it that will get uploaded.”
One of the primary needs is how to identify a title, so one system can intelligently tell another system to make “video 123729” available, says Sid. “Obviously all the systems involved need to incorporate that decision and follow it, so you know that 123729 is season 3, episode 4 of Modern Family.Once you’ve done that, the rest is actually relatively straightforward.”
Social Video: Videocites
So what happens when content is shared without license? A startup called Videocites uses machine learning to identify all illegal content copies located across multiple social platforms. The company has developed a video-by-video search engine which crawls and indexes video content through the open APIs to platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Dailymotion, and Russia’s VK using the visual information to make the search.
“Content owners can track, measure, and claim all their video duplications throughout all major social and video platforms,” says Eyal Arad, CEO and co-founder. Videocites’ tool provides analytics to allow content owners to see in real time what’s happening with their content, from short clips to longform content. “One of the largest of our MCN customers is Yoola, which is the 4th largest MCN [multichannel network] with around 50,000 channels,” Arad says.
“We are working with some of Hollywood’s largest studios, MCNs, sports firms, and other large content owners, providing them with both a one-stop-shop for automatic rights management and fast claiming (before the views grow on the duplications),” says Arad. “Our search is automatic and completely indifferent to the metadata and lingual changes of duplications, video manipulations, etc., finding full or partial duplications as well as compilations.”
While the concept seems relatively straightforward, the execution is a different story. One important question is when does it make dollars and sense to use technology to manage content licensing? This can be a delicate and proprietary question. How many times a piece of content is played is valuable information, and having a secure relationship with a vendor is a key part of the choice to use technology over human input.
Sometimes rights management is part of a larger software system, while other times it’s handled by a company specializing in this area. Either way, fitting all the pieces together is key to managing the data needed to both make direct-to-consumer services run smoothly and optimize profits.
As distribution channels constantly evolve, this side of the video ecosystem becomes vitally important. The idea that anyone would run a business now using manual control for very complex licensing agreements seems quaint. Of course, consumers don’t care who’s minding the store, they just want to continue viewing however and where ever they want.
[This article appears in the June 2018 issue of Streaming Media magazine as “Content Licensing: Who’s Minding the Store?”]