Start-up offers crypto-currency bounties to pirate hunters

Read time 3min 40sec
Custos technology entails that each copy of a media item gets marked with an imperceptible unique watermark that contains a crypto-currency bounty.
Custos technology entails that each copy of a media item gets marked with an imperceptible unique watermark that contains a crypto-currency bounty.

A South African-based scale-up stage start-up company, Custos, is using blockchain and crypto-currencies to fight digital piracy.

Custos Media Technologies provides content protection services for owners and distributors of digital media.

The company's patented blockchain-based infringement monitoring technology allows media owners to rapidly discover when their content was leaked, and where the infringement originated.

Custos was developed at the MIH Media Lab, at Stellenbosch University, in 2014. The founders are Gert-Jan van Rooyen, Fred Lutz and Herman Engelbrecht. A local angel investor and the Digital Currency Group have a stake in Custos.

In 2016, the Technology Innovation Agency committed R5.9 million to Stellenbosch-based anti-piracy start-up company, Custos.

Herman Lintvelt, CTO of Custos, says right from the start the start-up company has been underpinned by Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud.

The low-latency AWS platform allows Custos to scale easily to address the fluctuation in the demand for its services, he notes.

"The technology is crypto-currency agnostic, and we have experimented with Bitcoin Cash, Ethereum, ZCash and Litecoin. Using crypto-currency and the blockchain gives us a way to decentralise the detection of pirated material," Lintvelt points out.

Custos gives crypto-currency bounties to anyone who finds a leaked copy of a movie or e-book.

"Each copy that is distributed contains a unique crypto-currency wallet, and we monitor when such a wallet is emptied. We can then identify who the source of the leak was. This is something that was not possible to do before crypto-currency, on a global scale in an anonymised manner that is required to fight piracy," he explains.

"As users upload new media files, such as films and e-books, at unpredicted times, Custos Media systems need to scale on multiple regions at different times, from almost no activity to massive load, so they can process hundreds and thousands of files for watermarking," says Lintvelt.

He explains the Custos technology entails each copy of a media item gets marked with an imperceptible unique watermark that contains a crypto-currency bounty.

"Individuals (bounty hunters) who know where to find pirated content are rewarded when they find new infringements. When an anonymous bounty hunter claims the bounty, Custos can immediately detect the leak and inform the client of who the original recipient of the media was. "We also have an online video distribution tool, Screener Copy, which is easily adapted and re-branded for custom use cases."

Lintvelt adds the combination of blockchain technology and AWS cloud infrastructure allows Custos to scale its solution to users as far-flung as India, the UK, US, Norway, Canada, Japan, Namibia and Germany.

"Piracy is a global problem, and cutting-edge cloud and blockchain technologies allow us to have a solution that is equally global. AWS Auto Scaling allows us to build scaling plans that automate how groups of different resources respond to changes in demand. We can optimise availability, costs, or a balance of both."

Nonetheless, Lintvelt points out there are other watermarking technologies, and Custos even uses some of those in its process, depending on the media type, but none of them uses crypto-currencies and the anonymity of blockchain-based technology to solve the leak detection problem.

"In that sense, we are offering a unique value proposition to clients. We can detect leaks quickly and cheaply."

Lintvelt says piracy is always an availability and affordability issue, and for a long time, the only alternatives available to SA were limited and expensive.

"It bred a culture of piracy that has been hard to counter, as legal alternatives have become more prevalent. South Africa has the 14th highest number of pirate movie downloads globally. The ubiquitous culture of piracy has affected the local film industry the hardest. A film needs to make a success locally before global buyers will consider it. South African pirates have caused the crib death of many great local films."

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