Anti-piracy software developed by SA’s Custos encourages honest users to become bounty hunters and report media pirates to earn rewards hidden inside films, songs and books. Picture: ISTOCK
Anti-piracy software developed by SA’s Custos encourages honest users to become bounty hunters and report media pirates to earn rewards hidden inside films, songs and books. Picture: ISTOCK

NEW anti-piracy software encourages people to snitch on media pirates and claim the bounty that the developers have hidden inside films, songs and books.

Seven in 10 South African internet users use pirate media, according to the South African Federation Against Copyright Theft (Safact).

"Since film and books have gone digital, it has become easier to pirate, and the internet, being without borders, makes it difficult to police and combat digital piracy," says Safact managing director Jacques Allers.

The organisation represents companies in the media and entertainment industry.

For foreign and local media producers, this equates to billions of dollars in lost revenue. From 2008 to 2015, European creative industries lost about $240bn to piracy.

Gert-Jan van Rooyen, formerly co-director of Stellenbosch University’s MIH media laboratory and now CEO of Custos Media Technology, is selling domestic and foreign companies a solution to this problem.

About nine years ago, before the advent of Kindles and iPads, Van Rooyen bought a book online. He paid with his credit card and the book, in PDF format, was delivered to his computer.

"When I opened the PDF, I saw that, as a footnote on every page, were my name; the number of the credit card I’d used to purchase it, its expiry date and the three-digit CVC security code," he says.

This changes the dynamic between buyers and the content — people will be reluctant to share media that has their credit-card information printed on it.

"I thought it was a clever piece of social engineering because it wouldn’t affect the vast majority of honest users in any way, but it’s a very strong deterrent [against sharing or pirating]," Van Rooyen says."

While South African media outlets cannot publish credit card details like that, the idea that media could make consumers vulnerable if they pirated it is "a very, very nice idea, a powerful idea", he says.

The idea behind his technology is inserting an immovable watermark — in the form of a BitCoin wallet — into the media so that it can be uniquely identified.

"You can directly embed this BitCoin wallet as a type of fidelity guarantee that the recipient of the media is not going to redistribute it," Van Rooyen says.

The wallet is a large random number, and knowing the number gives a consumer access to the wallet.

Custos’s technology hinges on storing a bounty or reward inside the BitCoin wallet. It is an incentive for people to become bounty hunters, and by collecting the money in the embedded wallet, they flag that a copy of a film, song or book has been pirated.

A major area of weakness is when filmmakers send copies of their new work for review or to cinemas. This is where the effects of piracy can be directly measured, says Safact’s Allers.

"A Hollywood blockbuster … could expect $25m on the opening weekend, but only takes in $15m when the movie is leaked online prior to the cinematic release — this is damage of $10m just in opening-weekend revenue due to piracy," he adds.

Van Rooyen says this is a good example of how Custos’s technology can stop piracy: each copy of a film that is sent out for review or to a cinema has a unique BitCoin wallet. If it is accessed by a bounty hunter, companies know where — and who — is the weak link in the distribution chain.

While there are profit-seeking sites that host the content, "most of the uploaders do it out of a sense of community", he says.

"By using downloaders to rat on the uploaders really starts pulling at the threads keeping the piracy community together.

"Because if you upload content out of a sense of community, and somebody in that community rats on you … you’ll be less inclined to upgrade in future."

Allers says Safact is in "close discussion with Custos and other similar programmes to keep on evolving our technological ability to identify, trace, profile and gather the information necessary for combating infringement relating to Safact’s members".

Custos was founded by Van Rooyen and Fred Lutz and spun out of the University of Stellenbosch.

South African start-ups often struggle to bridge the chasm between idea and marketable product.

After hatching the idea at the university, Van Rooyen and Lutz approached its technology transfer office and had a provisional patent registered within "a week or two".

The project received seed funding of R500,000 from the Technology Innovation Agency in 2014.

Custos used it to leverage funds from the New York-based Digital Currency Group and a South African angel investor, who Van Rooyen did not want to name.

The agency announced in August it would be injecting another R5.9m into Custos over the next two years.

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