As media companies struggle to reclaim control over their movies, television shows and music in a world of online file-sharing software, they have found an ally in software of another kind.
The new technological weapon is content-recognition software, which makes it possible to identify copyrighted material, even, for example, from blurry video clips.
The technology could address what the entertainment industry sees as one of its biggest problems — songs and videos being posted on the Web without permission.
Last week, Vance Ikezoye, the chief executive of Audible Magic in Los Gatos, Calif., demonstrated the technology by downloading a two-minute clip from YouTube and feeding it into his company’s new video-recognition system.
The clip — drained of color, with dialogue dubbed in Chinese — appeared to have been recorded with a camcorder in a dark movie theater before it was uploaded to the Web, so the image quality was poor.
Still, Mr. Ikezoye’s filtering software quickly identified it as the sword-training scene that begins 49 minutes and 37 seconds into the Miramax film “Kill Bill: Vol. 2.”
The entertainment industry is clamoring for Internet companies to adopt the technology for music files as well as for video clips. The social networking site MySpace, owned by the News Corporation, said last week that it would use Audible Magic’s system to identify copyrighted material on its pages. But not every Internet company is rushing to go along. The video-sharing site YouTube, which Google bought last year, is the major holdout so far.
Though YouTube’s co-founders said publicly that they would start using filtering technology by the end of last year, the site has yet to do so. And they have further angered some media companies by saying they would only use such technology to detect clips owned by companies that agree to broader licensing deals with YouTube.
The pressure is on. Executives at media companies like NBC and Viacom have criticized Google for the delay. Earlier this month, Viacom asked YouTube to remove 100,000 clips of its shows, like music videos from MTV and excerpts from Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.”
In a statement, YouTube said that identifying which video clips had been uploaded without permission was a complex problem that required the cooperation of the copyright owners. “On YouTube, identifying copyrighted material cannot be a single automated process,” it said in the statement.
The systems being developed by companies like Audible Magic and Gracenote make use of vast databases that store digital representations of copyrighted songs, TV shows and movies.
When new files are uploaded to a Web site that is using the system, it checks the database for matches using a technique known as digital fingerprinting. Copyrighted material can then be blocked or posted, depending on whether it is licensed for use on the site.
“This is capable of helping the film and TV studios comprehensively protect their works,” Mr. Ikezoye said. “This could put the genie back in the bottle.”
Audio fingerprinting technologies have been used successfully for some time to detect copyrighted music on file-sharing networks and, to a smaller degree, to identify music tracks on social-networking Web sites like MySpace.
Systems that can identify video files hold even greater promise to improve relations between traditional media companies and Internet companies like YouTube. But the technology is not quite ready.
“Video is much more complex to analyze, and more information needs to be captured in the fingerprint,” said Bill Rosenblatt, president of GiantSteps Media Technology Strategies, a consulting firm based in New York. He noted that there were also more ways to fool the technology — for example, by cropping the image.
Screening for video is also more difficult because of the sheer volume of new material broadcast on television each day, all of which must be captured in the database.
And deploying any type of fingerprinting technology can carry a price. Users tend to leave filtered Web sites and migrate to more anything-goes online destinations.
Nevertheless, some file-sharing networks and smaller video sites like Guba.com and Grouper.com are already using more basic filters that monitor video soundtracks and music files, hoping to appease copyright holders and stay out of the courtroom.
Last week, they got some company: MySpace announced that it would expand on early filtering efforts and license Audible Magic’s audio and video fingerprinting technology. It will use the system to identify and obtain authorization for material from Universal Music, NBC Universal and Fox, three media companies that have wanted more control over their content on the site. The move ratchets up the pressure on YouTube, the largest video site on the Web.
Hollywood, long tormented by digital piracy, is growing excited about the possibilities of digital fingerprinting and filtering — in part because it is tired of having to ask YouTube and other sites to remove individual clips, only to find them posted again by other users.
“To the extent you can readily and easily identify one film or TV show from the next, it enables different licensing models and the opportunity to protect your content,” said Dean Garfield, executive vice president of the Motion Picture Association of America.
For now, however, audio fingerprinting is all that is widely available, and it can fall short in some situations, like when someone pairs a song with an unrelated piece of video.
For example, last December, one YouTube user uploaded scenes from the Warner Brothers movie “Superman Returns,” matched to the song “Superman,” by Five for Fighting of Columbia Records, a unit of Sony BMG Music.
With acoustic fingerprinting, Sony could authorize the use of the song and get a slice of the advertising revenue the clip generates, but Warner Brothers could not because the filter does not scrutinize video images.
Hoping to nurture the development of more advanced video fingerprinting, the film association asked technology companies last fall to submit video filtering systems for testing. Mr. Garfield of the association said 13 companies responded; their systems are now being evaluated.
Perhaps not surprisingly, there is now a flurry of interest in digital fingerprinting in Silicon Valley. Sean Varah, an electronic-music researcher who once worked for Sony music’s venture capital group, founded the start-up MotionDSP in 2005 to develop technology to improve the quality of video images. But he changed the company’s direction last year after seeing an opportunity in the filtering business.
“The television and movie producers have learned a lesson from Napster,” he said, referring to the music-sharing service that first got the attention of media companies. “They are not going to wait and see what happens.”
Attributor, another start-up based in Redwood City, Calif., is taking a different approach to filtering. It is developing automated software that will travel the Internet looking for copyrighted text, audio and video.
Setting up filters for each and every Web site and peer-to-peer network “is not a long-term solution,” said Jim Brock, a former Yahoo executive and the chief executive of Attributor. Rights holders “need to have these kinds of solutions across the Internet,” he said.
Audible Magic, which is considered to be an early leader in the field, started out with a system to recognize songs played on the radio, so it could offer listeners an opportunity to buy the music online. The company later adapted that technology to create an audio fingerprinting system.
Mr. Ikezoye, a former Hewlett-Packard marketing executive, recently set out to expand into video recognition. Last year, he licensed an invention called Motional Media ID, created by David W. Stebbings, a former executive at the Recording Industry Association of America.