Bounty hunting has gone hi-tech and SA is leading the way.
Tech start-up Custostech is using crypto-currency technology and financial rewards to “trick” viewers of illegal films into leading it to the distributors of pirated movies.
Based at Stellenbosch University’s technology incubation hub, the company has become one of the first in the world to use “bounty hunters” to trace cyber pirates who illegally disseminate copyrighted products.
The company’s technology embeds watermarks containing unique codes within a pixel in a movie, said co-founder Fred Lutz.
“Once a viewer of the pirated film sees it and uses the code to claim the bounty, our staff are alerted to the location of the distributor,” he said. “The watermark is invisible to the naked eye and can only be seen through computer software. It is like whistle-blowing on steroids.”
Launched five years ago, the company has helped film producers, including those overseas, to combat piracy.
Lutz said all information is passed on to customers, who can be linked up with forensic service providers if necessary. So far, nearly 100 film pirates have been identified.
He said technology that attempted to prevent people from copying products was not effective. “You always have kids who use technology to circumvent product protection. We knew we needed to get around those doing this.”
The idea of offering crypto-currency as an incentive to snitch on pirate distributors came during the hype around bitcoin.
Lutz said they had hundreds of bounty hunters across the world and leading the pack were cash-strapped students who had time on their hands and an understanding of crypto-currency technology.
The company is now moving into the field of documents, “which can contain information which is worth hundreds of millions of dollars”.
Before it launched its technology, the piracy rate of new movies before they were screened in South African cinemas was 40%, Lutz said. “We have helped reduce that significantly. To date we have protected over 350,000 films globally, from SA, the US, Canada, Europe, India, Japan, the UK and Trinidad and Tobago.”
Jana Erasmus, of Indigenous Film Distribution, said the technology had helped it eliminate piracy.
Menzi Thabede, producer of Leon Schuster’s latest movie, Frank and Fearless, said piracy was destroying the film industry. “Despite our movie only coming out on DVD three weeks ago, pirated copies are already being sold on the street.
We have tried technology in the past to stop piracy, but it has never really worked,” he said.”This technology sounds like it could help, especially if it can identify the distributors of pirated films.”Danny Myburgh, of computer forensics firm Cyanre, and chair of the South African Cyber Forensic Forum, said given how difficult piracy was to combat, any help in curbing it was welcome.
He cautioned, though, about invading people’s privacy. “Legally, software is only allowed to report a person’s computer IP address, which provides the user’s location. If you install software on someone’s computer which reveals their personal details, this could overstep privacy laws. If you stay within the ambit of the law this technology is perfect to fight piracy.”