DRM Versus Encrypted HLS: Which One Should You Use?

If you are in the business of delivering video via streaming or as a download, you’re certainly thinking about content protection. But how much content protection do you really need and what type of content protection works best? And more importantly, how much should you pay for it?

DRM (Digital Rights Management) and Encrypted HLS are the most commonly chosen content protection technologies used today. Both approaches have a strong track record in securing proprietary content. But there is growing interest by studios and other conventional DRM users in Encrypted HLS. So what’s driving this interest?

To start, it helps to understand how each method protects content. When you stream, the content isn’t delivered as one piece, it’s broken down into smaller bits and gets put back together when it reaches the screen. So while video content is delivered to the user’s client, it is unplayable without a decryption key. Content protected by DRM is made playable on a specific device — so that the content is encrypted and only viewable when the device receives its “unlock” code. In this manner, content can only be sent to one device per download, and therefore is not replicable.

Streamed media protected by Encrypted HLS isn’t replicable since it won’t “reassemble” well enough to be copied at a bit rate of 720p or below. (Although 720p is considered high definition, due to the nature of adaptive bit rate streaming, it is not suitable for reproduction and use elsewhere.) As long as content is not delivered over 720p, Encrypted HLS is as good as DRM.

Content owners/providers who are more focused on streaming media are probably more likely to have an interest in Encrypted HLS. This makes sense as Encrypted HLS is simpler and less expensive to deliver, manage and support. Delivery costs are lower since Encrypted HLS uses one format for all devices, as opposed to needing multiple device-specific formats, as one does with DRM. Encrypted HLS is easier to manage internally because there is no need to maintain a complex license delivery infrastructure in order to support multiple formats, as there is with DRM. Some also argue that it’s easier to reach a broader audience with Encrypted HLS, since a DRM strategy requires supporting multiple formats to reach the same audience (think streaming to every type of mobile device vs. needing an encryption key for each specific type of mobile device).

Then, there is the question of customer service calls, which we all know drive up costs. With DRM, when a customer cannot access their content, it takes extensive troubleshooting on the part of the provider to resolve the issue due to the complexity of the content being matched via encryption key to the device. With Encrypted HLS, consumers seamlessly access content they’ve paid for, resulting in lower customer service costs.

Beyond the operational and costs benefits of Encrypted HLS, the rising popularity of streaming to mobile devices is also a driving factor. Encrypted HLS reaches broader audiences more easily, and on a wider range of devices — all key benefits for the content owners targeting mobile users. And Encrypted HLS provides content protection that’s equal to DRM for content delivered up to 720p, another good fit for mobile users. If your end goal is to make your streaming content more widely available at a lower cost, then you might want to choose Encrypted HLS. That’s what RLJ Entertainment has been doing for their premium content service, Acorn TV.

Titus Bicknell, CDO & EVP of Operations for RLJ Entertainment recently told me that his role in the organization is to reduce friction in content consumption. Obviously, he needs to protect the IP holder, but also needs to ensure that his customers who have paid for the service can watch all of the content they want to. And Encrypted HLS has been a really strategic development for their product. Studios already agree to use Encrypted HLS with an important caveat: content must be delivered at 720p, not 1080p. RLJ Entertainment has moved all three of its channels from DRM protection to Encrypted HLS, citing the following benefits to their organization:

  • Better reflects consumer behavior. When consumers stream a movie or video, it’s usually with the intent to watch it immediately. The goal of providing seamless access to content at the highest possible speed and quality is more easily achieved with Encrypted HLS than DRM. As Mr. Bicknell explains, “The consumer’s investment in the content is more likely to be worthwhile because the technical barriers are lower.”
  • Wider distribution at a lower cost. Content owners can roll out a player that supports Encrypted HLS in any location where their content is consumed, with no need to pay a separate DRM licensing fee, an unlock fee, or hold transcoded renditions in both locked and unlocked formats for different platforms. Managed storage cost is also lowered because content owners are storing fewer renditions.
  • Easier on the organization. According to RLJ Entertainment, Encrypted HLS is easier to maintain, and easier on its customer service team, as its reps are no longer dealing with the 5% of people who are blocked from watching the content because the DRM doesn’t work.

“We’re in a business where the churn rate is critical to longevity, as well as our ability to license more interesting and better content for our customers. If you’re losing 1% per month because DRM is getting in the way of your customers watching content that they’re allowed to watch, that just decimates your business,” said Mr. Bicknell.

A recent Brightcove whitepaper also takes on this topic, entitled “Encrypted HLS vs. DRM: What’s Your Strategy for Protecting Your Digitally Distributed Copyright Content?” and explores the use cases for both Encrypted HLS and DRM.

What are your thoughts on Encrypted HLS? Are you sticking with DRM or moving away from it? I’d be interested in knowing your thoughts if you’d take this brief survey below.