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Can Bitcoin tech pull the plug on digital piracy in Africa?

Can Bitcoin tech pull the plug on digital piracy in Africa?

The digital content market has rapidly become less regional for piracy not to be prevented, even in parts of Africa where the distribution in such format is maturing.

Globally there's been a shift from traditional media and content industries to new digital media technologies. This has changed the distribution and consumption of creative content with the emergence of new digital platforms like Netflix and iROKOtv.

"In Africa, there is a demand for US and European content, and when distribution rights don't keep up with demands, it fuels piracy," says G-J van Rooyen, CEO of Custos Media Technologies in South Africa via email. "Similarly, the African diaspora has led to a demand for locally-produced content on other continents, giving rise to services like iROKOtv, which streams African content to viewers across the globe."

According to Custos, which came up with a new way to use Bitcoin and its blockchain technology to make media owners keep recipients from redistributing copyrighted content, a conservative estimate for digital piracy on the Western movie industry (i.e. mostly Hollywood) will be about US$22 billion annually.

The startup recently received a R5.9 million funding from a public entity, Technology Innovation Agency, to support its "tracking technology" which enables copies of uploaded media to have unseen watermarks that go with a bounty - a Bitcoin private key - that could be claimed anonymously by anyone who uses a free tool anywhere but once.

Once claimed, it will alert the client - the legitimate owner of the content - through Custos' core IP identified as the "original infringer" of the pirated content – the user who first rips a movie and uploads it, or shares their copy of an e-book online.

The alert of access by an unauthorised user will provide strong disincentive to leak content once media recipients know that they can be traced. It can also help content producers to take mitigating steps to minimise revenue losses.

More similar projects will make digital prevention an integral part of the local copyright protection strategy which will be key in the South African, Nigerian (Nollywood) and the Ghanaian industries to coordinate pan-African content creation.

Van Rooyen said: "Traditionally, the distribution models in Nollywood (Nigeria) and Bollywood (India) were somewhat less vulnerable to piracy, but this is changing as these industries are maturing. Remember, Nollywood produces more movies per year than Hollywood – but in a much less siloed production and distribution model. Since production and consumption of content is becoming more global, it makes sense to have content protection mechanisms that are unconstrained by geographic boundaries."

Custos is using South Africa as a launchpad to the more mature markets (Hollywood and Europe). They are an important early market for its technology because they are presently experiencing acute threat from piracy and their industries' models rely on strong control over distribution and enforcement of digital rights. However, it wants to be there when other regions, including Africa, need alternative ways of managing digital rights.

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