Microsoft Proposes To Stop Piracy With Blockchain-Based Bounty System

"Argus" enables volunteers to report piracy in exchange for rewards!

For years, there has been an ongoing conflict between companies and pirates. Whenever a company releases a new piece of software, pirates jump to the opportunity the first chance they get and crack it to then distribute it online. In recent years, many anti-tamper technologies, such as Denuvo by Irdeto, have been released to combat piracy. However, pirates have always found a way to bypass such anti-piracy measures. Now, Microsoft has come up with their own blockchain-based bounty system to counter piracy and it seems rather promising.

Microsoft is one of the world’s most well-known copyright holders with a life-long experience of fighting pirates. For instance, the company is associated with The Software Alliance (BSA) to monitor copyright infringements on the internet and in the real world. The Software Alliance (BSA) is also renowned for its piracy bounty system, which rewards volunteers — or whistleblowers, in this case — with cash in exchange for any evidence against pirates.

Recently, Microsoft’s research department in Asia published a research article under the name “Argus: A Fully Transparent Incentive System for Anti-Piracy Campaigns”. The research article describes the strategy that the company decides on using to implement its anti-piracy system. Additionally, the research article also receives input from researchers at Alibaba Group — an e-commerce giant in China — and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The research article advocates for an open and transparent blockchain as a solution to piracy — transparency that The Software Alliance’s (BSA) fails to provide. “Industrial alliances and companies are running anti-piracy incentive campaigns, but their effectiveness is publicly questioned due to the lack of transparency. We believe that full transparency of a campaign is necessary to truly incentivize people. It means that every role, e.g., content owner, licensee of the content, or every person in the open population, can understand the mechanism and be assured about its execution without trusting any single role,” the research article reads.

Argus: A Fully Transparent Incentive System for Anti-Piracy Campaigns (Overview of the Argus system) | Source: Microsoft

In simple words, Argus is an open anti-piracy system based on the Ethereum blockchain that enables whistleblowers (volunteers) to anonymously report pirates in return for a bounty. The reported piracy is tracked back to its source through an uncommon watermark that matches with a secret code. When a copy is reported for piracy, the license of the source is changed to “accused” and the system provides the reported source’s owner with an option to send an “appeal”. However, if no evidence of ownership is provided, the status changes from “accused” to “guilty”.

Argus is an open and transparent system. As such, the company has also incentivised a way to prevent any abuse on the “informer’s” side. If a pirated source is reported many times from the same IP address but under different names, the bounty is decreased significantly. In turn, this will stop volunteers from using their authority unjustly.

Interests/threats of participants in Argus | Source: Microsoft

There are multiple checks that the anti-piracy system depends upon to make sure that it’s open and transparent and ensure that no malicious accusations are made either. Furthermore, the researchers mention that the costs of implementing the blockchain-based bounty system are also comparatively inexpensive.

“Moreover, we effectively optimize several cryptographic operations so that the cost for a piracy reporting is reduced to an equivalent cost of sending about 14 ETH-transfer transactions to run on the public Ethereum network, which would otherwise correspond to thousands of transactions. With the security and practicality of Argus, we hope real-world antipiracy campaigns will be truly effective by shifting to a fully transparent incentive mechanism,” they say.

We don’t know for certain how or when Microsoft intends on releasing this new blockchain-based anti-piracy bounty system. As of now, the conjecture suggests that the system will work for all sorts of media, such as images, videos and software. In this case, the researchers also “assume” that the watermark technology that will be used is tamper-free. However, that isn’t always true! This conjecture isn’t new either. A few years ago, Custos, a South African company, released something similar.

However, the research article does claim that Argus is better than what Custos came up with since it can evaluate the severity of the piracy and the strength of accusations. The research article will be presented virtually at the 40th International Symposium on Reliable Distributed Systems (SRDS 2021), which is supposed to be held at the end of September 2021. It’s enticing to see the company move past the primaeval measures of countering piracy and using a more up-to-date blockchain-based system instead. We’re really looking forward to seeing this anti-piracy system in action!

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Huzaifa Khan

From writing short stories in my room to finding my true enthusiasm for video game and computer hardware journalism, I play video games and write about them.

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