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Piracy crackdowns increase as content demand surges

Emphasis on content-driven platforms is reshaping B.C. tech ecosystem amid pandemic
Anti-piracy software developed by GeoGuard and its parent company, co-founded by David Briggs and Anna Sainsbury, is installed on 350 million devices around the world | Chung Chow

While streaming service Quibi Holdings LLC quickly bit the dust after its mid-pandemic launch, Netflix Inc. (Nasdaq:NFLX) and other major entertainment companies have been happily meeting increased demand for content as viewers stay at home.

“As the content has become more globally attractive, these days people are shopping around for the same content from all over the world,” GeoComply Solutions Inc. CEO David Briggs told BIV.

His Vancouver-based cybersecurity firm specializes in detecting whether online users of streaming services or online gambling websites are trying to mask their locations using means such as virtual private networks (VPN).

“In many cases, the consumers themselves feel like it’s a victimless crime,” he said, referring to viewers who mask their identity to access content not legally available where they live. “But the reality is for the rights holders, whether you’re making movies or TV shows or putting a sports team together, the ability to price depending on a market makes about 50% of your bottom line.”

Software developed by GeoComply and subsidiary GeoGuard is installed on about 350 million devices worldwide.

If a user wants to use a streaming sports app, for example, he or she will need to ensure the software is on the device so the company can verify the user is in a permitted jurisdiction.

Briggs said GeoComply has “grown like crazy” the past few years, but the pandemic, coupled with five U.S. states launching online sports betting this year, has accelerated demand for its technology.

So much so that GeoComply has doubled its headcount to 200 workers so far in 2020.

Another issue facing companies unfolds when customers try streaming movies or TV shows available in, say, the U.S. but not Canada. Some Canadian customers might turn to a VPN to mask their location and watch content licensed to a different distributor in Canada, creating less incentive for customers to also subscribe to the competing company.

Other B.C. companies have been riding the wave of increased content demand.

Victoria’s SendtoNews Video Inc., best known for its video distribution platform for sports highlights embedded in online stories, now touts more than 47 million unique viewers who were responsible for more than one billion video views in May, according to Comscore rankings.

Vancouver’s BBTV Holdings Inc. (TSX:BBTV), which raised $172 million last month through a public offering, used that capital to retake a 51% stake of BroadbandTV Corp. from European investors. BroadbandTV is best known for developing a platform that helps create, distribute and monetize video content for online consumption.

It has just over 350 employees, with 266 in full-time roles.

Shahrzad Rafati is CEO of both BBTV and BroadbandTV, meaning the deal gives her effective boardroom control of the company she founded in 2005.

She characterizes her company as a “COVID winner” owing to the shift in content viewership from traditional media to digital platforms.

“With this continuous emergence of new platforms and the rapid growth of video supply and demand, content owners of any size [need] help to navigate this complex digital landscape,” Rafati told BIV.

“Digital advertising has really benefited from this shift from mainstream media to digital. This is why we felt this was the right time for an IPO.”

But the pandemic has also been a mixed bag for some B.C. businesses specializing in content delivery.

Vancouver’s Hoovie Inc. initially facilitated in-person film screenings, offering cinephiles a library of licensed films to choose from.

The platform also facilitated ticket sales – a portion of which would go directly to the filmmakers – for hosts looking to bring groups into venues for screenings and post-film discussions.

“But now, people don’t want to huddle together and watch the film physically, so we’ve had to pivot our business to bringing the magic of Hoovie into the digital space,” said Hoovie CEO and co-founder Fiona Rayher, who likened the platform to a “book club for movies.”

The company has since developed a Zoom plugin for virtual screenings and is raising capital to invest more in its tech offerings after initially launching as an events company.

“And that’s been a real shift for the better for business reasons,” Rayher said, “but also because I think people are arguably more lonely, and the co-watching platforms out there … don’t have the same depth.” •