How Digital Watermarks Strengthen C2PA Content Credentials

November 01, 2023

With the rise of generative artificial intelligence (GenAI), and the resulting heightened risk of image manipulation, content consumers must ask, “Can I trust the information I see online?” How can we re-establish trust in digital content in the age of GenAI? More than an issue of trust between content owners and consumers, it is an issue of copyright and intellectual property protection. How can content creators protect their creations and ensure fair use today?

Recent announcements such as the U.S. Executive Order on Artificial Intelligence are paving the way to tackle the issues, rightfully noting the benefits of establishing the authenticity and provenance of all digital content versus simply focusing on flagging synthetic content. With the issues being identified and prioritized by governments worldwide, it is time to work on industrywide solutions.

Content Credentials are a set of standard technologies designed to tackle the issue of content protection by tracking the origin and history of online assets. This technology allows content creators to add provenance data to original digital assets. Content consumers simply click the Content Credentials icon to reveal and verify the data tied to the asset.

Content Credentials popup displaying provenance information for an image
Content Credentials popup displaying provenance information for an image

Content Credentials are proliferating rapidly thanks to an open standard led by C2PA, the Coalition for Content Provenance and Authenticity. The standard is based on a manifest. A manifest is metadata added to a digital asset’s image header, video, or audio file. This metadata is then checked by websites or apps to assess the provenance claims made in the manifest. Disclaimer: Digimarc is an active member of C2PA.

This is powerful because it lets any tool that can read the manifest validate the digital asset’s provenance claims -- ultimately allowing more trust in what we see online. But the approach has limitations. Specifically, the manifest is added as metadata to an asset versus being seamlessly embedded into the asset. This means that the metadata can easily be stripped from a digital asset. For example, a malicious actor using a simple online tool can strip the metadata from a digital asset. But even more pertinent to the average content creator and consumer is the fact that many tools and platforms in the market today automatically strip this data from digital assets. Uploading an image to a social network, sending a video via an instant messaging app, editing an image with a mobile phone app – all these common workflows lead to the digital asset’s manifest being lost.

Moreover, because there is no strong link between a manifest and its digital asset, manifests can be swapped. Imagine a synthetic image, C2PA offers a standard way of flagging this image as generated by AI through its manifest. A malicious actor could swap the manifest for a new one, removing the “generated by AI” flag to make the image appear to be a real photograph. C2PA working groups are aware of this issue, and the specification suggests non-normative (at least for now) ways to create “soft bindings” to form stronger links between digital assets and manifests.

One of these solutions is a digital watermark which, when combined with a C2PA manifest, creates a robust and bidirectional link between the asset and its manifest. The manifest references the image and through the digital watermark the image references the manifest.

As a pioneer and global leader in digital watermarking technology, Digimarc built an integration between C2PA and our industry leading digital watermarking technology to demonstrate how manifests and digital watermarks can be combined to re-establish trust in digital assets.

Using this solution, Digimarc’s invisible Secure, Automated, Fair and Efficient (SAFE™) digital watermarks are added to digital assets providing content creators and consumers with a tool to reference corresponding manifests.

Digital watermarks allow stripped or swapped manifests to be easily spotted and recovered ensuring an asset’s provenance remains uncompromised. The following video shows how this technology works.

The C2PA standard has the potential to become a crucial part of the digital ecosystem. Combining C2PA Content Credentials with digital watermarks supports a robust system capable of (re)establishing trust in digital assets. We look forward to demonstrating this in the near future with Digimarc Validate.

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