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You’ve Been Watermarked

Hugh Jackman's waterworks inspired BYU research and eventual patented watermark.

A teary-eyed Hugh Jackman. Statisticians and mathematicians. The US Patent and Trade Office. Hollywood. BYU.

These all do have something in common: they played a part in the development of a new patent for robust watermarking (a marker in media that identifies ownership of the copyright) for digital media.

Initial inspiration for the project came to Dr. Jeffrey Humpherys, who watched Hugh Jackman tear up while explaining that they had to omit the original ending to Wolverine because a slightly different ending had been leaked online.

“[Jackman] was saying how hard they worked on the film, and it was really demoralizing to have [their] work cut short like that,” Humpherys explained.

Humpherys decided to do something about it. He assigned Jared Webb, a mathematics undergraduate, to work on an IMPACT (Interdisciplinary Mentoring Program in Analysis, Computation, & Theory) project on the topic. Webb became the primary inventor on the patent. IMPACT is a program that allows undergraduate mathematics students to conduct their own research projects while receiving guidance from professors and mentors.

When Webb joined IMPACT as an undergraduate student in 2009, he had not envisioned himself creating a patent for the digital media industry.

“I had never really thought about getting a patent before I started my research. I was aware of their existence, but never thought of them as something that I would produce as an academic,” Webb said.

Webb was interested in researching ways to improve file sharing online and knew of the digital rights management issues that existed for movie studios. He worked closely with Rodney Forcade, Christopher Guzman, Shane Reese, and Jeffrey Humpherys. The more research the group did, the clearer the path to the patent became.

“For a digital watermarking scheme to be useful, it needs to be robust. It must be difficult to remove the watermark without marring the media. It also needs to be unobtrusive so that legitimate use of the media is unhindered. These two requirements perform a balancing act with any watermarking scheme and hence formed the basis for our ideas,” Webb said.

If filmmakers in Hollywood and other multimedia creators use this patented form of digital watermarking, it will allow them to identify who uploaded the content (a new film, album, etc.) and have them arrested, sued, fired, or take other action. It would put the creators back in control of their content—something that has diminished with the rise of online file sharing.

What makes this patent unique is that the watermark withstands changes in resolution or media type. If someone tries to change the file from mpeg3 to avi, for example, the watermark will remain embedded in the file.

The path to developing the patent was long and, at times, frustrating. They began the patent’s development in 2009, and they applied for it in 2010. Three years later, on November 19, 2013, they were awarded the patent.

Sometimes it seemed there was nowhere else to find a solution, but Webb was persistent and learned from his mistakes. “One of the difficulties in research is reaching a dead end. You may have sunk a lot of time into one avenue only to find that it actually isn’t that good of an idea. You kick yourself for not noticing earlier that it was bad. One of the more valuable things I learned was that that is expected and not to give up,” Webb said.

Though he was discouraged at times, Webb was grateful to the IMPACT program for providing him with mentors to encourage him and to help him to continue his research and work.

“The opportunity would not have come to me if it weren’t for IMPACT. . . . One thing I appreciated was having people be able to immediately shoot down my bad ideas before I spent too much time on them. They taught me how to ask good questions, how to communicate, and guided me through the research process,” Webb said.

To find out more about IMPACT, visit