When “Ticking the Box” is Not Such a Good Idea

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As we get geared up for the Christmas (oops, I mean “seasonal”) shopping extravaganza, one’s thoughts turn to what to get for those hard-to-buy-for family members. Giving a good book is usually a winner, but there is always the question of “has she read it”, or “will he like it?” Or, “do they still read hard-copy books?” For a few years, buying a DVD series always seemed like a good idea but that seems to be somewhat out of fashion in this age of streaming content. Could I buy a gadget to make their viewing experience better? There are lots of offerings out there, generically known as Kodi boxes, but beware. Many are not what they seem, or put another way, many will lead consumers into a morass of grey market activity where they really shouldn’t go. And recent tests have shown that there are lots of unbranded “Kodi” boxes out there that are unsafe and don’t meet even basic electrical safety standards. (Kodi itself is a legal software installed in set top boxes).

So before you rush out and buy one of these devices, let’s look at what is happening in the “Kodi world”. The most recent shot in the ongoing struggle between content creators and those who feed off the smart box ecosystem is the lawsuit launched in the US by six Hollywood studios, joined by Netflix and Amazon, against Tickbox. Tickbox, which advertises extensively on the web but otherwise seems to have a more or less virtual business with only a small office in Atlanta, basically promotes itself as a gateway to all the content that is on the web, allowing consumers to bypass paid content. In its own words;

If you’re sick of paying high monthly fees and expensive bills for your regular cable bill…Get ready to cut the cord, because TickBox TV™ is exactly what you’re looking for!

Despite disclaimers stating that “Tickbox TV should not be utilized to download or stream any copyrighted content without permission from the content owner”, other material on its site makes it abundantly clear what the real purpose of the box is for. It’s is a bit like a seller openly advertising tools for burglary but then adding a disclaimer that its crowbars and slim jims should only be used for legal purposes. The studios’ lawsuit claims that “what TickBox actually sells is nothing less than illegal access to Plaintiffs’ copyrighted content” noting that the only payment is to Tickbox, not to content owners.

This is just the latest manifestation of “fully loaded” boxes being used to promote widespread piracy. They are the bane of the content industry. Recently Sandvine, a provider of network analytics, released a detailed research report, “The ‘Fully Loaded’ Kodi Ecosystem”, indicating that;

  • 8.8% of North American households have at least one device in their household with an active Kodi installation
  • 68.6% of households with Kodi devices also have unofficial Add-ons configured to access unlicensed content
  • Approximately 6% of all households in North America, currently have a Kodi device configured to access unlicensed content

 Sandvine’s report, which estimated that losses to industry in North America range between $840 million and $4.2 billion annually (depending on whether Kodi add-on users would have subscribed to a streaming content service or a full cable package) had a helpful definition of “fully loaded”, which they describe as;

“essentially a small set-top box with enough computing power to play HD content; importantly it comes pre-loaded with the unofficial Add-ons and Kodi software configured to access unlicensed content”

In Canada pre-loaded Kodi boxes have been a problem for pay-TV providers such as Bell Media, Videotron and Rogers. They have successfully pursued merchants advertising and selling such boxes and recently expanded this activity, going after a website known as TVAddons.

The problem is not just limited to North America. In Asia, where “Kodi boxes” are not as common, users prefer TV boxes preloaded with subscription applications providing access to illegal content. The problem created by these TV boxes or “ISDs” (Illicit Streaming Devices) as they are commonly referred to, is particularly acute in advanced economies such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Thailand. In Singapore it is estimated that almost half the population is engaged in online piracy, with about 40 percent of a recent representative survey admitting that they illegally download or stream movies and another 14 percent admitting to using an ISD. This is in a country that is generally regarded as extremely law abiding but as I pointed out in a recent blog about online piracy in Japan, public behaviour and behaviour behind closed doors with a laptop can be two different things. I am reliably informed that ISDs are readily available in Singapore in mainstream retail shops, IT exhibitions, with over 20 outlets openly selling ISDs in the primary IT Mall.

One response has been the formation of the Asian Coalition Against Piracy (CAP), which was unveiled at the convention of the Asian cable TV association, CASBAA (Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Association of Asia) in early November. The Coalition includes major sports and entertainment content providers such as Disney, Fox, HBO Asia, NBCU, Premier League, Turner, A&E, BBC, NBA, Sony, TV5Monde and Viacom as well as all major local Pay-TV platforms like PCCW (Hong Kong), True Visions (Thailand), Singtel (Singapore), Astro (Malaysia) and Cignal (Philippines). The strategy, according to Neil Gane, newly-named CAP General Manager, will be to disrupt the ISD ecosystem at its source and engage with intermediaries such as e-commerce platforms and financial processors to disrupt transactions at the point of sale. CAP will also cooperate with anti-Kodi/ISD activities in North America and Europe. This collaboration reaped rewards recently when CAP and the Alliance for Creativity and Entertainment (ACE) worked together to successfully close down an Australian ISD operation.

Europe, particularly the UK, is another area where the struggle against Kodi add-on devices is being carried out, with increasing success. The Federation Against Copyright Theft, or FACT, has been leading a campaign of both awareness and legal action against ISDs in Britain. There have been several widely-reported prosecutions and recently the UK’s Intellectual Property Office (IPO) office issued a bulletin clarifying for consumers what is legal and what is not when it comes to Kodi or Android boxes. According to the IPO;

“If you are watching television programmes, films or sporting events where you would normally be paying to view them and you have not paid, you are likely to be using an illicit streaming device (ISD) or app,”

 A new law, the Digital Economy Act, came into force in April of this year to strengthen penalties, with those found guilty of selling ISDs now subject to penalties of up to ten years imprisonment. One of the reasons for robust action on the part of British authorities is the widespread availability of Kodi boxes (which in and of themselves are not illegal; it is the added software that provides access to infringing content that is illegal) and the importance of sports broadcasting, particularly Premier League Soccer, in the UK. Meanwhile, a UK publication has reported on a survey that purported to show that the crackdown on Kodi boxes (and Pirate Bay) is not working because 47 percent of people quizzed in a 2000 person survey claimed that they continued to access pirated material. While that is interesting, and perhaps frustrating, what is significant in my view is the flip side of this finding. The journal (express.co.uk) reported that,

“According to the research, the recent efforts to blocks Kodi Box add-ons and torrent sites have stopped 52 per cent of those who watched paid-for content illegally from pirating in future.”

Considering the relatively short time that the anti-ISD campaign has been underway, this is a pretty good outcome. Maybe those converted households will look elsewhere for their Christmas gifts this year.

And that is a good reminder for your holiday shopping list. If you want to give that loved-one a special gift, make sure it is not a device that leads him or her into the murky world of pirated content, with potential electrical hazards to boot. Maybe a good book, (or a movie pass) is not such a bad idea after all.

© Hugh Stephens 2017. All Rights Reserved




Google’s End Run on the Canadian Supreme Court’s De-Indexing Order: Strengthening Arguments for Site Blocking

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Google has successfully convinced a judge in the tech industry-friendly US District Court of Northern California (covering Silicon Valley naturally) to issue a temporary injunction nullifying the enforceability in the United States of an order from a Canadian provincial court in British Columbia (BC), upheld on appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC), to delist from its global search results all references to Datalink Technologies Gateways and its counterfeit product, an internet router called the GW1000. Datalink was found by the BC court to have infringed the copyright and stolen trade secrets from Equustek, a BC company, and passed off Equustek’s products as its own. Continue reading “Google’s End Run on the Canadian Supreme Court’s De-Indexing Order: Strengthening Arguments for Site Blocking”

The Suspension of IP Provisions in the TPP Negotiations and NAFTA: What’s the Connection?

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The image above poses the classic riddle; is the glass half full (i.e. positive and moving toward fulfilment) or the opposite, half empty. It depends on how you interpret recent developments affecting the possible outcome of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade negotiations that occurred in Danang, Vietnam, where the TPP leaders met. At Canada’s instigation, a planned statement on an “agreement in principle” was modified to an “agreement on core elements” with more work to be done on a number of issues, with some others set aside for now. The “new TPP” is composed of 11 countries (Canada, Australia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Chile, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam), down from the original 12 since the US pulled out, and is now apparently to be known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership, the CPTPP. (Probably both supporters and skeptics can agree that this new moniker is a mouthful.) Continue reading “The Suspension of IP Provisions in the TPP Negotiations and NAFTA: What’s the Connection?”

Site Blocking in Japan—A Call for Action

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In my last blog I discussed the growing problem of online piracy in Japan, and the importance of site blocking as a potential remedy. Site blocking has proven to be a particularly effective remedy against rogue pirate sites that set up in jurisdictions beyond the reach of domestic law, as I have outlined in previous blogs on the subject (here and here), and has been adopted by more than 40 countries world-wide. Continue reading “Site Blocking in Japan—A Call for Action”

Online Piracy in Japan: How Big is the Problem—and what’s an Effective Solution?

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Japanese people are rightly noted for their honesty. We have all heard the stories of wallets left on park benches being returned or just left for the owner to find. This theory was tested last year with the results shown on Youtube. Out of 15 “inadvertent” wallet drops in Tokyo, all 15 were picked up and returned to the owner. That’s quite a record. This code of behaviour largely extended to DVD and CD piracy a few years ago when these formats were popular vehicles for piracy in many parts of the world. While it was possible to find pirated videos in Japanese cities, piracy rates in Japan were consistently low—by some estimates as low as 5%–whereas in many countries (China being an example) the piracy rates were north of 90%. I have heard Japan’s fabled honesty attributed to everything from the Samurai code to the shame based (loss of face) ethics of a Confucian society—although the latter certainly has not had any impact on piracy rates in China, where Confucian tenets are still supposed to influence behaviour. Whatever the cultural reason, the odds of getting your wallet back in Japan are much better than in just about any other country in the world. Continue reading “Online Piracy in Japan: How Big is the Problem—and what’s an Effective Solution?”

Canadian Literature in Canadian Schools and the Duration of Copyright Protection (Don’t Mix Apples and Oranges)

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If you are fundamentally opposed to any consideration of extending the term of copyright protection to benefit authors and creators, and if you are sufficiently creative in twisting logic, then you can find justification for your position just about anywhere. This is exactly what Michael Geist has done in taking a study released by the Ontario Book Publishers Organization (OBPO) on the lack of Canadian literature in Ontario classrooms and using it to try and argue that it proves his case for opposing any extension to the term of copyright protection. He is trying to put a round peg in a square hole. Continue reading “Canadian Literature in Canadian Schools and the Duration of Copyright Protection (Don’t Mix Apples and Oranges)”

Netflix in Canada: Let No Good Deed Go Unpunished

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Let’s say you are Netflix and you have been very successful in promoting your content subscription service, and have succeeded in signing up roughly half the households of a given country. And let’s say that this country is concerned about preserving its means of cultural expression in an audio-visual world largely dominated by major US producers of content. In pursuit of this goal, this country has for years maintained a variety of policies designed to tilt the playing field in favour of its domestic content producers (with limited success, I might add.) One of these policies is the creation of a domestic content production fund into which broadcasters and content distributors (but not online distributors) must pay a percentage of revenues. And let’s say that a number of stakeholders in this country, from the direct competition to domestic producers of content who are subsidized by the content production fund want you, Netflix, to be required to contribute to the fund in order to expand it so as to make yet more domestic content. That’s not all. As an entity outside Canada selling a digital product, you are not required by law to collect sales taxes on your Canadian subscriptions but you are nonetheless being accused by your Canadian competitors of having an unfair advantage. If you can absorb all that, then you will have some idea of the issues that Netflix is grappling with in Canada. It’s a minefield–with many people laying mines. Continue reading “Netflix in Canada: Let No Good Deed Go Unpunished”