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