The little black box that took over piracy

Posted by on Dec 5, 2017 in IT News | 0 comments

The little black box that took over piracy

The Kodi box pitch is hard to resist. A little black plastic square, in look not much different from a Roku or Apple TV, and similar in function as well. This streamer, though, offers something those others never will: Free access to practically any show or movie you can dream of. No rental fees. No subscriptions. Just type in the name of a blockbuster, and start watching a high-definition stream in seconds.

For years, piracy persisted mainly in the realm of torrents, with sites like The Pirate Bay and Demonoid connecting internet denizens to premium content gratis. But a confluence of factors have sent torrent usage plummeting from 23 percent of all North American daily internet traffic in 2011 to under 5 percent last year. Legal crackdowns shuttered prominent torrent sites. Paid alternatives like Netflix and Hulu made it easier just to pay up. And then there were the “fully loaded” Kodi boxes—otherwise vanilla streaming devices that come with, or make easily accessible, so-called addons that seek out unlicensed content—that deliver pirated movies and TV shows with push-button ease.

“Kodi and the plugin system and the people who made these plugins have just dumbed down the process,” says Dan Deeth, spokesperson for network-equipment company Sandvine. “It’s easy for anyone to use. It’s kind of set it and forget it. Like the Ron Popeil turkey roaster.”

Kodi itself is just a media player; the majority of addons aren’t piracy focused, and lots of Kodi devices without illicit software plug-ins are utterly uncontroversial. Still, that Kodi has swallowed piracy may not surprise some of you; a full six percent of North American households have a Kodi device configured to access unlicensed content, according to a recent Sandvine study. But the story of how a popular, open-source media player called XBMC became a pirate’s paradise might. And with a legal crackdown looming, the Kodi ecosystem’s present may matter less than its uncertain future.

In the beginning, there was Xbox Media Center, and it was great. Despite the name, XBMC wasn’t born out of a Microsoft development team. It began as a homebrew project (for the first year, called Xbox Media Player), an open-source attempt at building a better media client for Xbox consoles.

XBMC acquired a loyal fan base, its development guided by the nonprofit XBMC Foundation. The tent wasn’t quite big enough, though, to accommodate all of the competing visions for what XBMC could become. Fissures inevitably appeared. (Popular media player Plex, for instance, is an XBMC fork.)

It wasn’t until 2012, though, that the conflict over addons splintered XBMC for good.

“We saw these piracy addons starting to take off, and we realized they were very simple to use,” says Nathan Betzen, XBMC/Kodi Foundation President. “It looks so easy to use these things that we wanted no part of it. We’re a nonprofit software development group. We’re pretty happy not getting sued. So we banned them from our forum.”

Rather than give up their work, or submit to what they saw as XBMC’s onerous guidelines, a group of XBMC developers instead formed XBMC Hub, a place where people were free to tinker on whatever addons they liked without worry of restrictions or reprisal. And for all the focus on piracy, the majority of addons facilitate perfectly legal features, from interface tweaks to Dropbox integration to music streaming.

While XBMC Hub managed to draw interest from a wide range of developers, infringing addons found a home there as well. In 2014, to distance itself even further from the offshoot, the original XBMC rebranded itself as Kodi. XBMC Hub changed its name as well, to TV Addons. And then came the boxes.

Like any open-source ecosystem, Kodi contains multitudes. There’s the Kodi media player itself. There’s TV Addons and other developer communities. There are the plugins that scrape the internet for pirated material. There are the uploaders, the people who host the latest episode of, say, Game of Thrones on Google Drive or wherever. And there are the devices, which can be streaming boxes, Android tablets, and so on.

Those are what transformed Kodi into the modern-day pirate’s favorite ship.

“It’s a bit of a Wild West,” says Deeth. “Kodi’s open source. Anyone can take that software and put it on any piece of hardware.”

And they can do it at scale. Just go to a site like AliExpress, and you can buy streaming boxes by the hundreds for relatively cheap. Add the right plugins—or buy them fully loaded—and sites like Ebay, Facebook, and Craigslist await, providing a bustling resell market.

“It’s so easy to do. The barrier entry for the user is so simple, and even for the person who puts a box together,” says Deeth. “You don’t even need to have this high technical bar. You just need to have some business savvy and some ethical greyness in your life to go into the business.”

That ease applies to creating the piracy addons themselves. Since primarily all they do is find existing sites that host pirated content, grab working links, and present them in Kodi’s user-friendly interface, Betzen rates the complexity about the same as creating a simple web page.

The industry has thrived, too, because it has managed to stay relatively underground, at least in the US. (In the UK, Kodi boxes have garnered more attention from authorities, thanks to stingy soccer fanatics driving an early swell of adoption.) Until recently, the extent of the enforcement stateside has comprised the Kodi Foundation protecting its turf.

“We’re basically taking the stance that if you use the word ‘Kodi’ to mean something other than the vanilla software we release, if you preinstall addons or something like that, that means you are no longer shipping Kodi, and we consider it a trademark violation,” says Betzen. “That’s sort of worked. We’ve been able to get a bunch of sellers off of Ebay and Amazon that way.”

An example of both a typical Kodi enforcement effort and the scope of the problem: Using an automated Ebay system, Betzen says, the Kodi team was once able to get 7,000 listings taken down in about half an hour.

Betzen also sees any more aggressive action on the Kodi Foundation’s part as futile. It could, theoretically, create a sort of App Store environment, in which only approved plugins would work. Even as a show of good faith, though, that would prove ineffective. Kodi is, again, open source. If pirates don’t like the changes, they could just immediately roll them back with their own, forked version.

Streaming piracy also falls into murky legal territory. As a relatively new phenomenon, the courts haven’t yet established clear lines of acceptable use, or who bears ultimate responsibility.

“The thing people should understand is that on day one, when you have a dual-use technology, it usually starts off as inherently non-infringing,” says Ira Rothken, a technology-focused lawyer with deep experience in digital copyright.

Simply putting Kodi in a piece of hardware, in other words, seems unlikely to skirt legal boundaries. But the more the underlying code of various plugins enables piracy, and the advertising around the product promotes it, and as the percentage of infringing materials travel through that device creeps up, things get a little shakier.

“As it starts moving in a more extreme way in those three areas, you then get more exposure for inducement or secondary copyright infringement,” says Rothken. “And then you have the fight.”

And in the US, that fight has officially begun.

Tickbox TV sells its Kodi box with a bit of a wink.

“Frustrated with overpriced cable bills?” blares a headline on the company’s website. Among its purported customer testimonials are claims that, “I enjoy being able to watch what I want and being able to save a few bucks doesn’t hurt,” and “My wife rents every new ON Demand movie that comes out at $5.99 per movie. This was getting crazy.”

A sponsored ad the company apparently posted in May is a little more on the nose, promising the ability to “watch anything for free,” and that “it might get banned soon, but as soon as you have one you are completely fine and will be able to watch everything for free forever.”

The company also includes a disclaimer on its site to clarify that it does not host or distribute any content, and that users should not download or stream any copyrighted content without permission. That apparently did not allay the concerns of a coalition of Hollywood studios, Netflix, and Amazon, which filed suit against the company two weeks ago today.

“TickBox distributes and promotes TickBox TV as a tool for the mass infringement of copyrighted motion pictures and television shows,” says Zoe Thorogood, a spokesperson for the Alliance for Creativity and Entertainment, an anti-piracy trade group that represents the companies behind the suit. TickBox TV did not respond to a request for comment.

More specifically, the suit alleges that while TickBox TV may not come preloaded with infringing addons, it funnels customers directly to them. It even includes an instructional video. “After completing the set-up and downloading addons per TickBox’s directions, the customers use TickBox TV for intended and unquestionably infringing purposes, most notably to obtain instantaneous, unrestricted, and unauthorized access to infringing streams,” reads the suit, first obtained by The Hollywood Reporter.

The TickBox TV suit is the first of its kind in the US. It won’t be the last, and the offensive likely won’t stop at boxes.

“This lawsuit is one of many steps required to address the growing challenge of piracy devices, apps, and addons,” says Thorogood.

As well they should. But the diffuse nature of the Kodi ecosystem, the unclear legal framework, and the uncertain effectiveness of lawsuits like the one against TickBox make it unclear just how fully Hollywood can police it.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think this case is going to bring much more clarity,” says Rothken. “If you take out one company that experiments and loses, another one may come along and experiment and to try not to cross the line. If they lose, another one might come up. What they all have in common is they’re low budget. The people who run them tend not to be the kind of people who read legal cases. They’re usually not evil, but rather just ignorant.”

Meanwhile, in Canada, copyright holders have chosen to target TV Addons, the XBMC developer spinoff community, seizing the domains and social media accounts of Adam Lackman, who runs it. Lackman says he was questioned by the plaintiff’s lawyer for 14 hours, without Lackman’s own lawyer being allowed to clarify answers, which resulted in a strong rebuke from the court to the companies behind the suit.

“I think that they were looking for the easiest way to try to make an impact that could be reflected in the news,” says Lackman. “They wanted a story, they wanted to look like they were doing something, and they wanted to scare people. When you start throwing around lawsuits, when it’s billion-dollar companies that start throwing around lawsuits, it scares the shit out of people.”

Lackman continues to fight the Canada suit, as well as one filed in Texas by Dish Network, noting that of over 1,400 addons in his community, only 18 were identified as infringing. TV Addons itself doesn’t host anything, or allow tracking or analytics, Lackman says, making it impossible to monitor exactly what goes on within the community.

He also draws an important distinction between a group of open-source software developers and people actively engaged in using Kodi for piracy.

“If someone’s selling a device and they’re labeling it as a piracy product and they’re sitting in the shopping center or a store front, these guys should go to jail,” says Lackman. “They infringe on people’s rights, and that’s not what I’m about.” He said as much in April, too, before copyright holders had targeted him, in a post warning the Kodi community away from box-seller “profiteers.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a prominent digital rights group, has come out in support of Lackman and TV Addons, drawing those same lines. “These lawsuits by big TV incumbents seem to have a few goals: to expand the scope of secondary copyright infringement yet again, to force major Kodi add-on distributors off of the Internet, and to smear and discourage open source, freely configurable media players by focusing on the few bad actors in that ecosystem,” wrote EFF lawyers Jeremy Malcolm and Mitch Stoltz recently.

And while the TickBox TV and Candadian TV Addons suits have substantive differences, it’s still worth noting that neither targets the specific developers behind those infringing plugins, or the people putting pirated materials online in the first place. (The Dish Network suit does name the developer behind addon ZemTV.) Or, for that matter, the person watching the video on the Kodi box. Hollywood and the music industry rarely targets individuals in that way, but there is some legal risk to the home viewer.

“There would technically have to be legal exposure. In order to be able to hold these types of box dependents secondarily liable, the law requires there has to be a primary infringer,” says Rothken. “That’s typically going to be a consumer who’s viewing the material, and in some instances other host providers who are streaming the material on the internet.”

It all sounds a bit like a game of Whack-a-Mole where the real targets rarely pop up, and bystanders are fair game.

Perhaps fittingly, it’s also not all that different from what torrenting went through before its ultimate decline. And the Kodi Foundation’s Betzen, who’s been there from the beginning, hopes it plays out the same way.

“I’d love it if a lawsuit ultimately resulted in all of the pirates going away, but I don’t think anyone on the planet really believes that’s going to happen,” says Betzen. “I think the only solution is going to be the solution that made torrenting less popular, which is to provide the services that the pirates are providing in a way that’s better.”

It may not be so simple this time. People left torrenting for Netflix, sure. But they also left torrenting for the Kodi box. The challenge for copyright holders, then, isn’t just to improve on free. It’s to, somehow, be better than free and easy.