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Hollywood’s New Piracy Problem: Rogue Streaming Boxes

October 31, 2017, 4:29 AM UTC

Search on Craigslist for something called “Kodi,” and you’re likely to find a flood of offers for Amazon and Android devices that promise unlimited access to “free” and “unlimited” movies and TV shows.

The Kodi devices, many of which sell for around $75, represent the latest headache for the entertainment industry’s long-running—and so far unsuccessful—quest to stamp out piracy.

The term “Kodi” describes a popular type of open source software for streaming movies, video games, and other media. While there’s nothing illegal about Kodi itself, the software works with various apps that make it easy to find and index unauthorized streaming sites.

You can think of a Kodi box as just another Roku or Apple TV streaming device, but one that can scan the Internet for pirated movies or sports matches.

While the Kodi software can be loaded onto all sorts of devices, one of the more popular vehicles for it is the Amazon Fire TV Stick. As you can see from the screenshot below, a Craigslist seller is offering a “jailbroken” version of the device “fully loaded” with Kodi-compatible apps that could be used to facilitate piracy:

The seller presumably has no connection to Amazon, but has purchased a number of Fire TV Sticks and modified their software in order to resell them with Kodi capability.

The upshot, from the perspective of the entertainment industry, is that it’s getting easier the Average Joe and Jane to get their hands on a plug-and-play piracy device.

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How prevalent are the devices? According to a study by research firm Sandvine cited by Wired in a feature about the Kodi phenomenon, 6% of North American households have a Kodi device configured to access unlicensed content. (One reason for this high level of use is that Kodi apps can provide a way to surface illegal streaming sites at a time when sites like Google are doing more suppress such streams in their search results.)

The apparent popularity of Kodi-related streaming is a setback for Hollywood, which had been gaining the upper hand against piracy in recent years thanks to legal victories against piracy websites, the decline of file-sharing torrent sites, and the rise of legitimate streaming services like Netflix.

In this context, the Kodi devices amount to just the latest front in a battle between studios and pirates that has been going on since 1999 when file-sharing site Napster surged on the scene—and was crushed in court by Metallica and the music industry.

And as with earlier technologies, courts will likely define the limits of how Kodi software can be used. Earlier this month, studios sued a company called Tickbox that makes Kodi boxes, accusing them of being complicit in piracy—an echo of earlier legal fights over Napster and YouTube.

Meanwhile, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital advocacy group, points out that there is nothing intrinsically illegal about Kodi software, and warns that adverse court rulings could inhibit innovation and free expression.