Fully loaded and ready to infringe

Graeme Elliott

From the analog days of cassette tapes and VHS, to the Internet age of Peer2Peer and streaming, piracy has grown to become more sophisticated and, now, more readily available to a much wider audience. As Internet speeds have developed from dial-up (the ringing still pulsates through my ears sometimes) to broadband, and technology has advanced beyond clunky software to more streamlined portals, Internet piracy has quickly become a big threat to the TV and film industry. Video streaming is now dominating the piracy ecosystem, and recent research by MUSO providing insights into global film and TV piracy reports that TV and film piracy sites received 78 billion visits in 2015 − 74% of which (57 billion visits) were to stream content illegally[1].

Although websites where users can stream content remains a continuing threat to the entertainment industry, there’s a new method that has recently started to gain more attention in the media this year, changing the way users consume illegal content.

Kodi (formerly Xbox Media Centre or XBMC) is a free, open-source media player that can be installed on a vast range of operating systems and devices, from PCs to mobile phones. Since its initial release in 2002, the software has gone from strength to strength due to a dedicated and growing community of developers and supporters. Although it doesn’t carry any content, it can play an array of file types from the user’s local storage, as well as physical media. Users can also install add-ons (similar to apps) to access legitimate streaming services such as Netflix, YouTube and Amazon Prime Video, to name but a few.

However, problems have evolved from the development of unofficial third-party add-ons. After a simple install process, users have access to illegal video-on-demand streams of the latest movies and TV shows in a format much like Netflix, as well streams of live TV channels from the likes of BBC, Fox, Sky and beIN Sports. One of the largest add-on repositories called TV ADDONS, which includes some of the most popular add-ons used for piracy, reported just under 23.3 million unique visitors in July 2016 alone[2].

What’s more, users are now selling what are being advertised as “fully loaded” Kodi boxes (mini PCs, media players, or even USB sticks), which are devices that run an operating system (primarily Android) that comes with a pre-modified version of Kodi installed.

Listings for these devices often make use of Kodi branding, whilst they also being described as coming pre-installed with free or low-cost access to paid-for content and subscriptions − an avenue that enables users to circumvent paying subscription fees or buying media legitimately. These products are very misleadingly labeled, as confused customers may assume that Kodi is in some way affiliated with the production of these devices − and the access to illegal activity that comes with them. Currently on eBay UK, there are just under 5,000 listings when searching for “fully loaded Kodi box”, ranging from £20 to £150 (depending on specs) or more if the listing is for bulk buys. Devices are usually sold and/or dispatched from UK, but there are also Asian listings. Even Amazon UK has just over 2,500 listings, even though users can access Amazon Original content for free without purchasing an Amazon Prime subscription.

Aside from marketplaces, boxes can also be bought on social media websites, as well as dedicated forums. Some videos on YouTube feature individuals claiming to work for Kodi, using the site as a medium via which the sellers can show users how easy it is to set up their devices, as well as provide links to buy their boxes.

The developers behind Kodi have spoken out about their grievances of being wrongly associated with the consumption of infringing content, as well as the problems it causes not only them as software developers, but also to those who use the Kodi player. When these fully loaded boxes are sold, the add-ons normally break within a few days or even a few hours, as the links to the streams either expire or are taken down. Users then vent their frustrations or seek technical support by using the Kodi social media portals, as well as the Kodi forum, only to find out that Kodi is not associated with these third-party add-ons or the devices they’ve been sold, and cannot offer any help.

“Every day, a new user shows up on the Kodi forum, totally unaware that the free movies they’re watching have been pirated, and surprised to discover that Kodi itself isn’t providing those movies”, says XBMC Foundation President and Kodi Product Manager Nathan Betzen[3].

The XBMC Foundation owns the Kodi trademark[4], and is legally entitled to request the removal of those who use Kodi branding without consent. It can fight to take down all marketplace listings, social media groups/posts/videos and websites that sell Kodi boxes with the intent of misleading buyers into thinking they’re buying a product that’s either supported by, or affiliated with, Kodi. It has even enrolled supporters from its forums to help with the trademark offensive by reporting on all infringing sellers and YouTubers[5]. It is now using this opportunity not only to stop its brand name being dragged in the dirt, but also to educate users around the confusion created by those seeking to prey on unsuspecting users.

The fight to crack down on those who are selling fully loaded Kodi boxes doesn’t end there. In March 2016, the UK’s Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit arrested six individuals who were suspected of being involved in the supply of fully loaded boxes. Court proceedings against one such trader began towards the end of September; he is accused of offering set-top boxes that are configured in such a way as to “facilitate the circumvention” of copyright material[6]. And a man was recently arrested not only for selling fully loaded Kodi boxes on Facebook, but also counterfeit football jerseys and designer fakes[7]. Even those who use the boxes to bypass paying TV subscriptions are being targeted. The owners of the Navigation Inn pub in Middlesbrough are to face prosecution for illegally streaming Middlesbrough FC football games on multiple occasions at their pub using a Kodi box (thus circumventing the legal measures to show sport at a pub)[8].

The issues that Kodi face highlight the importance of brand protection for any brand owner associated with the development of open-source software (and/or associated products). In cases such as this, where the products are being sold misleadingly in order to allow users to access illegitimate content, it might be appropriate to employ an online brand-protection solution including elements of: monitoring for, and analysis of, offers of sale to identify non-legitimate products; test purchases; enforcement against infringing listings or websites; and online investigations to identify links between key players in the distribution chain.