Is Kodi legal?
Type “Is Kodi…” into Google and the second phrase that appears in the search engine’s autocomplete list is “legal”. The simple answer to that question is “yes”. But even a cursory search for Kodi on eBay will bring up hordes of “fully loaded” devices offering Netflix, Sky Sports and adult channels for free. It’s little wonder people are moved to check if it’s legal.
Kodi is merely the open-source media player software that’s used to power those no-brand streaming devices you find on eBay, as well as offering apps for Windows, Linux, Mac, Android and other platforms (see overleaf). There’s nothing illegal within Kodi itself – it’s what people serve up using Kodi that has copyright holders furiously filing lawsuits.
FULLY LOADED BOXES
A quick scan through the News section of the Federation Against Copyright Theft’s (FACT) website leaves you in little doubt as to what’s keeping its lawyers busy: IPTV boxes. Story after story lists successful prosecutions against people who have been caught selling boxes that allow pubs, clubs or consumers to stream pay-to-view television for free.
eBay and other sites are crammed with these devices, adorned with logos for Netflix, Sky Sports and other premium channels. “Enjoy every single sporting event that is being aired,” reads the blurb on one such eBay listing. “All football matches, golf, F1, NBA, NFL, MMA, UFC.” And all yours for a one-off payment of $80 or often less – cheaper than two months’ subscription to Sky Sports.
There’s another logo you’ll normally find amongst those of the premium channels on such listings: Kodi’s. Kodi is the software of choice for such boxes, and it’s therefore understandable why some see its brand as near synonymous with pirated content.
Kodi spokesperson Nathan Betzen is quick to distance the non-profit consortium from the pirates. “I want to make something pretty clear,” he wrote when we asked him where Kodi stands on its software being used as a means of distribution for pirated material. “Kodi is not used to distribute pirated material. Pirated material is being distributed by online file lockers that are scraped by piracy websites. Then piracy addons scrape those websites. Kodi is being used as the player for those add-ons. Kodi itself is a video player, not in any way a distributor.”
Yet, there’s no doubt that many others are holding the consortium accountable for the content that’s viewed via Kodi, in much the same way the copyright holders held The Pirate Bay accountable for linking to pirated movies. Although Kodi itself has been largely immune from the lawsuits that have been filed against box sellers and add-on developers, it has been tarnished by association, with companies such as Amazon and Apple refusing to allow Kodi into their app stores.
Kodi has become more defensive about its reputation in recent months, entering Twitter slanging matches with publications that suggest it promotes piracy through its software, and placing prominent warnings on its website stating: “Kodi does not provide any media itself,” and that “the Kodi project does not provide any support for bootleg video content”.
“We want to spend our time developing software… We do not want to be forced into a forever game of whack-a-mole”
“I think they are bothered, because they’re getting so much s*** about it,” Kieron Sharp, director general of the Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT) told PC & Tech Authority. However, Sharp is sympathetic to Kodi’s cause. “Kodi in itself is not a problematic piece of software,” he said. “It’s only the way it’s being used.
“We’ve had some discussions with Kodi about their software, but realistically I have to say I can’t see how they can do very much,” he added. “We are working with them on a media message… so people can understand what the problem is with Kodi and there’s a better educational message that goes out.”
Instead, organisations such as FACT and the copyright holders they represent are going after the add-on developers, the people who provide the workarounds to access payper-view content for free. For example, the American satellite and broadcast provider Dish Network has filed a lawsuit against Kodi add-on ZemTV and tvaddons.ag, accusing them of copyright infringement. “The ZemTV service is retransmitting these channels over the internet to end users that download the ZemTV add-on for the Kodi media player, which is available for download at the websites tvaddons.ag and tvaddons.org,” Dish Network’s lawyers claim, demanding US$150,000 for each copyright infringement.
That lawsuit appears to have had a chilling effect on other add-on developers, with several well-known add-ons shutting up shop within 48 hours of the lawsuit being filed. “In light of current events we have decided to close down Phoenix,” wrote one developer of an add-on that previously offered a wide selection of TV channels and on-demand movies and TV shows. “This is not something that was easy for us to do; we have all formed a bond that cannot be broken as a team and have a HUGE support base that we are thankful of,” developer Cosmix wrote on the tvaddons.ag forum.
Meanwhile, FACT continues to target box dealers: the eBay sellers or people supplying pubs with boxes that help them avoid the steep cost of a Sky Sports subscription. The punishments aren’t a slap on the wrist either. Malcolm Mayes, 65, received a ten-month suspended sentence and was forced to pay costs and fines totalling over $410,000 in March, after he was caught supplying IPTV boxes to pubs and clubs for £1,000 a pop. Three other suppliers of fully loaded IPTV boxes were forced to pay a combined $440,000 in costs following actions brought by the Premier League in December 2016.
“A lot of the work we’ve done with the police has been to attack those quite highlevel suppliers of the devices,” explained FACT’s Sharp. “Then there are obviously the smaller resellers and retailers, who are all part and parcel of our overall strategy. And then, of course, the people themselves who use them. If we turn over a major supplier and he has all his customer lists, it’s our duty to follow up on all those people who have been buying boxes.”
Have there been any prosecutions of individuals caught viewing these illegal streams on Kodi boxes? “Up till now it’s been the suppliers, and these prosecutions and investigations take time to go through the courts,” said Sharp. “It could be at some point that someone who is just an end user may find themselves under investigation because of the details we hold when we raid these places of all the people who’ve bought them.” We couldn’t find evidence of an individual viewer being prosecuted so far, however.
LOCKING DOWN THE SOFTWARE
Is there more Kodi could be doing to prevent its software being used by pirate box shifters? The firm bridles at the suggestion. “We take no measures to prevent pirated material being distributed via Kodi, because again, Kodi does not distribute material,” insisted Kodi’s Nathan Betzen.
Indeed, the consortium argues it’s being held accountable for something that’s beyond its control. “We don’t think Kodi should be held to a higher standard than Windows or Android or anyone else,” Betzen argued. “When torrents were big, no-one asked Microsoft or Apple why they don’t simply lock torrent applications out of Windows or OS X. And even now, these addons merely scrape already existing piracy websites. No-one asks the people behind Chrome or Firefox why they don’t simply block those… websites. At the end of the day, we want to spend our time developing software, just like Microsoft, Apple, Google, Mozilla, and others do. We do not want to be forced into a forever game of whack-a-mole.”
That’s not to say Kodi’s turning a blind eye. The company does “take the proactive steps of banning add-ons from our forum and our repo [the software’s add-on repository] that enable piracy”. However, a quick Google will uncover links to add-ons that can be sideloaded into Kodi.
Perhaps the way to stop people reaching for illegal streams is to make it easier to access legitimate feeds. Big players such as Netflix, Amazon, Sky are all conspicuous by their absence from Kodi, despite its popularity. “We do think that providing users with legitimate means of acquiring content would reduce the piracy problem,” said Betzen. “Gabe Newell from Valve once called piracy a ‘service problem’. We think that the easier it is for users to acquire content legitimately, the less likely they are to try to get it illegally.”
Betzen doesn’t blame the big-name providers for failing to offer Kodi add-ons. “They are all contractually obligated to follow encryption rules that Kodi has, to this point, been unable to support,” he said. “Recent development work is now making it appear possible that Kodi could support using legitimate decryption standards like Widevine or PlayReady in the future, so a group like Netflix or Amazon could theoretically support running in Kodi. It’s hard to say what exactly will happen in the future, but we are hopeful.”
There are a host of so-called “fully loaded” Kodi devices on eBay, offering Netflix, Sky Sports and so on – for free
Kodi is quick to distance itself from the pirate box suppliers as it merely supplies the software, not the material
American satellite provider Dish Network has accused add-on ZemTV of copyright infringement