“Free TV for Life”: It’s (sort of ) le­gal

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Gerry Smith

Imag­ine this: “Free TV For Life!”

The ir­re­sistible pitch is splashed on the home page of some­thing called CorkyTV, which ad­ver­tises Ama­zon Fire sticks and other stream­ing de­vices loaded with soft­ware that can make get­ting shows and movies from shady web­sites as easy as open­ing Net­flix. The soft­ware is per­fectly le­gal, and Corky Stan­ton, who runs the web­site out of his home in Bass Lake, Cal­i­for­nia, is sure he’s not break­ing any laws.

“I just of­fer a ser­vice. I try not to be a bad guy,” said Stan­ton, who charges as much as $300 for one of his al­tered gadgets. “I sell the boxes and it’s up to the user what they do with it.”

Stan­ton and en­trepreneurs like him are Hol­ly­wood’s lat­est chal­lenge in the bat­tle against piracy, which costs the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try bil­lions of dol­lars a year in lost rev­enue. About 6 per­cent of house­holds in North Amer­ica al­ready own dig­i­tal me­dia play­ers doc­tored to let them tap unau­tho­rized con­tent, ac­cord­ing to the broad­band equip­ment provider Sand­vine Inc.

“It’s a huge prob­lem,” said Karen Thor­land, se­nior vice pres­i­dent of global con­tent pro­tec­tion at the Wash­ing­ton-based Mo­tion Pic­ture As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica. “It’s very user-friendly and grow­ing very swiftly.”

Crack­ing down isn’t easy. The Euro­pean Union’s Court of Jus­tice ruled in April that it’s il­le­gal in the EU to sell set-top boxes re­vamped to fa­cil­i­tate piracy. In the U.S., out­fits like Stan­ton’s are in trou­ble only if they en­cour­age their cus­tomers to vi­o­late copy­right laws, ac­cord­ing to Mitch Stoltz, a se­nior staff at­tor­ney at the Elec­tronic Fron­tier Foun­da­tion, a San Fran­cisco-based dig­i­tal-rights group. And con­sumers com­mit crimes only if they down­load un­li­censed movies or shows be­cause stream­ing them is fine un­der cur­rent law, he said.

How it works

This is how it works: Peo­ple buy the mod­i­fied Fire Sticks or Rokus or other such de­vices and then down­load apps onto them that scrape the internet for un­law­ful “free” con­tent — or they buy de­vices with those apps al­ready in­stalled. Some of the prod­ucts have been avail­able on Ama­zon.com’s web­site and through other e-com­merce sites. Black-mar­ket re­tail­ers of the gadgets may charge a fee of as much as $60 for un­lim­ited ac­cess to unau­tho­rized pro­gram­ming.

Con­sumers may not be aware they’re do­ing any­thing wrong, and pur­vey­ors cer­tainly don’t try to en­lighten them.

“There are plenty of users ac­cess­ing the pro­gram­ming with­out know­ing that it wasn’t au­tho­rized,” said Lance Koonce, an in­tel­lec­tual-prop­erty lawyer in New York who rep­re­sented Dish Net­work Corp. in a law­suit against a com­pany sell­ing de­vices that can down­load piracy apps.

In Stan­ton’s view, what CorkyTV ped­dles isn’t the prob­lem. It’s the web­sites that keep pop­ping up to host pil­fered con­tent that are in the wrong. “I’ll stop in a sec­ond if they make it il­le­gal. I don’t want to break any laws.”

The soft­ware most of­ten loaded onto the stream­ing gear is called Kodi, a free ap­pli­ca­tion orig­i­nally writ­ten for Mi­crosoft Corp.’s Xbox and main­tained by a group of vol­un­teer de­vel­op­ers. Kodi is de­signed to make it easy for peo­ple to or­ga­nize and view their pho­tos, videos and other me­dia. But it also al­lows you to down­load any third-party app out there, in­clud­ing those of­fer­ing pi­rated en­ter­tain­ment.

Search for a movie

Type “Ti­tanic” into one of these pi­rat­ing en­gines, and dozens of no-cost, no-sub­scrip­tion ver­sions of the 1997 hit pop up. Some of the en­ter­tain­ment-search apps strip out com­mer­cials from TV shows and have slick Net­flix-style in­ter­faces that let you hunt for pi­rated con­tent by genre, ac­tor or ti­tle, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple who’ve tested them.

“We aren’t nec­es­sar­ily fans of peo­ple al­ter­ing the soft­ware for piracy pur­poses,” said Nathan Bet­zen, a Kodi prod­uct man­ager. But be­cause it can be mod­i­fied by any­one, “we have nei­ther the abil­ity nor the in­ter­est in pre­vent­ing them.”

He added the Kodi team has been is­su­ing take­down no­tices to Ama­zon, eBay, and Facebook aimed at peo­ple sell­ing mod­i­fied ver­sions of the soft­ware to en­cour­age piracy.

Ama­zon de­clined to com­ment. Tri­cia Mif­sud, a spokes­woman for Roku, said the com­pany is work­ing with oth­ers in the busi­ness to com­bat stream­ing piracy.

The en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try has been tak­ing some shots in court. Roku’s set-top boxes were briefly pulled from stores in Mex­ico this month after a judge ruled in a suit by a ca­ble provider that the boxes could be ma­nip­u­lated for the stream­ing of pi­rated con­tent.

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