By Ruth Vitale
When I was making my way through the independent film world of the ’90s, there was film piracy. It was hard work then – though not as difficult as making the film itself, mind you.
A pirate had to set up multiple VCRs to dub one scratchy VHS tape to another – or, if he really wanted to be ahead of the game, he could slip a camcorder into the cinema and capture a dim, shaky version of a blockbuster before it left the theater.
Flash forward to today. Film piracy is virtually effortless! The rise of streaming has produced an online environment where stealing movies is as easy as paying for them. Illegal devices known as “fully loaded” Kodi boxes, for instance, give any household with a broadband connection the ability to access all the latest pirated movies – not to mention television shows, sporting events, newscasts, and more – with an interface that works as smoothly as any Apple TV or Roku.
The Kodi software that facilitates these devices is actually 100% legal software that can be loaded onto Google-powered Android television boxes – but it’s also an “open-source” platform. That means that anyone who wants to develop a third-party Kodi app or add-on to illegally distribute pirated entertainment from around the world, is perfectly free to do so. And anyone who wants to compile those apps onto one, convenient, Kodi-outfitted device, can do that, too.
Sharaf Maksumov / Shutterstock.com
Wrapped in promises like “No monthly bills. No entertainment costs,” criminal enterprises like Tickbox and Dragon Box sold vast numbers of fully-loaded Kodi boxes, each one pre-packaged with piracy apps that let the owner access virtually any film or television show they desired – for free. It was a good racket for these companies, until their recklessness eventually brought serious legal repercussions that shut them down.
Both Tickbox and Dragon Box are no longer in business, and international versions of the Illicit Streaming Devices aren’t faring much better, with Kodi box makers facing backlash in countries as far-flung as New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and China. Meanwhile, the most popular host site for unofficial Kodi media apps, TVAddons, is also under fire for copyright infringement. A Kodi crackdown is in full effect – but unfortunately, Kodi boxes and piracy overall are not going anywhere soon.
In fact, according to a report by the network operations group Sandvine, online piracy is actually on the rise again, with BitTorrent file-sharing climbing back to 32 percent of all upstream data following years of decline. The reasons for this uptick are complex, but the takeaway is crystal clear – in a world where creative content is already existentially threatened, piracy continues to thrive, and could be the nail in the coffin.
Billions of dollars are spent each year to produce the cinematic stories and characters we love, by businesses big and small. (And, in truth, it’s mostly small – 84 percent of all businesses in the entertainment industry employ 10 or fewer people.) When someone uses a piracy device and apps, they don’t help to pick up any of those costs. The revenue siphoned away by Kodi boxes, BitTorrent sites, or whatever a user’s piracy outlet of choice might be, limits producers’ ability to raise financing for their future projects.
If their project doesn’t make a profit, it is more difficult to raise money the next go-round – and less production means fewer opportunities for the electricians, caterers, drivers, and millions of other hardworking Americans who work in jobs supported by film and television.
Of all the unfortunate ways in which piracy has impacted these people’s livelihoods over the years, the Kodi box might be the most insidious – because it normalizes content theft on a grand scale.
In a May 25 letter to Amazon and eBay, FCC commissioner Mike O’Rielly wrote that many of the illegal Kodi box sellers were “attempting to distribute their non-compliant products through online marketplaces such as yours.” He was right – at the time, a simple search for “fully loaded Kodi box” on either site brought up dozens of results offering pirated content. Such a search continues to bear illegal fruit today, though the device listings that pop up do seem less “official” (i.e., “sketchier”) than brands like Dragon Box – implying that, at the very least, dealers trafficking in Kodi-facilitated piracy can no longer be as brazen as they once were.
There is also evidence that general demand for illegal Kodi boxes has gone down – in large part due to Google’s removal of the term “kodi” from its search autocomplete feature. These developments show that Big Tech’s major players can make a difference in fighting piracy on their platforms and saving jobs when they put their mind to it. It’s not nearly enough, of course, but it’s a start.
Our industry will need all the help we can get from these Silicon Valley titans in the coming years. Our industry expects to lose $52 billion in revenue to digital piracy by the year 2022! Clearly, the battle to stop Kodi boxes – and all the other ways that people find to steal film and television online – has only just begun. These devices are a serious threat to the livelihoods of the millions of Americans who depend on copyright to make a living. Their work must be protected, and this threat must be stopped.