New lawsuits lobbed at third-party libraries of apps for the software are really stretching the definition of piracy.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
In recent months, the media playing software Kodi has attracted a surge of attention and new users. You'd think this would be something the folks who created Kodi would be thrilled about, but that's not the case.
"Two years ago we were just another software and then the explosion happened," Nathan Betzen, the president of the XBMC Foundation, which administers the Kodi project, told me. "People assumed it was awesome for us but it was not. When the reason you're blowing up is because third-party add-ons help people pirate, you get all kinds of phone calls and emails."
Kodi attracted newfound popularity after numerous shady dealers began selling Kodi-equipped streaming boxes souped-up with third-party plugins that allow people to stream pirated TV and movies. This also caused Kodi and adjacent plugin libraries to draw unwanted ire from traditional TV providers. This reached an apex last month when these providers, such as Dish Network and Canada's Bell network, launched lawsuits against the third-party plugin libraries. But according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, these lawsuits have less to do with copyrights, and more to do with stomping out any cable-cutting competition to the status quo.
Kodi is simply software that plays media, like videos or music. It uses plugins to play different media, and users can customize the software for their own personal entertainment unit. For example, if a user has a subscription to MLB.tv and Netflix and Hulu, she can design plugins (or install plugins, it's as simple as installing a plugin on your browser) to work with these services to play through Kodi, which can be installed on a computer, a smart TV, or a device such as the Amazon Fire TV Stick.
Kodi is a favorite among tech-minded cord-cutters because it's open source, free, and customizable. But once it became clear that Kodi could be used as a way to easily stream pirated content, using specific third-party plugins that pull from illegal streams online, many dealers started popping up hawking "fully loaded" Kodi boxes that allowed users to access tons of TV shows, movies, and music for free.
"I mean it is literally easier to use these than it is to torrent a movie at this point," Betzen told me. "The second we saw these plugins popping up, we knew we had to distance ourselves."
Betzen told me these kinds of apps were banned from development support and discussion on the Kodi forum five years ago, but that didn't stop them from surfacing elsewhere on the internet. Now, in a supposed attempt to clamp down on pirating, multiple TV providers have launched lawsuits against third-party sites where users can download these plugins.
But Mitch Stoltz, a senior staff attorney at EFF, told me these sites are clearly protected, and that these kinds of suits are just the latest in a long attempt to broaden copyright laws in order to crush cord-cutting competitors.
"The law that we're talking about is called secondary copyright liability, which defines when someone can be held liable for copyright infringement done by someone else," Stoltz said. "It has two parts: knowledge that specific infringement is happening and some contribution to that, which could be encouraging others to do it."
With TvAddOns, one of the plugin library sites that has been targeted by lawsuits in Canada and the US, the majority of the plugins users can download are totally legit. If a few pirate-enabling plugins slip through the cracks, that hardly makes TVAddOns a knowledgeable and contributing party, Stoltz explained. As long as TvAddOns deletes pirate-enabling content when it receives a takedown notice under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, it would likely be in the clear, legally speaking. This is how YouTube, Google, Twitter, Facebook, and many other sites that rely on user-generated content deal with copyright issues.
But it's par for the course for Big TV to flex on smaller distributors, he told me.
"Ever since the VCR, with every new generation of technology there's an attempt to hold the vendors of the technology responsible," Stoltz said. "I think that's the deeper reason for this war on Kodi boxes."
For Kodi's part, Betzen said the community works to limit shady plugins, comply with DMCA takedown orders, and encourages users to build their own system from scratch. Not only does this allow users to make sure everything they're using is above board, but also, Betzen said, "because we're nerds."
At least one of the lawsuits, filed by Dish Network,has made it through early proceedings and is set to continue.
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.