The free and legal TV streaming service Kodi has been targeted by copyright owners and law enforcement agencies, which have briefed the UK’s tabloid newspapers to run stories attacking the service on the grounds of unauthorized add-ons that breach copyright laws. Papers include The Sun, The Mirror, the Daily Express and the Daily Star, all of which have run stories warning Kodi users and criticising the service, often with dramatic headlines, including “Kodi Killers!” and “Kodi TOTAL BAN!”
Kodi is an open source media player that was formerly known as XBMC (Xbox Media Center). In 2014 the service changed its name from XBMC to Kodi and became a registered trademark. At the time, a leading figure in Kodi’s online community, Nathan Betzen said: “Users have been fooled into wasting money buying boxes running hacked and typically broken versions of XBMC.” By changing the name to Kodi as a trademark it was hoped it would cut out the illegal selling of broken versions.
Through Kodi, users can access audio and video from various sources, including static, live stream and torrents. The add-ons that link to audio and video content can be created by anyone. In essence, Kodi only provides an interface for users, but no actual content.
Users can download and install Kodi on either Mac, PC or smartphone (Android and Raspberry Pis) and can then search for add-ons using its search bar.
A list of add-ons is provided by the XBMC Foundation, most of which are not endorsed by copyright holders, however, links do conform to legal requirements. For example, the iPlayer add-on reminds users that they need a TV license to proceed. Other add-ons, however, offer illegal access to content.
According to Betzen, Kodi does not advocate the use of unauthorized add-ons. Kodi could block the use of these add-ons but as things stand that’s only an option for larger companies like Apple, since it has a large developer base that can support such a move. What’s more, any restrictions put in place could be circumvented by anyone since the software is open source.
Kodi users could face up to 10 years in prison
Kodi is also being targeted by new legislation that could land users who stream illegal content through the Kodi interface in prison for a decade.
The change is enshrined in the Digital Economy Act, which concerns specifically copyrighted content. The UK International Property Office (IPO) has recommended that the maximum prison sentence be increased from 2 years to 10.
The minister of state for Digital Media and Culture, Matt Hancock said the following, “I’m delighted the Digital Economy Act has become law”.
“This legislation will help build a more connected and stronger economy. The Act will enable major improvements in broadband rollout, better support for consumers, better protection for children on the Internet and further transformation of government services.”
The Act received Royal Assent last week, which means it will now pass into law.
What does this mean for individual Kodi users?
The Act is specifically targeted at users committing serious offenses, including individuals or groups using Kodi to illegally stream as a business. Those using it in this way could be imprisoned for 10 years.
Individual users who stream unauthorized content only now and then are extremely unlikely to be prosecuted. Kieron Sharp from FACT said: “For minor matters, nothing changes…But it should hopefully provide a little bit of clarity.”
However, the act now means that it is technically illegal to watch or stream any kind of copyrighted material. As clause 27 of the act points out, criminal liability is determined by “causing loss” or “risk of loss” to the owner of the copyright. Since Kodi does not pay a licence fee, ordinary users sharing on a non-commercial basis are at risk.
There are also concerns that copyright “trolls” and predatory law firms may begin compiling online evidence of evidence before sending threatening letters requesting payment.
In response to the introduction of the Act, Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, said the following: “While we don’t think that all those people are going to suddenly face criminal charges, they can be threatened with it.”
“That’s going to fuel all kinds of copyright letter-writing – at its worst, the copyright trolls, who send people invoices saying ‘You owe us hundreds of pounds for file-sharing and if you don’t pay up we’ll take it to court’.”
“That’s going to make that threat really serious, because it’s potentially attached to a 10-year sentence. And that’s going to make it much harder and much more onerous for people to say, ‘No, I didn’t do this, I’m innocent’.”
Sharp said that in theory individual users could face a six month suspended sentence and a one-off fine, though he was concerned that prosecutors might seek to make an example of an individual if there’s sufficient pressure from the entertainment industry.
In recent months, law enforcement agencies have targeted the sale of pre-packaged TV streaming devices with Kodi add-ons included, which are in breach of copyright laws. Two prominent cases against sellers have been brought to trial with one individual being sentenced to four months in prison and another being given a ten-month suspended sentence as well as a fine of £170,000.