This week the European Court of Justice found that set-top boxes and similar devices can infringe copyright if they are sold pre-configured for piracy. The Court also clarified that when users stream content from an illegal source, they too fall foul of the law. So with these issues in mind, how is the market likely to respond?
On Wednesday, the European Court of Justice handed down its decision in the long-running case between Dutch anti-piracy group BREIN and Filmspeler.nl.
Filmspeler sold Android-type devices with Kodi software installed. However, it augmented otherwise legal setups with third-party addons designed to deliver infringing content to customers.
Filmspeler’s owners felt that its pre-configured devices were legal, but both BREIN and ultimately the ECJ disagreed, with the latter noting that their sale amounted to a “communication to the public” in respect of infringing content.
So what does this decision mean for the sale of so-called “fully-loaded” devices in the EU? In the very short term, probably very little. Longer term, some changes probably lie ahead.
There can be little doubt that one of the first places people turn to for such devices are places like eBay. But despite some recent UK tabloid claims that the auction site had banned their sale, a cursory search today reveals hundreds of listings for devices that are clearly configured for piracy.
Over time – whether due to eBay tightening its policies, more aggressive reporting of infringing listings by rights holders, or increased caution on the part of sellers due to prosecutions – it’s likely that these kinds of blatant ‘pirate’ listings will become much less common. However, sellers will find subtle ways to get their message across, without attracting too much attention.
For instance, people hoping to watch satellite TV without paying for an expensive subscription can head over to eBay and pop the otherwise benign terms “satellite” and “gift” into the search box. Hundreds of listings appear, the majority of which offer a pirate subscription to an illegal card-sharing service. ‘Pirate’ box sellers are likely to employ similar tactics in future.
While sprawling, eBay is relatively easy to police but the same cannot be said of the listings that appear in local classified papers. These ads are often placed by regular people who have nurtured a small cottage industry selling a few boxes per week. These people could find themselves targeted by authorities, but sheer numbers will dictate that most fly under the radar.
For suppliers still intent on shifting volume, safer strategies exist.
Pirate addons? Get ready for a DIY boom
This week’s ECJ ruling has nothing to do with the sale of basic hardware and everything to do with infringing software. In other words, if box suppliers sell devices with little other than an operating system installed, they are not breaking the law. This presents a problem, however.
A typical ‘pirate’ box buyer hasn’t got the knowledge to turn an Android device into a piracy machine, that’s why he bought the thing off eBay in the first instance. This means that these kinds of people will be much less likely to buy if they have to mess around themselves. However, if they only have to click a couple of links to get going, that probably won’t be too much of a problem.
That’s certainly the case with native Android apps such as Showbox, Popcorn Time, Mobdro, and Terrarium TV, which are all installed to a set-top device with a couple of clicks, even by the complete novice. With this in mind, it’s likely that sellers will very gently direct customers to sites offering the software and tutorials, rather than take the risk themselves.
Custom installers for Kodi (such as TVAddons’ Fusion) are also widely available and will no doubt gain further traction if the availability of pre-configured ‘pirate’ boxes is restricted. Expect there to be a lot of innovation in this area, with an emphasis on making this as close to a ‘one-click’ process as possible.
But will users be breaking the law using these setups?
In a word – probably.
Up until this week, it was widely believed that users who merely stream pirated content are not breaking the law. It was a position even held by UK Trading Standards, who have an important prosecution pending against a box seller.
But the ECJ’s decision published on Wednesday appears to have removed all doubt, noting that a “copyright-protected work obtained by streaming from a website belonging to a third party offering that work without the consent of the copyright holder” does not qualify for exemption from reproduction rights.
In other words, streaming copyrighted content from an illicit source is now just as illegal in the EU as downloading from an illicit source. So what does this mean for the average ‘pirate’ box user? In the short term, probably not a great deal.
When a user downloads or streams infringing content, whether that’s from a file-hosting site, streaming portal, or even YouTube, no third parties are legally able to get in the way to monitor what’s going on. The user’s connection is directly communicating with the source, and unlike BitTorrent, there are no easily monitored and potentially risky uploads going on.
So yes, streaming is now apparently confirmed illegal but will remain a hidden offense carried out by dozens of millions of people all around the EU. Even in the face of an ECJ ruling, only their consciences will stand between them and illicit content, whether a box seller installed the addons, or if they did the deed themselves.