The FCC is asking for Amazon and eBay’s help in cracking down on Kodi-based streaming video hardware the agency says violates FCC rules and copyright law. Kodi-based streaming TV boxes have been popular for years, allowing users to simplify the semi-cumbersome process of obtaining copyright-protected content via BitTorrent, then streaming that content to their living room. Often these devices are user built and highly customizable. More recently however, vendors like DragonBox and Set TV have been selling more polished variants dressed up as traditional, above-board live streaming services.
As a result, Netflix, Amazon, and Hollywood studios have recently escalated their attacks on such operations, suing the makers of many of these devices in the hopes of hampering their growing popularity. Last week, they received a little help from the FCC.
In a letter sent to both companies last week first spotted by Ars Technica, FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly urged the companies to crack down on the sale of products that violate FCC rules. While copyright traditionally falls outside of the FCC’s mandate, O’Rielly expressed concern that these vendors were using the FCC seal of approval without permission.
“Disturbingly, some rogue set‐top box manufacturers and distributors are exploiting the FCC's trusted logo by fraudulently placing it on devices that have not been approved via the Commission's equipment authorization process,” O’Rielly stated.
O’Rielly failed to specify vendor names, but noted that nine set-top box distributors were referred to the FCC in October for “enabling the unlawful streaming of copyrighted material,” something he claimed was “exacerbating the theft of billions of dollars in American innovation and creativity.” Both Amazon and eBay say they’re already hard at work policing the sale of such hardware, and have been doing so for years. They also stated they would be open to further cooperation with the FCC as part of a broader effort to crack down on the sale of such hardware.
“To prevent the sale of these devices, we proactively scan product listings for signs of potentially infringing products, and we also invest heavily in sophisticated, automated real-time tools to review a variety of data sources and signals to identify inauthentic goods,” Amazon said in a statement.
The FCC’s efforts here may prove to be a decidedly uphill battle. While the FCC can fine companies for unauthorized use of the FCC logo, they have little real authority over copyright. Meanwhile, stopping vendors from selling such devices won’t really stop the popularity of home-brewed Kodi-based devices overall, given the open source Kodi software itself (and the hardware it runs on) is perfectly legal. Many users of these boxes embrace them not only because they offer cheap access to pirated content, but because they provide users with openness and flexibility not seen in more above board options like Roku or their traditional cable box. O’Rielly doesn’t have a great record on this front, having recently played a starring role in preventing more open, less expensive, legitimate TV hardware from coming to market. Last year, O’Rielly and agency head Ajit Pai scuttled an FCC plan to bring additional competition to the set top box market. That plan, developed under previous FCC boss Tom Wheeler, would have required cable operators make their content available via app for third-party cable boxes and other streaming hardware. But O’Rielly and Pai backed a fairly massive disinformation effort by the cable industry claiming that this added competition would somehow harm minorities and encourage piracy.
At one point, the industry even managed to grab the help of the US Copyright Office, which falsely claimed that more cable box competition would violate copyright. Of course the plan had nothing to do with copyright and everything to do with control, exemplifying how copyright is often abused to hamstring the emergence of legitimate, more open forms of video competition.
And if existing TV services were more open, flexible and competitive, groups like the EFF have long argued the demand for these Kodi-driven alternatives wouldn’t be nearly as popular in the first place.