The Kodi Box scourge hits Indian pay-TV, SVOD ecosystems

The boxes help in streaming content illegally and have the potential to eat into the subscription revenues of pay TVs and OTTs

e4m by Javed Farooqui
Updated: Jun 14, 2021 9:55 AM
kodi box

A new form of piracy in the form of Kodi boxes has made its way into the Indian market. These boxes, which are similar to set-top boxes (STBs) installed by TV distribution platforms, have the potential to eat into the subscription revenues of not only the pay-TV industry but also the video streaming platforms.

Globally, Kodi boxes have emerged as one of the biggest video piracy threats in recent times. A Kodi box is designed primarily for using the Kodi app, a free and open-source media player software application developed by the non-profit technology consortium XBMC Foundation. However, these boxes are also being used to stream content illegally.

According to industry sources, there are two types of Kodi boxes available in the Indian market. One of the boxes provides pay-TV channels on being connected to a dish antenna. The other is internet-enabled and can stream premium OTT content besides authorised as well unauthorised linear channels, which have banned by the ministry of information and broadcasting (MIB).

These boxes provide premium content to its users by bypassing pay-TV as well as Subscription Video on Demand (SVOD). Users of Kodi boxes get access to a variety of pay-TV as well as OTT content for a yearly payment of as low as Rs 1000-1500. During the pandemic, the yearly price has gone up to Rs 2000.

On being connected to a dish antenna and internet connection, the Kodi box starts receiving digital encrypted signals of pay channels of various broadcasters. The encrypted signals are automatically decoded and decrypted by accessing the decoding keys loaded in a server from the internet.

The Kodi boxes are widely available in the open market as well as on e-commerce platforms. A leading broadcaster hired a private technology company to conduct a forensic audit of these boxes after purchasing them from the open market.

In one case, it was found that these devices use technology developed by an online group based in China. This technology enables receiving of channels by transferring the encrypted pay channels decryption keys over an internet network planted in a scam server, which may be located outside the country.

In another case, it was found that the device is preloaded with pirate android applications like PikaShow, Thop TV, and TV Express, which provide illegal access to live television channels and other entertainment content. PikaShow pirate application permits live streaming content of various broadcasters and has a website of its own – pikashow.xyz, which has been judicially ordered to be blocked in this country. 

Similarly, Thop TV enables viewing of unauthorised as well as banned channels like Madani TV, Geo TV, Express News, Noor TV, Hadi TV and Peace TV.

OTT and piracy

According to the senior legal executive at a leading TV network, these boxes have always been available outside India but of late they have started coming to India thanks to OTT platforms.

"They are pirating the linear channels as well as the content of OTT players. The OTT platforms have given pirates another door to steal the content. There are two ways to steal content now. One is to reverse engineer the STB of pay-TV distributors like Dish TV or Tata Sky. Content is also being stolen through OTT players. As soon as the content is uploaded on the OTT platform, it starts getting populated on Telegram and going on to various other pirated platforms," the executive said.

Piracy is a constant battle that the content owners have to fight. While content owners invest in technology to secure content, the organised pirates are putting money to reverse engineer that technology. "Piracy can never be eliminated, it can always be contained provided all the stakeholders fight this battle together. It is not an easy battle because nobody is sure about the returns in terms of how many cents we will get back after investing a dollar in litigation," the person quoted above said.

Besides technology-related challenges, the content owners also have their hands tied as internet piracy is a cross border activity. "There are a lot of legal complications. The servers are located in problematic jurisdictions like Kazakhstan and Pakistan. The problem with internet piracy is that anyone can sit anywhere in the world and make the content available in India," the executive noted.

Apart from OTT platforms, the weak encryption technology deployed by certain TV distribution platforms has also allowed piracy to flourish. "On linear, there are multiple problems. One is OTT piracy and the other is weak encryption of pay-TV distributors. Broadcasters and distributors also have their own encryption. Are the distributors putting enough security measures in place? Because they are also getting damaged in the whole value chain," the executive noted.

Lack of legal provisions in new forms of piracy

The content owners across TV and OTT platforms are waking up to the reality of Kodi boxes and the impact that they can have on their subscription revenues. While the anti-piracy teams of TV broadcasting companies are doing their best to tackle this menace, the fact that the present legal framework doesn't have any provision to curb piracy of this nature has made it a daunting task.

"The present legal framework doesn't contain any provision which will allow the government to curb these things. They can't stop the sale of these boxes. Even the boxes that are selling on e-commerce are not banned. Also, when you go to these retailers, they will sell plain vanilla boxes. These boxes are activated by the retailers at the consumers' home," a top lawyer involved in the matter said on condition of anonymity.

He further stated that the police have conducted raids against the sale of these boxes in Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Punjab, and Maharashtra but they have proved to be ineffective. "It is like a parallel set-up, and they substitute your existing pay-TV service providers or subscribed OTT content. So you don't need to be a subscriber to Tata Sky, Dish TV or a Hathway or for that matter services like Netflix or Disney+ Hotstar. They are gaining popularity," the lawyer said.

While it is difficult to quantify the number of Kodi boxes that are available in the market, thousands of these boxes have been recovered in each of the raids. "These boxes are available not just in the cities but also in villages. It is even more popular in rural areas. The industry is still waking up as they never realised that it is so deep-rooted," the lawyer added.

The Kodi boxes started gaining currency during the lockdown as the broadcasters and distributors were not able to take any action due to lockdown related restrictions. The industry is expected to intensify its action against Kodi boxes as and when the restriction on movements is relaxed by the state and central governments.

The senior legal & regulatory executive at a leading media company said that there is no law or policy or deterrence for piracy on steps that can be taken to control these kinds of boxes which run on an app that shows legit as well as non-legit content.

"There is a whole chain involved, and it is very difficult to reach the main culprits. We can never find out the developers. The most we can do is send a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) notice. Also, IPs can be changed from one server to another in the blink of an eye. This is a crime, but there is no policy to curb this," he stated.

The industry feels that there should be a policy to curb piracy across mediums rather than having a piecemeal approach.

Strengthening security system to tackle piracy

According to the legal executive quoted above, all the big players will have to strengthen their security measures as putting more money in technology will compel the pirates to do the same to reverse engineer the technology. He said that the fight against piracy is going to be a cat and mouse game.

"In certain jurisdictions, the IP laws are strong and the industry both Indian and foreign players need to come together. Kodi boxes offer Indian, international channels, unlicensed as well as banned channels. The encryption technology that you are deploying, the security, the DRM, dynamic token initiation...there are many things that you can do. You can make the stealing very difficult," he stated.

The broadcasters can at best get a John Doe order and try to enforce it through ISPs that these kinds of content are not made available in India. However, the pirates circumvent this by changing their configurations. "About 6 to 7 years ago, we faced the issue of Kodi boxes because it was eating into our international subscription revenue, and we dealt with it. These boxes gained popularity among the Indian diaspora as the Indian pay channels are quite costly in Europe and the US," the executive stated.

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