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Hollywood studios score a partial victory in their piracy battle with TickBox TV

Hollywood studios score a partial victory in their piracy battle with TickBox TV
A scene from "War for the Planet of the Apes" from 20th Century Fox, one of the studios that has sued TickBox TV. (20th Century Fox / AP)

A U.S. District Court judge has dealt a major legal blow to TickBox TV, the Georgia-based set-top box seller that the major Hollywood studios, along with streaming services Netflix and Amazon, have accused of facilitating piracy on a massive scale.

Judge Michael Fitzgerald on Tuesday handed down a preliminary injunction against the Georgia-based start-up, in a move meant to block the 1-year-old company from encouraging its customers to illegally access copyrighted movies and TV shows online.

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"There is sufficient evidence that the device can be and is used to access infringing content, and there is sufficient evidence of TickBox's fault -- primarily in the form of its advertisements and customer-support efforts," Fitzgerald said in his order granting the injunction.

However, the decision was only a partial victory for the studios and streaming services that had in effect asked the court to shut TickBox down. The court stopped short of granting that request.

The studios' complaint, filed in Los Angeles in October, accused TickBox of selling its device "as a tool for the mass infringement" of copyrights to movies and TV shows. They are seeking damages in the form of TickBox profit and as much as $150,000 per infringed work.

Columbia Pictures, Paramount Pictures, Disney, 20th Century Fox Film, Universal Pictures and Warner Bros. are plaintiffs in the case, joined by Netflix and Amazon.

TickBox relies on a popular media player called Kodi, an open-source software that can be modified with apps and add-ons from third party developers. Some of those modifications allow people to stream online content to their TV screens. The studios accused TickBox of directing its users to apps and add-ons that provided access to pirated movies, TV shows and even live television. While Kodi itself is legal, anti-piracy advocates and copyright holders say the technology is abused to make illegal streaming as user-friendly as using Roku or Apple TV.

The studios pointed to TickBox marketing materials that emphasized free films and TV series. "Simply plug the Tickbox TV into your current television and enjoy unlimited access to all the hottest TV shows, Hollywood blockbusters and live sporting events in one convenient little device … absolutely free," the company's website said, according to court documents. TickBox devices are listed for $150.

TickBox Chief Executive Jeffrey Goldstein said in a declaration filed in December that TickBox had altered its advertising and modified its user interface with software updates to remove the offending links. TickBox's user interface now presents users with authorized streaming services such as WatchESPN and A&E, Goldstein said.

Fitzgerald said in his order that TickBox must maintain those changes. The order comes a day after a Monday hearing in Los Angeles where Fitzgerald blasted TickBox's advertising, which he said clearly encouraged people to watch content without paying providers such as HBO. "It couldn't have been more obvious," he said at the hearing.

Still, Fitzgerald said he was reluctant to issue an injunction that would put TickBox out of business because the device has legal uses for people who don't want to be saddled with expensive pay-TV packages. John Christy, one of the lawyers representing TickBox, welcomed that decision Wednesday.

"I view it as the judge recognizing that the product has a number of legitimate uses, and that there's a legitimate need for consumers to cut the cord," Christy of law firm Schreeder, Wheeler & Flint said in an interview. "The judge's preliminary injunction simply says that we must maintain the changes we'd already voluntarily chosen to make."

TickBox has argued that it is merely selling devices for streaming and is not liable for piracy conducted through third party-created add-ons. But the court was not persuaded by that argument.

"The fact that the device is just a 'computer' that can be used for infringing and non-infringing purposes does not insulate TickBox from liability if the device is actually used for infringing purposes and TickBox encourages such use," Fitzgerald said in his order.

The suit against TickBox is part of a wider crackdown by the studios and streaming services against services that rely on Kodi technology. Earlier this month, the studios and streaming services filed a similar suit against Carlsbad, Calif., company Dragon Media, which sells and distributes set-top boxes. Anti-piracy groups estimate there are as many as 750 websites dedicated to selling preloaded boxes and distributing add-ons.

The TickBox suit is the first legal action by Alliance for Creativity and Entertainment, a coalition of international studios, television networks and online video giants that have joined forces to combat piracy globally.

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TickBox TV, based in Sandy Springs, Ga., near Atlanta, was founded in November 2016, according to public records. Jeffrey Goldstein and his wife, Carrla, have developed a reputation as a philanthropic power couple in their community, with a Hollywood-style mansion that was featured in the local publication Atlanta Jewish Times. Jeffrey Goldstein also runs a business called SideTick, a streaming service that lets users rent movies and TV shows.

UPDATES:

4:25 p.m.: This article was updated with a response from an attorney representing TickBox TV.

This article was originally published on Jan. 30 at 8:55 p.m.

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