Kodi lets cord-cutters watch whatever they want, whenever they want it, for free. So how is it legal?

Imagine the freedom of being able to watch any TV show, sporting event or movie, no matter when it aired or was first released, with a few clicks or taps — at absolutely no cost to you — on your television set, desktop computer or mobile device. No cable plan required. No Netflix subscription needed. No nothing, save for an Internet connection. Would the convenience tempt you to engage in a behavior that’s not entirely legal?

For millions of people around the world, this is the very real temptation posed by Kodi, a digital media center that has become the go-to platform for online pirates, intentional or otherwise. The smartphone and TV-compatible software, like a search engine or browser, simply connects people to whatever Web-based content they want to view on their devices. But some crafty developers have also built gateways to treasure chests of pirated online content.

“I was blown away,” said one local Kodi user, who discovered it this year through a friend’s recommendation and, like others interviewed for this story, wished to remain anonymous.  

Thanks to Kodi, the person, who canceled a cable television subscription in 2007, has gained commercial-free and unfettered access to personal favorites such as “Mr. Robot,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “The Voice.” In this instance, the shows are cast from a smartphone, where the Kodi app is installed, and sent to a TV set with the help of another app called LocalCast. 

The problem is that this Kodi user is now an accidental online pirate — or, at the very least, operating in the gray area of digital copyright law, as established by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, signed into law in 1998.

In 2015, the value added by the core copyright industries — books, newspapers, movies, music, video games — to the U.S. gross domestic product surpassed $1.2 trillion,  accounting for 6.9% of the U.S. economy, according to a recent report prepared for the International Intellectual Property Alliance.

Yet those who view copyrighted content without payment or permission aren’t contributing to this financial system. They’re also unquestionably engaging in an illegal activity, said Rahul Telang, professor of information systems and management at Carnegie Mellon University.

“It's copyright infringement,” Telang said. “You're breaking the law.”

Realistically, most media companies are not going to target individual users with lawsuits, he added. It’s the silver lining that may, in part, explain why these small-time crooks can justify their viewing behaviors.

There’s also this: For years, content owners have made it excessively painful or costly to access their best stuff, online or off, without a cable subscription. The proliferation of new over-the-top, low-cost bundles, including those offered by Dish’s Sling TV, Playstation Vue and AT&T’s DirecTV Now, suggests that trends are shifting in favor of viewers, but that doesn’t mean consumer sentiment will change overnight.

“I’m not against paying for content, it’s just that nobody is giving me what I want,” the Kodi user said. “I don't want to watch AMC. I just want to watch ‘The Walking Dead.’”

Originally created in 2003 by a group of well-meaning programmers, Kodi began life as the “Xbox Media Center,” and was, as the name implies, intended for use on Microsoft’s Xbox. The name was later shortened to XBMC and ultimately changed to Kodi in 2014.

At its core, Kodi is just a piece of open-source software that, when installed — it now works on Linux, OS X, Windows, iOS and Android devices — lets users play videos, music, podcasts or games. Kodi itself does not come with any content. People can use the software to play content they already own (stored locally on the device or another networked device). Or they can turn to things called add-ons.

Add-ons are created by third-party developers, not associated with the Kodi team, who create app-like interfaces that link to Internet content and sites, such as TED Talks or YouTube. Add-ons can be entirely legal, like the aforementioned examples, but they can also link to websites known to house troves of pirated material. One such add-on, Exodus, is a favorite among Kodi users, simply because of the sheer volume of copyrighted material available for on-demand, streaming access.

Any major movie that you want to see, it’s there.

There are an estimated 25 million active Kodi users around the world, said Nathan Betzen, who is the president of XBMC Foundation, the nonprofit technology consortium that develops Kodi software. Betzen, who prefers to take a neutral stance on how people use the product, says that, based on the demographic makeup of visitors to Kodi’s online forums, roughly 38% of users are likely in the U.S.

Maybe these Kodi users are pirates. Maybe they’re not.

“From simply a use perspective, when you download Kodi … it’s just an [operating system] with a Web browser,” Betzen said. “It’s a lot like Firefox. It can access whatever you want it to access. How you use it is ultimately defined by the user — or, at least, that’s what our goal was.

“That’s not ultimately what happened.”

Instead, enterprising folks found they could make a quick buck by pre-installing Kodi on popular set-top boxes or sticks — say the Amazon Fire TV Stick. They’d also pre-load the most popular add-ons with access to extensive libraries of pirated material, including Exodus and another like it named SALTS. Then, these middlemen would market the devices as “fully loaded” with free TV and movies and sell them for profit on sites such as EBay. They would also distribute them offline to friends and friends of friends. These practices are still ongoing.

As such, today Kodi and piracy are perceived as one and the same.

“The issue is that there’s just a tremendous amount of money to be made in linking Kodi to piracy,” Betzen said. “There are literally thousands of people who are making money on YouTube or EBay or even on Amazon, specifically by installing specific add-ons ... on some piece of hardware.”

It’s an unfortunate outcome for the XBMC Foundation, which has fought for years to distance itself from online piracy.

The name change to Kodi was meant to pull the rug out from under the people who were actively profiting from associating the XBMC name directly with piracy, Betzen said.

“It didn’t work,” he said. “At this point … Kodi is more known for piracy than XBMC ever was.”

At the same time, Kodi, the media center, currently enjoys a legal security blanket of sorts in the U.S., where it’s considered more like Google than Napster, which was shuttered by court order in 2001. Napster directly facilitated the sharing of infringing music files, and was designed for that very behavior. Kodi, on the other hand, is one step removed from piracy, Carnegie Mellon’s Telang said.

“All Kodi is doing is making it easy for you to stream,” he said. “But I have no doubt that … if Kodi becomes a platform where people start using it extensively for infringing files, courts will look at the platform seriously.”

The group of folks that sells “fully loaded” streaming sticks also operates in a gray area in the U.S. Elsewhere, though, courts are starting to interpret these actions as illegal. In a December opinionEuropean Union Advocate General Campos Sánchez-Bordona recommended that the EU Court of Justice consider the sale of the multimedia players with links to infringing material as unlawful.

The true antidote to pirate add-ons, however, might not be lawsuits or the end of Kodi but a more consumer-friendly marketplace for watching TV and movies. Give the people what they want and they won’t go looking for it in dark corners of the Internet, so the logic goes. It’s sound reasoning, particularly as accessing pirated material through Kodi isn’t always safe; nor is the experience consistent. Oftentimes, Exodus and other add-ons like it will have cellphone quality recordings of movies still playing in theaters. And sometimes much worse.

“The film and television industry embraces expanded access to digital content,” said Howard Gantman, vice president of communications for the Motion Picture Assn. of America. “In fact, there are more than 130 legal online services in the United States alone. Piracy undermines this legal digital marketplace for creative content, harms individual creators and puts consumers at risk of malware.”

But free everything, all the time, well that’s a difficult proposition to pass up, especially if a moral compass is the only thing standing in between you and your favorite show.

Jennifer Van Grove is a San Diego Union-Tribune reporter.

E-mail: jennifer.vangrove@sduniontribune.com, Twitter: @jbruin

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