Cord-cutting and content tribalism have left the streaming landscape more fractured than ever, giving rise to an application that’s being retooled and sold by certain programmers as a quick fix to the growing multitude of services introduced by TV networks and movie studios. Many are calling it “the black market Netflix.”
That app is Kodi, a downloadable media player originally designed for Microsoft’s Xbox back in 2004. At the time, it was known as the Xbox Media Center (XBMC) and has since become popular in tech circles thanks to open-source compatibility with TVs, computers, smartphones and video game systems. Instead of having your movies, music and shows in a bunch of different places, Kodi allows you to access it from local or networked storage and stream it to your TV.
But Kodi’s open source nature has also made it a controversial tool that straddles the line between legal and pirated content. Kodi users can simply use the application as it’s intended, but because it can be modified by anyone, there’s an entire black market of add-ons with which users can access content from subscription services for free.
Want Netflix’s “Orange Is The New Black”? There’s an add-on for that.
Then there are external media players like the Amazon Fire Stick, which some Kodi users are turning into the ultimate piracy device. Both Fire and Kodi are built on the Android operating system, which allows programmers to hack the stick and mount Kodi onto it, supercharged by add-ons loaded with pirated content. They then sell these Fire Sticks on sites like Craigslist and eBay with price tags that can go up to $100.
The irony is that the Kodi developers themselves have done nothing illegal, but the actions of third party hackers have led some to believe that Kodi was specifically designed as a piracy tool. This in turn exposes Kodi to further complaints about its software when third-party add-ons made to allow for piracy turn out to be faulty or filled with viruses and malware.
Kodi’s team has remained neutral when it comes to what users do with their own devices, saying only that it will not provide any tech support when it comes to illegal activity. But recently the company announced it’s going to crack down on those who are using its software to try to make a quick, shady buck.
“We are tired of this endless campaign by dishonest salesmen to push a single use of Kodi that nobody on the team actually recommends,” wrote Kodi product manager Nathan Betzen in a blog post in February. “We are tired of these salesmen lying to users, claiming that pirate streams and pirate boxes are ‘legal’ when they are absolutely not at some level or other. We are tired of being told by companies that they don’t want to work with us, because we are selling pirate boxes.”
Kodi’s team is now striking back by issuing trademark takedown notices against programmers selling “fully loaded” Kodi sticks on their websites and creating YouTube videos showing how to add illegal content to Kodi. They also released a blog post last month warning users about unauthorized add-ons that could leak personal information.
It’s a strong move by the development team to defend its brand, but it’s tough to say how much it will change the product’s image. BitTorrent, another software company whose products have contributed to widespread piracy, has also put serious effort into trying to change its public perception. Still, the platform’s most prominent headlines recently have come from HBO’s fight to curtail leaks of new “Game of Thrones” episodes. It is likely Kodi will face a similar uphill battle.