Established in 1983, FACT is one of the leading intellectual property protection organisations protecting digital content and physical goods.
Setting the scene
One of the biggest challenges for FACT, its members and clients is the sale and use of illicit streaming devices. Illicit streaming devices, also commonly known as set-top boxes, IPTV boxes or Kodi boxes, are, in their original form, legitimate.
Using an internet connection, the device allows you to stream a wide range of content via a plethora of apps and add-ons—effectively turning your television into a smart TV. But the use of third-party unlicensed apps and add-ons that allow users to access copyright infringing material turn an IPTV device from legal to illegal.
Within the last 12 months we have seen the issue grow considerably, however, we have also seen some significant actions and legal developments that have allowed us to move forward with tackling this problem.
Working with the police, trading standards and the Government Agency Intelligence Network (GAIN) we have made significant progress in disrupting the sale and distribution of illicit streaming devices.
In March 2016, we carried out multiple raids across the North East, which saw six people believed to be selling illicit streaming devices arrested.
Following this action, a significant operation in Glasgow with Police Scotland was launched which resulted in two warrants being executed in May 2016. The investigation is still ongoing, however, it is believed to be a significantly large criminal operation supplying illegal streaming boxes to over 600 pubs in the UK and costing industry more than £40 million.
In August 2016 PIPCU, working together with FACT and Lancashire Police, disrupted an international criminal business selling thousands of illegally modified TV boxes to people across the globe. Three people were arrested and bailed while the investigation continues.
February 2017 saw five people arrested in a crackdown on the sale and distribution of illegal TV set-top devices in the northwest of England. The multi-agency day of action saw FACT, Greater Manchester Police, City of London Police’s Intellectual Property Crime Unit (PIPCU) and the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) join forces and execute six warrants in Tameside, Bolton, Bootle, Manchester and Cheadle.
Collectively, it is believed the suspects have made in the region of £250,000 across social media and online forums, as well as their own dedicated websites. Also in February, FACT worked with the Police Service of Northern Ireland to search four properties as part of an investigation into illegal TV boxes. Officers seized a number of set-top boxes and computer equipment as well as mobile phones and £77,000 in cash.
More recently, a 29 year-old man in Derbyshire was arrested for selling hundreds of illegal streaming devices. Working with Derbyshire Police, FACT raided the man’s home and seized a large amount of cash along with various pieces of electronic equipment.
He was taken to a local police station for questioning and has been released under investigation while inquiries continue.
In July, FACT worked with Westminster Trading Standards, the National Crime Agency Government Agency Intelligence Network to disrupt an operation selling dangerous and unsafe IPTV boxes.
More than 40 illegal streaming devices were seized during a raid on 12 July 2017. The TV streaming devices were being sold online using multiple accounts on popular online marketplaces and advertised the ability to watch premium pay-per-view content for free.
The investigation not only found that these devices provided illegal content, but that they also lacked UK electrical safety measures making them potentially dangerous for users.
A 53 year-old man was taken to Charing Cross Police Station and Trading Standards is investigating criminal charges under the UK Fraud Act and the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act.
Legal landmarks and prosecutions
There has always been an interest in the media regarding illicit streaming devices, however, there has also been a lack of clarity surrounding their legality. It is commonly reported as a grey area.
The last year has seen landmark results for illicit streaming device prosecutions as well as legal rulings and remarks, which have all contributed to providing clarity on the issue.
The first legal case concerning these devices went to court in December 2016 and resulted in Terry O’Reilly being sentenced to four years in prison and a second supplier who worked with O’Reilly, Will O’Leary, receiving a two-year suspended prison sentence.
Then in March 2017, Malcolm Mayes of Hartlepool pleaded guilty to two offences contrary to Section 296ZB of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988 and received a 10-month prison sentence, suspended for one year.
Mayes was also ordered to pay £250,000 (a confiscation order of £80,000 and costs of £170,000).
Both of these prosecutions send a strong warning and message to sellers and consumers that these pre-loaded devices are illegal.
Recent legal rulings have also provided further clarity on the illegality of not just selling these devices but viewing the infringing streams.In March 2017, the UK High Court of Justice ruled that ISPs were to block access to illegal live streams of English Premier League football. In the judgement, Justice Richard Arnold clarified that an end user is infringing copyright, meaning those viewing illegal streams are breaking the law.
This was then followed by a ruling of the EU Court of Justice in April 2017, which clarified that selling pre-configured multimedia devices allowing access to copyright infringing content is illegal, as well as stating that end users streaming content without the consent of the copyright holder, cannot be exempted from the right of reproduction.
Providing further evidence that streaming copyrighted content without the right permissions is illegal.
Education and awareness
With the usage of illicit streaming devices rising, we have not only stepped up our enforcement action but have paired this with increased awareness and education for the public.
It is important that the public are aware that not only selling devices pre-configured to access copyrighted content without the right permissions or subscription is illegal, but that using one of these devices to stream and watch content you would normally pay for is also against the law.
Many people view this type of intellectual property crime as victimless, however, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
If everyone pirated and got their content for free, the TV programmes and films we love simply wouldn’t exist.
If the studios behind these shows and movies do not make back what they put in, then they do not have the money to reinvest into creating the original classics that we all love. But it’s not just about the big organisations and the stars.
If we are not producing new TV programmes and films, then there will not be as many opportunities for those working in the creative industries. In the UK, the creative industries provide more than 1.8 million jobs and therefore piracy puts the livelihoods of many people at risk.
Not only are we protecting the content of these organisations but we also see it as our duty to protect public.
Consumers need to be aware that by plugging in these illicit streaming devices they are putting themselves and their families at risk. You don’t have the same controls, updates or protections as a traditional television and so using one of these devices puts you at risk from malware, explicit content and scams. There have been incidents where parents with children have been watching family favourites and then adult content has popped up or people’s screens have been hacked and then taken over with pop-up ads demanding money as a ransom.
Forward to the future
Over the past 12 months, there have been some significant changes at FACT.
In Autumn 2016, the organisation embarked on new chapter, opening up its intellectual property and security services to any brand or business seeking protection for content, data or products across the world.
Offering a full range of content and brand protection solutions to protect digital content and physical goods, FACT’s services include: intelligence collation and analysis, forensic examinations, and a dedicated internet investigation and scanning service.
This new venture is still in its infancy however it is a new and exciting chapter for FACT, which offers great opportunities to intellectual property rights holders both in the UK and overseas.
We look forward to the future and the new clients and opportunities that 2018 will bring.