Cable giants step up battle against 'free TV' Android box, but can they win?
About 45 Canadian companies targeted in a court case to stop loaded Android boxes
Cable giants are stepping up their legal battle to stamp out the fully loaded Android TV box business. Their method of attack: adding more retailers to the hit list.
According to court documents, Bell, Rogers and Quebec's Vidéotron are now going after about 45 Canadian companies for selling Android boxes loaded with special software.
Customers connect the box to their televisions and watch everything from TV shows to movies to live sports — for free. High speed internet is required.
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The three TV and content providers launched their case in Federal Court in June, naming just five retailers. They have continued to add defendants and will keep doing so if the opportunity strikes, Bell told CBC News in an email.
But some industry insiders claim that, no matter how many dealers get hit, legal action is not going to stop the growing loaded Android box industry.
"I don't see this court case changing anything," says Patrick O'Rourke, a Toronto-based writer for the tech site MobileSyrup. "You shut down these companies, there'll be hundreds more that will pop up."
As with other forms of piracy, O'Rourke says, the only way to effectively combat it is to offer customers what they want — cheaper, more tailored legitimate TV services.
'Obvious case of piracy'
Fully loaded Android boxes have become the scourge of the cable TV industry. The devices are similar to Apple TV, but the added software enables customers to easily stream an almost limitless amount of pirated content.
Vincent Wesley in Montreal used to sell the boxes for a one-time fee of $70 to $250. He advertised that TV watchers could get "everything for free."
"I guess I painted a bit of a bull's-eye," he says.
Indeed, he was one of the first people to be named in the court case. Wesley works as an operations manager for a pharmaceutical waste company. He sold loaded boxes on the side through his company, MTLFreeTV.
He currently can't sell the product or even post YouTube videos about it. That's because Bell, Rogers and Vidéotron have won a temporary injunction to block defendants from selling loaded boxes until the matter is resolved. Wesley is appealing the court decision.
In court documents, the plaintiffs argue that dealers promoting and selling the boxes have "induced and authorized" customers to engage in copyright infringement. They also claim the devices threaten their business because they motivate people to cut their cable.
"This is an obvious case of piracy, which is why we asked the court to stop the illegal use of our content," said Rogers spokesman Andrew Garas in an email.
Wesley's lawyer, Constantin Kyritsis, argues the devices are like iPads, Apple TVs or computers that can be used for both legal and illegal purposes.
"The vendor doesn't control or authorize what users do, or what software providers enable users to do," he told CBC News.
'Simply Free TV'
But whatever the legal argument, O'Rourke argues that the box business is too big to shut down.
"You can go on Kijiji right now, search fully loaded Android TV and buy one."
CBC News tried this and pages of retailers popped up. One Ontario dealer asking for $119 per device boldly states in the ad: "These boxes are great and give you free TV, movies, shows."
Another dealer with the company name, "SimplyFreeTV," announces, "Say goodbye to your monthly TV subscription."
We also found numerous retailers offering the device on Amazon.
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Wesley says he knows of many people still peddling the loaded boxes and that the publicity from the legal battle has actually helped promote the device.
"If anything, they've made it worse because they've put a spotlight on it," he says.
But Bell expects the spotlight will work in its favour. "We hope that we've increased awareness that these boxes are illegal and highlighted their negative impact on people working in Canada's content production industry," said spokeswoman Michelle Michalak.
Wesley also argues that even if the cable giants manage to round up every Canadian retailer, people can still order the product from U.S. dealers.
Or, they can buy the Android box — which is a legitimate and legal product — and simply load the software themselves.
O'Rourke points out there are YouTube videos available that show people the necessary steps.
"There's guys online that you can follow. It can be done, if you know what you're doing, in 15 to 20 minutes.
So what about cracking down on the people providing the software? Wesley says it would be next to impossible to track down many of the developers who live in distant countries.
"You can't stop people from designing applications," he says.
Both he and O'Rourke argue that the only recourse for cable companies is to improve the services they offer Canadians.
Give them what they want?
Although the boxes offer "free TV," people who use them still face hiccups, says O'Rourke. That's because sometimes links to stream content don't work or a pirated video can fail in the middle of a show.
"You're still getting something that's not up to par," says O'Rourke. He claims cable companies could win over customers by offering cheaper and more tailored TV packages and streaming services.
"The only way to battle piracy is through convenience and more reasonable pricing."
Wesley has his own idea for a more effective solution. "Instead of taking a million dollars and trying to drown out Vince [Wesley]," he suggests that cable companies instead "Take $10 a month and knock it off everybody's bill."