TV media streaming
Kodi opens up a world of media for TVs, mobile devices and more – but how legal is it? iStock

A landmark UK court trial will determine the legality of selling media streaming devices, dubbed 'Kodi boxes', packed with piracy-focused add-ons - but what is Kodi?

With confusion surrounding the legality of 'Kodi boxes' and XBMC Foundation's software, IBTimes UK has put together a brief explainer to separate the legal grey areas from the black and white.

What is Kodi?

In a nutshell, Kodi is open source software for playing media such as videos, music, games and more via online streaming or being side-loaded onto a local storage source (physical or over a network). It can be loaded with apps like iPlayer, Plex and SoundCloud to enhance your media setup. But there are also some less legitimate options.

The reason why you're hearing a lot about Kodi is down to the fact some software add-ons can provide users with access to a wealth of content you'd normally have to pay for. Movies (including pirated, unreleased titles) and subscription TV (including box office, pay-per-view events) are able to be streamed directly to an owner's TV.

Initially conceived as a homebrew solution for media playback on Microsoft's first Xbox console (and appropriately dubbed Xbox Media Center (XBMC) at the time), the software is now compatible with Windows, MacOS, Linux, Android, iOS, and many other notable platforms.

While some platforms offer a quick gateway to the service through a Kodi application, others (particularly when dealing with Apple-made devices) require a certain amount of legwork and know-how to gain access to the service.

What is a Kodi box?

The likes of Amazon's Fire TV and TV Stick are popular hardware options for installing Kodi Amazon

'Kodi box' is something of a misnomer. In reality, a 'Kodi box' is any set-top device that attaches to a TV and allows access to the Kodi software.

The free, open-source nature of XBMC's software has resulted in masses of Kodi-ready boxes hitting the market, with Amazon Fire TV, Fire TV Stick, and Nvidia Shield TV the popular options despite the lack of official support from the boxes' creators. Even microcomputers such as the Raspberry Pi 3 or Asus Tinker Board can act as Kodi boxes with a bit of, well, tinkering.

'Kodi boxes' with pre-loaded content are mostly sold online on eBay and other auction websites, but some independent audio-visual stores (such as Brian Thompson's Cut Price Tomo's TV) have tried to bring the market to the high street.

Brian Thompson prosecuted for selling Kodi boxes

In a case brought by Middlesbrough Council, local businessman Brian Thompson pleaded not guilty after being accused of facilitating the circumvention of copyright protection by selling TV media streaming boxes "fully loaded" with Kodi add-ons.

Thompson's position will now come under intense legal scrutiny in a full trial dated for May, with an outcome that will likely determine whether selling media devices with pre-installed software providing pirated content and/or paid-for streaming services for free is a criminal offence in the UK.

Is Kodi illegal?

Here's where things get tricky. Boxes with Kodi installed are not illegal. Kodi software is not illegal, but some add-ons allowing it to access paid-for content for free will most definitely be seen as such.

Kodi's potential for copyright infringement stems from being open-source, as anyone can develop and release add-ons with no licensing control and without paying a penny.

Unsurprisingly, this has opened the floodgates for add-ons that offer access to illegal streams of pay TV programming, pirated movies and other media that would otherwise come with a price-tag.

The easiest way to think of it is by comparing it to a web browser. You can access websites promoting piracy in many different forms, but that is all down to how the end user uses the software.

It is worth noting that while XBMC Foundation does not block piracy-focused add-ons, it does not condone them either. It usually presents a neutral stance on the matter, but has in the past spoken out against illegal practice using Kodi.

"There is a growing (and worrying) misconception caused by some websites and people who sell HTPC devices with XBMC pre-installed," wrote a spokesperson on Facebook in 2014. "These often contain add-ons from we which we would like to clearly distance ourselves, and for which we will not offer support of any kind. We will not call these add-ons by name."

"It a regretful development that in our eyes, the most awesome media centre there is, is clouded by such a development. These few people are giving and spreading a misconception of what XBMC is and stands for, and are giving it a bad name. We would like to remind everyone that XBMC should be seen as a media centre platform for which you provide your own media."

What will the trial mean?

This will be the first time that the legality of Kodi customisation will be heard in a British court and could have huge ramifications for the software's future in the UK.

It is worth noting that the case will not argue whether Kodi add-ons which flagrantly ignore copyright are illegal (they are), but instead determine whether someone selling a 'Kodi box' with these add-ons pre-installed can be prosecuted and face possible jail sentences.