Ask Adrian: Our tech expert addresses your trickiest technology problems
Q: A friend of mine gets free movies and sport at home without subscribing to Sky or Virgin. She says it's through a special box she bought that gets the content online. Where can I get one of these boxes or is it not legal?
A Your friend appears to have what is often called a 'dodgy box'. It's probably a set-top box run on Android (yes, the same system as most smartphones) and which 'fetches' movies and sport to stream from around the web. If this includes movies still in the cinema or current hit shows such as Game of Thrones, it's almost certainly pirated.
That means that what your friend is watching has been ripped off somewhere and made available online for free.
Oddly, it may not mean that she herself is breaking the law simply by watching it. These Android set-top boxes stream movies (in the same way as Netflix or YouTube) from different sources rather than download them to the physical device (like an iTunes song). Because they do it this way, the person watching the movie is not held legally accountable in the same way as they would be if they downloaded the movie. It's an apparent loophole in the law that movie companies and distributors are pretty angry about.
However, this doesn't mean that it's legal to sell a device specifically set up to do this. You won't find Android boxes for sale in PC World or Harvey Norman. Instead, it's smaller specialist retailers (mostly online) that market them.
Despite the fact that many of them brazenly market the gadgets as machines which ultimately facilitate access to "a large number of films which are still running in the cinemas", they cannot actually sell them as pre-programmed devices specifically 'loaded' with piracy-enabling software plug-ins. (In the UK, small retailers who sell Android boxes set up this way are now being arrested.)
That means that people determined to get at such copyright-skirting premium content need to set up their Android boxes themselves. But even if they do, that's not the end of the uncertainty. Broadcasters and rights-holders - such as Sky and the Premier League - are stepping up efforts to disrupt such 'dodgy' online streams, regularly scrambling signals and using other devices. Some of the leading set-top box software developers, such as Kodi, are also now talking about introducing digital rights management safeguards into their systems to cut down on pirated content.
You also won't always get the same streaming quality as legitimate commercial broadcasts.
So even if you put aside moral qualms about watching pirated content for free, there may be quite a few hurdles in your way to achieving the same set-up as your friend.
If cost is an issue, there are an increasing number of conventional options. Netflix has a lot more on it than it used to and costs a tenner a month. Sky is also about to launch a piecemeal online service called Now TV, where it divides up movies, sport and other categories that you can pay for separately. Add these to a Saorview set-top box, which gets you your Irish domestic stations, and you have a fair whack of TV.
RECOMMENDATION: I would avoid a 'dodgy box' and get a Saorview box with add-on services instead.
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