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U.S. Set-Top Box Warning Could Apply to Large Numbers of Streaming Pirates


The Federal Communications Commission has issued an Enforcement Advisory that has the potential to affect large numbers of pirates in the United States. The FCC reports an increase in the marketing of streaming-capable set-top devices that do not comply with US law. Those who contravene relevant legislation face fines that can exceed $147,000 per violation.

With streaming now becoming the preferred method of obtaining video content for huge numbers of Internet users, sales of capable hardware are on the rise.

Devices like Amazon’s Fire TV Stick, Google’s Chromecast, Roku’s Streaming Stick, Apple TV, and the Nvidia Shield are now the tools of choice for millions of users. But while the above are completely legal to market and own, that isn’t always the case for alternatives from less well-known suppliers.

In most countries, people are able to buy streaming-capable (often Android-based and/or WiFi-enabled) devices over the Internet that don’t comply with local laws, and not just because they’re supplied ready-configured for piracy.

In Europe, for example, electronic devices must comply with strict safety, health, and environmental requirements (such as limits on external radio interference), before being able to display the ‘CE’ mark as required by law.

For those produced or sold in the United States, electronic devices can obtain certification and show the FCC logo (above right) providing that, among other things, the interference they cause is under the limits approved by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

According to the FCC, however, many devices being marketed, sold and used in the country do not meet the standards. In an Enforcement Advisory published this week, the FCC states that engaging in any of the above activites in respect of non-compliant devices is illegal and subject to punishment.

“The Federal Communications Commission (FCC or Commission) has observed an increase in the marketing of Video TV Set-Top Boxes, designed to stream Internet-based content, that do not comply with FCC equipment marketing requirements,” the advisory reads.

“Anyone marketing or operating noncompliant devices should stop immediately. Violators may be subject to substantial monetary penalties that could total more than $147,000 per violation.”

In this case, the term ‘marketing’ is rather broad and defined by the FCC as importing, distributing, advertising or offering non-compliant devices for sale or lease. The $147,000 figure certainly looks scary too, but that’s only likely to apply to serious offenders (see: 47 U.S.C. § 503(b)(2)(D), 47 CFR §§ 1.80(b)(7), 47 CFR §§ 1.80(b)(9) )

While even non-compliant devices can be used for otherwise legal purposes (streaming Netflix or Amazon Prime, for example), the advisory comes at a time when large numbers of companies are selling devices configured for piracy purposes (or targeted at piracy-focused buyers), which is likely responsible for a decent slice of the observed increase in marketing.

So-called “fully loaded boxes” grant access to large volumes of copyrighted content in breach of copyright law and have attracted the negative attention of global anti-piracy coalition the Alliance for Creativity and Entertainment (ACE).

However, simply using non-compliant devices in the United States is also illegal, meaning that many thousands – potentially millions – of people who obtained their streaming devices from non-certified sources in the Far East or even the United States, for example, are breaking the law.

While sellers of illegal devices could indeed become targets for the FCC at any time, it seems unlikely that individuals will be affected as resources are limited are there are much bigger fish to fry.

According to the FCC, its Enforcement Advisories are “designed to educate businesses about and alert consumers to what’s required by FCC rules, the purpose of those rules and why they’re important to consumers, as well as the consequences of failures to comply.”

With that advice out of the way, users can find out whether their set-top boxes are legal (in terms of hardware at least) by referring to page 2 of the FCC’s Enforcement Advisory (pdf).

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