news icon

When public figures in Taiwan were called out for watching the Olympics on pirate set-top boxes last year, it would've been no surprise to the U.S. that China was the supplier. But while Taiwan attempts to outlaw highly capable 'Ubox' devices, the source of the problem remains. In simple terms, Chinese authorities are only concerned when a crime occurs inside China.

When the Google-sponsored Open Handset Alliance launched its Android operating system, few could’ve predicted its future role in the piracy ecosystem.

With competing Apple products locked down, less restrictive Android devices eventually became the weapon of choice for developers, especially those with less conventional applications in mind.

The new age of piracy that followed evolved beyond the obvious Android characteristic of mobility and led to a global phenomenon of cheap, static set-top boxes, and a perpetual nightmare for the entertainment industries.

As a result, pressure on today’s policy and lawmakers to tackle ISDs (Illicit Streaming Devices) and related IPTV services is both sustained and international. Not even East Asia has been able to fend off demands to deploy Western-style intellectual property enforcement, so it’s no surprise that Taiwan is in the thick of the action.

Taiwan and Its Ubox Problem

There’s nothing particularly special about Taiwan’s illegal streaming plight, at least from a technical perspective. More than five years ago the USTR described Taiwan’s ISD problem as “rampant” but welcomed amendments to copyright law in 2019 that criminalized the provision of piracy apps, helping the public to access pirated content, and the importation or manufacture of piracy devices.

Those changes effectively amounted to an ‘ISD’ ban but at the turn of the decade, pirate set-top box usage had reached almost 30% of the population, with one product mentioned over and over again. Manufactured in China by Unblocktech, Ubox devices not only perform well but also contain software providing access to a huge range of pirated movie and TV show content, either straight out of the box or after following a rudimentary installation process.

The clip above shows the Taiwan configuration but a US setup is also available. The devices are easy to buy and easy to use, two factors that are known to fuel piracy. When two high-profile public figures were spotted using Ubox devices to watch pirated Olympics streams last year, Unblocktech received free advertising and the new law got a poke in the eye.

Just a couple of months later in a report on Foreign Trade Barriers, the MPA said that while Taiwanese courts had delivered some positive results, punishments for copyright infringment were “non-deterrent”. In one case cited by the MPA, a six-month prison sentence was reduced to a fine.

Taiwan needed to do more or face the risk of undermining its international obligations under the TRIPS Agreement, the MPA warned. In the wake of the Olympics piracy debacle, Taiwan’s lawmakers seemed to agree.

Another Round of Copyright Amendments

After considerable work, earlier this year the Legislative Yuan passed a set of amendments (1,2) to tighten the Copyright Act and boost Taiwan’s efforts to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), the trade agreement that rose from the ashes of the TPP.

In respect of set-top boxes, copyright law as amended will cover the following acts relating to unlicensed content, if committed with intent:

– Providing software that can be used to publicly transmit copyrighted content
– Providing software that aggregates infringing works made available by others
– Assisting in the use software to access infringing works made available by others
– Receiving a benefit from transmitting copyrighted content
– Manufacturing, importing or selling devices pre-configured for piracy

Another change is that certain offenses relating to digital piracy can be pursued by the police without rightsholders having to file an official complaint.

The Future of Ubox

For at least a year the manufacturers of Ubox have been distributing some of their devices in ‘pure’ state, i.e without the movie, TV show and live TV software preinstalled. This should mean that the delivery network shown below (10 datacenters, in 30+ countries, via 200+ CDN nodes) is unavailable to purchasers of devices in Taiwan.

The theory is simple – if the Ubox devices are empty and not configured for piracy, they should be legal to import and sell in Taiwan, providing they meet local technical standards. It’s illegal to provide the missing apps and illegal to show anyone how to install them, however.

But of course, the Ubox device is Android-based, so unlike Apple devices there’s no ‘walled garden’ for software. Secondly, Ubox buyers are probably skilled enough to visit a website. Who put this particular site online is unclear, but its purpose seems fairly obvious.

As for the Chinese authorities, they don’t seem particularly interested in the manufacturer of Ubox, despite its provocative advertising and claims by the IIPA that the company has 500 agents and distributors worldwide. According to the MPA, that’s partly a problem with Chinese law.

“China is a leading source for the manufacture and trafficking/export of devices that permit the installation of thirdparty, pre-loaded, or post-purchase infringing applications. This illegal business practice allows consumers to access pirated content,” the Hollywood group informed the USTR in 2021.

“Many of the illegal IPTV services advertised to customers worldwide are bundled or preloaded on devices originating from China. Because of the adherence by some key judges to the below-described ‘server principle,’ rightsholders have been left without a remedy, or at best, with an uncertain remedy.”

The “server principle” relates to Chinese IP judges interpreting local copyright law in a way that only recognizes infringement when pirated content is stored on servers under the control of an app operator.

Taiwan’s legal amendments will be signed into law in due course but the MPA is set to push for more changes in the law, including the introduction of no-fault injunctions compelling ISPs to block access to pirate sites.

In the meantime, the latest Ubox devices are simple to find and according to Amazon buyer reviews, available to buy in the United States ‘fully-loaded’. They’ll function as expected since the site blocking the MPA would like Taiwan to implement does not exist in the United States.

At the time of writing, at least.