Installing HBO Max on Amazon Fire TV by “sideloading” puts users in legal gray area

Given the circumstances, downloading HBO Max from a third-party website isn't technically legal — but it's unlikely AT&T or Amazon will do anything about it.
HBO Max, where the “Max” stands for “Maximum confusion.” (Image: WarnerMedia/AT&T/Handout, Graphic: The Desk)

Since HBO Max launched to the masses in late April, two groups of subscribers — Roku users and Amazon Fire TV users — have been forced to access the app on a different platform or do without it completely.

The reason is rooted in a web of financial deals and other business arrangements forged between HBO’s parent company AT&T, pay TV distributors and streaming platforms over the years, some of which are now complicating matters for users of the two biggest streaming platforms in the United States.

Long story short, HBO Max is only available to certain cable subscribers who pay for an HBO subscription, DirecTV customers with HBO and viewers who purchase HBO as an add-on through YouTube TV or Hulu with Live TV. Don’t have any of these as an option? You can also purchase HBO Max directly from AT&T via the HBO Max website for $15 a month.

In all cases, the only way to access HBO Max’s extended library of content is to use the standalone HBO Max app — something AT&T has not explained clear enough given the number of posts on social media from confused subscribers.

Add to the confusion that HBO Max isn’t available on every streaming platform — if you primarily use Roku or Amazon Fire TV devices to stream content, you’re out of luck, since AT&T doesn’t have an agreement with either of those companies to make HBO Max available to users of those platforms.

But intrepid users of Amazon Fire TV devices have figured out a way around this limitation by installing the Android TV version of HBO Max.

The practice, known as side-loading, is possible because all Amazon Fire devices — including Amazon’s line of tablets and streaming TV devices — use a variant of the Android operating system. That means any app that can run on Android is also compatible with Amazon Fire TV and Amazon Fire tablets.

At launch, AT&T made HBO Max available in the Google Play Store for installation on Android phones, tablets and Android TV. That same app works on Amazon Fire TV and Amazon Fire devices, and some users quickly figured out how to install HBO Max on their Amazon Fire TV sticks. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s at least a solution until AT&T and Amazon ink a deal to bring the app to Amazon Fire users in a more streamlined way (read: through the Amazon app store).

But is it legal? The answer is nearly as complicated as AT&T’s short-term HBO strategy.

For the most part, you can usually do whatever you want with any device you own. If you want to take it apart, add or remove a component, or install a different operating system, as long as your device can handle it, you’re allowed to do it.

Installing software is a different story. For the most part, people who create and distribute software typically release it to the public under a very specific license, and when you install software, you’re agreeing to the terms of that license. Those terms are backed by various state and federal laws (if you live in the United States) or international laws (if you live somewhere else), and when you install the software, you’re generally asked to agree to the terms. Most people click “accept” without reading them (see: iTunes).

Software creators have the right to distribute their programs however they want — and also have the right to place limitations on that distribution. They can allow distribution through certain channels and not others, and they can require people pay for a license to use the software. Anyone who obtains the software outside the scope of these limitations could be in violation of the law, depending on the circumstance.

That’s what makes the HBO Max side-loading issue so dicey: Apps are basically software distributed through various channels, and they have terms of service and other license requirements. HBO Max is an app and a service, and AT&T has decided to limit who can download the app and access the service based in large part on business arrangements.

So websites that offer version of HBO Max’s Android app to download are technically facilitating software piracy, and people who download the HBO Max Android app to side-load on Amazon Fire TV devices are technically software pirates who are breaking the law.

Despite this, it’s unlikely anyone who side-loads HBO Max onto an Amazon Fire device will get caught — and if they do, it’s even more unlikely they’ll be punished.

One reason? It’s hard to track who is side-loading content on Amazon Fire device. Amazon is good at collecting data about its users, but it’s unclear if the company is collecting data on who is activating various settings and taking certain steps needed to side-load apps downloaded outside of the Amazon app store.

Another reason: Federal and various state laws allow prosecutors to bring criminal charges against people who pirate software, but most prosecutors won’t bother with a case unless they can prove that a software pirate cost a company like AT&T a lot of money. For this reason, companies typically pursue civil lawsuits against software pirates on their own, but even then, they’re not going to bother unless they have evidence that a software pirate is costing a company a significant amount of lost revenue.

Last, it’s reasonable to assume that most people who side-load the Android version of HBO Max on an Amazon Fire device are paying for HBO content (or using the credentials of someone who pays for HBO content, something HBO has chosen to ignore for years). The likelihood that AT&T will accuse customers of piracy merely for downloading and installing an app to access content they’re paying for is pretty low. And it would be bad press for a company that has already generated a significant amount of criticism over its handling of the HBO Max rollout.

There’s still a few reasons why users may not want to side-load HBO Max on an Amazon Fire TV stick: Apps downloaded from third parties may not be fully compatible with a device or they may contain viruses or other forms of malware. Even if an app appears legitimate, it could have been modified to steal usernames and passwords or financial information. Differences between a legitimate app and a modified one can be extremely difficult for the average user to spot. Some websites, like APKMirror, have policies in place that are intended to keep users safe, but those policies aren’t foolproof, and bad software has been known to get through on rare occasions.

Still, if you can’t live without HBO Max, know what you’re doing, willing to experiment and think a midnight knock on the door from a federal agent is highly unlikely, side-loading HBO Max could be a solution until AT&T and Amazon clear a path for users to access the service in a more-legitimate way.

If you use Roku, though, you’re still out of luck.

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