It’s 2 a.m. and you’re sick of studying for that final. Your brain needs time to recharge, and you really want to see that movie all your friends have been talking about. Problem? It’s too recent to be available on Netflix or Amazon Instant Video. Enter the app Popcorn Time! Based on BitTorrent technology Popcorn Time accesses movies that have been uploaded to torrent sites—like Pirate Bay—around the Internet and makes them readily available for streaming. Sounds like a solution to those late night study break problems! Problem?
Since much of the material being shared through Popcorn Time was under copyright, groups like the MPAA and other agencies concerned with online piracy, felt the app was promoting illegal file sharing. Despite positive media coverage and some innovative coding to tackle a challenge that has long frustrated torrent users, Popcorn Time called it quits after only four days on the market.
How did Popcorn Time work?
Normally, when users grab media from torrent sites, there’s a downloading process to go through: users must have a program like UTorrent to download the file from a torrent site, and then the file plays back in the user’s normal media player. The process can scare off novice users—and some suggest that its cumbersome nature actually forces users to consider that what they are doing (sharing copyrighted material) is illegal online piracy.
But programmer Sebastian of Buenos Aires and his team decided to seek out ways to make the process easier, in order to give at-home watchers a movie experience better reflecting their needs. “As a designer I love the challenge of simplification. Take something hard for the common user and make it usable. I have a lot of friends who don’t understand torrents and I wanted to make it easy and effortless to use torrent technology,” Sebastian explained to Ernesto of Torrent Freak in the March 8, 2014 post “Popcorn Time: Open source torrent streaming Netflix for pirates.” Sebastian and his team took a hint from Netflix and made movies available to users at the click of a button.
What users think they’re doing: streaming movies online without downloading any files.
What users are actually doing: downloading the movies in the background of Popcorn Time’s app, which eliminates the cumbersome download process by doing it for users without interfering with the watching experience.
Initially, Sebastian and the other Popcorn Time developers weren’t worried about the MPAA. Since they weren’t hosting any material through the site, technically, what the app was doing wasn’t illegal. But the copyrighted media being hosted and downloaded by users certainly was online piracy, which meant it didn’t take long for the MPAA and Hollywood to try to shut the app down.
“The genius of Popcorn Time is that it’s so easy to use that people might not even realize what they’re doing is illegal,” wrote Taylor Cast in the March 12, 2014 HuffingtonPost article “Popcorn Time lets you watch any movie for free (P.S. It’s illegal).”
Success and shut down
The initial success of the program was undeniable. “Popcorn Time got installed on every single country on Earth. Even the two that don’t have Internet access,” a statement from Popcorn Time, quoted by Matt Burns of TechCrunch in March 14, 2014 article “Popcorn Time is dead,” explained.
And despite their insistence that Popcorn Time was legal, “I know from my own interactions with the developers that the constant questioning of the legality was taking a toll on them — a cost that they likely didn’t anticipate,” Burns wrote.
On March 12, the app was deleted from Kim Dotcom’s host server, Mega. Rumors surfaced that the MPAA was threatening a lawsuit and might have pressured Mega into the app’s removal. Two days later, the site posted a final blog post, replacing their previously glossy looking explanation of their app interface, calling it quits, and criticizing the movie industry for continuing to embrace an antiquated model of film distribution rather than providing content for their consumers in the way they want to view it.
But it may not be the end for the project. Torrent service YTS has taken up the banner and pledged to continue to pursue the app’s viability, making it available to download via GitHub.
How do you think the movie industry should provide content to its consumers? Tell us in the comments.