Why you should care
Because while streaming movies on BitTorrent is not legal like Netflix, Popcorn Time might not feel as sketchy (even if you’re still in gray territory).
Years of lawsuits, nasty viruses and hefty penalties have had quite a chilling effect on peer-to-peer platforms and illegal downloads. Plenty of people continue to download content illegally, of course. But the last decade’s popularity of iTunes, Netflix and Spotify — all legal avenues — proves that media conglomerates still hold the reins.
It’s in that context that torrent movie-streaming services Popcorn Time and Time 4 Popcorn have emerged as the newest rebels, and people clearly love them. The Popcorn Time app (provided by both sites since the software was originally open source) is a free platform that searches the web for torrents that let you stream movies in high definition and even with subtitles. The sleek user interface makes it easy to find everything from the latest seasons of Suits and Game of Thrones to newer movies that would cost several bucks to rent on iTunes.
Peer-to-peer sharing platforms are legal, but apps like Popcorn Time that create the perfect environment for consuming copyrighted content might not be.
I tested it out via the Time 4 Popcorn version and sampled clips from a few movies with impressive speed and HD quality. Open the free software, select a movie or TV show, choose the HD version and subtitles you’d like, and all that’s left to do is pop the popcorn. You don’t pay a penny. Time 4 Popcorn’s version of the app supports Mac, Windows, Linux, Android and even Google Chromecast, while Popcorn Time works on desktop platforms only.
Sounds too good to be true? Well, it sort of is.
The application’s popcorn box mascot is downright cute, but let’s get real: Watching illegally distributed movies without paying for them is far from cute when you consider what’s really going on. Even though peer-to-peer sharing platforms are legal, applications like Popcorn Time could technically be illegal, because they create the perfect environment for consuming copyrighted content. In a statement to OZY, the Time 4 Popcorn team answered most of our questions, but had no comment when asked about the legal implications.
After the original Popcorn Time project shut down earlier this year, new versions of Popcorn Time popped up, thanks to the project’s open-source nature. The Time 4 Popcorn team call themselves “fans and users [who] were heavy users of the original project.” Hesitant to reveal much about their identities, they say they are “programmers from all around the world who have worked together on several projects prior to Popcorn [Time].”
Time 4 Popcorn boldly states on its homepage that Popcorn Time “will never be taken down,” while the Popcorn Time site posts a more cautious disclaimer: “Downloading copyrighted material may be illegal in your country. Use at your own risk.”
It might be time for Hollywood to think about negotiating better deals with legal market leaders like Netflix.
To protect its users, Time 4 Popcorn says it offers torrent traffic encryption and a free, built-in VPN, so people can use the service anonymously. Since I tested the application, the authorities haven’t come knocking at my door, but I confess I’m someone who feels guilty, especially considering I make my living in media and content.
It goes without saying that OZY Media does not endorse streaming movies illegally, but Popcorn Time is worth knowing about. It reportedly has millions of users and gets tens of thousands of downloads on an average day.
So it might be time for Hollywood to think seriously about negotiating better deals with legal market leaders like Netflix if it wants to curb the pirating hordes. I’m continually disappointed by the number of popular movies from the past year that aren’t available for Netflix streaming. Non-Stop (2014), The Lego Movie (2014) and Frozen (2013) are all available for streaming on Popcorn Time, but Netflix offers them only via its DVD mail service. And paying five bucks to rent a single movie on iTunes or Amazon Instant Video can add up.
No one should ignore the legal and ethical questions attached to BitTorrent apps like Popcorn Time. But what will parents do when it’s late, the DVD player is broken and their sick kid is crying to watch Frozen for the umpteenth time?
It’s a prime market opportunity for legit media services to step up their game.
Vignesh Ramachandran is a tech buff and journalist working in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow him on Twitter @VigneshR.