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As TV and movie “piracy” remains in a legal gray area, free streaming websites thrive

By Steph Myers / March 3, 2015 / Tags:


Popcorn Time
Video streaming site Popcorn Time’s slick user interface.


When a single, organized entity makes copyright protected movies and TV shows free and freely available online, it’s a pretty clear-cut case of video piracy. But what about when an Internet “community” does it? In that case, things are much more hazy.

The free video streaming site Popcorn Time is catching on like wildfire as it occupies a gray area in what constitutes piracy. Popcorn Time seemingly sprung up out of nowhere in 2014. Today there are multiple sites, with popcorntime.io currently boasting the most traffic, Facebook likes (over 100,000) and best Google search ranking.

Popcorn Time isn’t just another scummy site that lets users download bad-quality copies of sketchy movie files. Everything about it looks and feels like a legitimate video streaming site. Everything including its usage numbers, which are already causing companies like Netflix, with $30 billion to its name, a lot of concern.

In fact, in the Netherlands, Popcorn Time users are on par with Netflix. In the US, Popcorn Time’s popularity is growing rapidly. Last week, Bloomberg reported usage increased by more than three-fold from July 2014 to January 2015.

Popcorn Time’s clean, simple interface, mobile apps, and desktop apps for both Windows and Mac computers help to make it appealing to users. As does its huge selection of content—all of it free.

Those who use Popcorn Time say that practically everything on the Internet is available for free viewing. Surprisingly, lawyers say that Popcorn Time is not, in fact, breaking the law.

What may let the site off the hook legally is the community involvement in splicing together movies and TV shows. The piracy site BitTorrent has provided the basic file-sharing protocol, wherein files are broken down into small parts and spread across a network of users’ computers. When a BitTorrent user wants to watch something, the file is assembled and stored on the user’s hard drive.

Popcorn Time, on the other hand, simply streams the various pieces. It is open-source, doesn’t manage any content, and doesn’t sell anything. It merely provides the method of access, which lawyers for Popcorn Time’s spokesperson, Robert English, have said isn’t illegal.

Parker Higgins from the consumer digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, also says Popcorn Time is no more unlawful than photocopiers or videocassette recorders. Since Popcorn Time can be used to access non-copyrighted content then, the argument goes, the fault lies with the individual who uses it to watch copyrighted video. “If it’s used to infringe copyright, that may itself be a violation, but that doesn’t make the tool illegal,” said Higgins. Popcorn Time’s website does include a warning to users that downloading copyrighted content may be illegal in some countries.

The media center platform Kodi, formerly XBMC, shares some similarities in that users can, and sometimes do, employ the open-source application to access copyrighted material, though this isn’t the company’s expressed intent.

However, the territory is uncertain. To other file-sharing sites, Grokster and Streamcast, tried a similar defense and lost in court when judges ruled their activities actively encouraged piracy.

It’s likely the companies and movie studios losing money to Popcorn Time won’t let it continue operations without a fight. Until the day the service is banned, however, usage will likely continue to grow, particularly among people interested in cutting the cable cord.



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