Pushing back against a new wave of piracy

Sam Harnett Jun 30, 2015

Pushing back against a new wave of piracy

Sam Harnett Jun 30, 2015

It’s popcorn time, and the TV and film industry doesn’t like it.

Popcorn Time is one of many new programs that allow users to stream movies without paying for them, causing serious concern in the movie industry (Netflix says piracy has become one of its biggest competitors).

When users log onto Popcorn Time, they can stream a bunch of old and new movies and TV shows. They can watch any of the titles with just one click, or swipe of a finger. There’s now even a Popcorn Time app so users can watch stuff on tablets and phones. 

But streaming any one of those movies or TV shows like this would be illegal, says lawyer Michael Schlesinger, who works for the International Intellectual Property Alliance. 

Schlesinger, whose trade group tries to shut down apps like Popcorn Time, says in the industry, the effort to end piracy is often called “a game of whack-a-mole.”

Popcorn Time is an especially hard mole to whack. The people running Popcorn Time are spread out across the globe and tend to remain anonymous. There are also multiple versions of the Popcorn Time program. One iteration claims to be run with “love by a bunch of geeks from all around the world.”

Robert English, in Canada, claims to be one of the geeks. We tracked him down via his Twitter account. English has been quoted all over the place, and he downplays Popcorn Time’s importance, saying it isn’t the first, and won’t be the last, streaming site out there. “The content is already out there, for the most part,” he says, “We don’t add anything new. So I don’t think we make much of a difference.”

One big differences between Popcorn Time and other pirate sites is that even if it is shut down, it can quickly pop back up again. The program is open source, which means the code is public. Anyone who downloads it can modify the code and become the author of their own version.

English says he thinks Popcorn Time is legal, and he is not worried about people streaming stuff for free. He says, “I’m sure piracy hurts everybody, but I’m sure everyone still makes a lot of money.”

This is a pretty common sentiment for people born anytime after, say, the early 80s. Millennial Michael Krynski is 29. Here’s how he sums it up: “We’re like the Napster Generation. We just expect things to be available online. Everything we’re looking for.”

Krynski runs a blog all about how to stream content for free. Most of his readers are under 30, and he says, “They have money, but they don’t want to give money to companies that are still in this old school distribution model.”

What is really scary for the movie industry, and streaming sites like Netflix, is that Popcorn Time is sleek and user-friendly. You are not poking around some back alley of the Internet, fending off viruses. Popcorn Time has big pictures of movies, and a nice design. It looks kind of like Netflix. And it has new TV shows and movies, some still in theaters.

So what are the repercussions for streaming something on Popcorn Time? Joseph Gratz, a lawyer who specializes in intellectual property, says, “Well, certainly the copyright infringement police aren’t going to come and get you.”

However, Gratz says, the movie and TV industry does sometimes send threatening letters, and a few people have been caught and had to pay settlements—hundreds, even thousands of dollars. But it is a lot of work to track down illegal streamers. And programs like Popcorn Time are working on ways to anonymize users, making them even harder to track.

Kate Bedingfield, with the Movie Picture Association of America, says, “I don’t think anyone thinks we are going to eliminate piracy entirely.” She says right now the industry is focusing on improving its streaming services. That is why it supports wheretowatch.com. The site tells you where to stream movies legally. Bedingfield says there are now over 400 legal options to stream movies and TV in the United States.

But the competition is stiff. These services have to be better than free. Out on the seven seas of the Internet, that is a pretty hard pricing model to beat.

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