Popcorn Time was an instant hit when it launched just over a year ago: The video streaming service made BitTorrent piracy as easy as Netflix, but with far more content and none of those pesky monthly payments. Hollywood quickly intervened, pressuring Popcorn Time’s Argentinian developers to walk away from their creation. But anonymous coders soon relaunched the copyright-flouting software. Today, Popcorn Time is growing at a rate that has likely surpassed the original, and the people behind it say they’re working on changes designed to make the service virtually impervious to law enforcement.
As Popcorn Time celebrated the first anniversary of its rebirth, WIRED chatted via email and instant message with a software developer from Popcorn-Time.se, one of the most popular of several reincarnations of Popcorn Time. (The anonymous developer asked us to use Popcorn Time’s smiling popcorn-box mascot “Pochoclin” as his or her pseudonym.) Popcorn Time’s masked representative says the streaming movie and TV app is flourishing—in defiance of many of the world’s most powerful copyright holders and EURid, the domain registrar that seized the original site’s web domain last year.
Popcorn-Time.se, Pochoclin says, has millions of users and is growing at the mind-bending rate of 100,000 downloads per day. He or she also hinted that a forthcoming switch to a peer-to-peer architecture will make the service far harder for copyright cops to attack. “We’re at the threshold of one of the most exciting times since we started this project,” Pochoclin writes. “Making all our data available via p2p will mean that Popcorn Time will no longer rely on domains and centralized servers but only on its user base.”
“After everything we went through,” Pochoclin said, “this will be our sweetest revenge and our biggest victory.”
When Popcorn-Time.se started responding to WIRED’s questions in November, Pochoclin said the reborn project already had 4 million users. But it had taken a serious hit a few months earlier, when Brussels-based domain registrar EURid revoked its website domain, Time4Popcorn.eu. At its new Swedish domain, it’s only recently returned to that earlier adoption rate. (Pochoclin wouldn’t reveal the size of its current user base for fear of drawing more attention from law enforcement or copyright holders.) “[EURid’s domain seizure] was just a small setback … a small but painful kick to the balls,” the spokesperson says. “We’ve grown this project tremendously since we picked it up … The numbers just keep rising.”
For any other year-old startup, those numbers would seem ludicrous. But Popcorn Time is giving away Hollywood’s most valuable content for free, and making that piracy easier than ever. Download Popcorn Time’s app and in seconds you’re offered a slick menu of streaming TV shows and movies at least as easy to navigate as Netflix or Hulu—but with higher-quality video and hundreds of recent movies and TV shows paid services don’t offer.
Popcorn Time isn’t a new kind of piracy so much as an inviting new front-end interface for the BitTorrent underground. The software collects and organizes popular files from existing BitTorrent sources like the Pirate Bay, Kickass Torrents, Isohunt, and YTS. “We’re like Google,” Pochoclin says, “scraping for new content all over the internet.” By integrating its own video player and prioritizing its downloads from the first chunk of the video file to the last, it makes those sites’ files immediately streamable. With Popcorn Time, the complexity of BitTorrent search engines, trackers, clients, seeds, decompression, playback, and storage is reduced to a single click. That’s made this BitTorrent-for-dummies the virtually undisputed future of video piracy.
Pochoclin says Popcorn-Time.se offers this streaming service pro bono. It doesn’t charge for downloads, and neither its app nor its website display ads. “We just did it for the love of this project,” Pochoclin writes. “It was something we believed in. And once it started taking off … as it did from the start, all the love that we were getting from Popcorn Time users made us just keep on going without really stopping to think where this road is taking us.”
That road, it seems, points toward a collision course with Hollywood’s copyright lawyers. Documents revealed in last year’s Sony hack revealed that the Motion Picture Association of America boasted of a “major victory” in pressuring Popcorn Time’s original developers to scupper the service. The MPAA declined to comment on any measures it’s taking against the new Popcorn Time. In a Jan. 20 letter to shareholders, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings wrote that “piracy continues to be one of our biggest competitors,” and referred to Popcorn Time by name, calling a graph showing its rising Google searches “sobering.” Neither Netflix nor Hulu responded to WIRED’s requests for comment.
Pochoclin says the service doesn’t do anything illegal: It merely organizes preexisting BitTorrent files hosted on other sites. “It’s all automated and all working on existing open-source technologies and existing websites online. Therefore, it’s legal. Or better … not illegal,” Pochoclin says. “We all live in a free society, where what is not forbidden is allowed.”
That’s not a defense that’s likely to succeed in an American court. An MPAA spokesperson pointed out in an email to WIRED that previous software like Napster, Grokster, isoHunt, and Limewire didn’t directly host content either, but courts ruled that all of them were infringing on copyrights. Even though it merely helps users stream video files made available elsewhere, Popcorn Time could be accused of “contributory liability,” says University of Richmond intellectual property law professor Jim Gibson. A service whose primary, intended function is aiding copyright infringement doesn’t need to host any files to be illegal. “If they know that they’re actually facilitating the downloading or streaming of copyrighted movies and they continue to do it, they’re in trouble,” Gibson says.
With legal threats looming, Popcorn-Time.se is working on new defenses. In about a month, the group says it plans to launch a version of the app that will update its TV and movie content with the same peer-to-peer BitTorrent protocol that it uses to stream movies, pulling data from other users rather than a central server. That means that even if its domain or other central infrastructure is taken down, Popcorn Time would still function. In a second upcoming phase, Popcorn-Time.se says it will have the ability to update the app itself via peer-to-peer downloads, using cryptographic signatures to ensure no malicious code propagates through its network. When those updates are in place, Pochoclin says, “only our users will decide whether we live or die … This way, Popcorn Time will be unstoppable.”
But even if the service itself does develop an invincible peer-to-peer architecture, Popcorn Time’s developers may be personally vulnerable to a lawsuit or even criminal charges. The Swedish founders of the Pirate Bay, for instance, were successfully prosecuted for running the massively popular BitTorrent website, and the United States is seeking the extradition of Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom from New Zealand to face criminal copyright infringement charges.
For now, Popcorn Time’s developers depend on their unnamed web hosting company to ensure their anonymity, which is hardly a bulletproof strategy. “We’re anonymous but not in hiding,” Pochoclin says. “We guess our hosting company does know who we are. But they’re not supposed to give our information out to anyone. And it’s good enough for us.”
With Popcorn Time’s popularity skyrocketing, it may soon find out whether those defenses are good enough to hold off a horde of MPAA lawyers, too. Pochoclin may be cute. But he’s made some powerful enemies.
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