Popcorn Time lets you easily stream torrents and raises troubling questions about the future of intellectual property
Imagine your perfect Netflix. Instead of the mixed bag of occasional new releases and B-list back catalog, your streaming options rival anything you could find on iTunes. Instead of paying full price to own or a premium rate to rent, it's all just sitting there, waiting to be streamed with a click of your mouse. Gravity, Saving Mr. Banks, Nebraska, 12 Years a Slave, Man of Steel; the Netflix you've always wished for.
It exists, but no one is getting paid. Welcome to Popcorn Time.
Popcorn Time is a simple to use desktop app that's available for Mac, Windows, and Linux. Once installed, users are provided with an attractive layout showcasing every single new hit movie you could imagine. Think of it as Blockbuster on your desktop... if Blockbuster was actually a viable business these days. The app works by playing streaming video direct from torrents. While you watch, you seed and share the torrent data to other users. You'd imagine these streams are glitchy, with inconsistent or weak quality, but each one we tested out worked perfectly.
It's a dream come true for the morally ambiguous. But there's a hitch for the rest of us; it's stealing. There are a lot of grey areas that come into play. I understand there are people who will use this service to watch movies they've already paid to see in theaters or at home. There are people who will use it to watch movies they would never pay to view at home. But for every Robin Hood with a reason, there are just as many users who stream because it's easier and it's free.
And Popcorn Time is easier. Unlike the current waiting game for quality titles on Netflix or the borderline criminal habit of charging $20+ dollars for special feature-free digital copies of movies online, Popcorn Time is a breeze. Everything you want to watch for free. I can't get a paid service like HBO GO to provide better than a YouTube quality picture during peak hours, but if I want to steal content on Popcorn Time I'm golden.
We're at an interesting time in the digital age, where media content empires are run by businessmen who put short term profits over long term sustainability. While content providers are busy fighting to wring out every single last dollar from the customers who still pay for content, they're ignoring the next generation of viewers.
Right now the first wave of the YouTube generation is entering adulthood. Large chunks of these viewers have no interest in ownership. Hell, lots of them have no interest in even paying for content. They just want what they want, when they want it. HBO GO didn't crash during the True Detective finale because of paying customers. It crashed because of the millions of people who use their friend's or parent's accounts to watch without a thought because someone else is paying for it ... and because it's easier than stealing.
Since Popcorn Time is a client app that aggregates content by searching torrents it doesn't directly host itself, I doubt it's going to be easy to shut down. It helps that it's based out of Argentina and isn't subject to US laws. But even if it does get shut down, another program like it will fill its place.
We're at a point now where the only option is treating piracy like the competition. Services like Netflix are allies of the movie studios. Work with them to provide better options that make piracy seem like more trouble than it's worth. Would you pay $15-20 a month for the service if it meant earlier access to recent titles, or the ability to stream commentaries for titles like Forrest Gump? That's the equivalent of each subscriber going to a see a movie in the theater or buying a moderately priced Blu-ray every month. There's money to be made, but they have to remember their audience.
The content providers have to remember how easy it is to steal content right now. They have to remember that wages have been stagnant in this nation for almost two decades and when someone pays $20 dollars for a movie that sucks, that $20 lingers in their memory. And they have to remember that, unless they destroy the modern internet, it's just going to get easier and easier to find content for free.
Popcorn Time is the easiest it has ever been. Content providers should take a look at their enemy, and then imagine how it will evolve in one year. Five years. Even in just six months. There are more people than ever reaching for popcorn and watching content at home. It's up to content providers to make sure it's easier to financially support the people who create the art we enjoy than it is to steal it.
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