Ever since the technology was first created, Internet piracy has been the seminal issue for our modern generation. Scores of streaming sites have come and gone, each getting shut down one by one. But much like the Hydra of Marvel’s comic universe, “cut off one limb, and two more shall take its place.” This in turn has led to the growth of sites like the Pirate Bay and the rise of BitTorrent, bringing pirated movies and TV shows straight to the hard drives of millions of people worldwide.
The biggest advancement in this technology though, is a more recent player in the game: Popcorn Time. The service centers around a Netflix-y sort of vibe, possessing a library packed with torrents from across the Internet. But instead of putting a file directly on your computer indefinitely, it functions more like a streaming service, essentially limiting the culpability of you, the user. This in turn has led to bold claims from many that Popcorn is in fact a completely legal service based on its infrastructure.
The way it works is simple enough. Let’s say a user wants to watch The Avengers. They click that title, and Popcorn Time scrapes existing BitTorrent titles automatically to find the best possible stream of the movie. It could come from Kick Ass Torrents, Pirate Bay, Isohunts, or any number of other sources known for their vast libraries of illegally downloaded and shared movies. Then, The Avengers is streamed directly to that user’s computer from that pre-existing BitTorrent source. Popcorn Time avoids the legal ramifications of hosting the file themselves, and the user doesn’t have to worry about getting a harshly worded cease and desist email from his or her Internet provider for using up all the bandwidth on torrenting.
In an interview with Wired, one anonymous developer for the current iteration of Popcorn Time cited his or her use of “open source technologies and existing websites online” as the main argument for its legality. Even so, that was followed quickly by some shifty language, where they basically admitted that it’s not so much legal as “not illegal.” But the other side of this coin lies in a copyright law known as the “inducement rule,” which according to Business Insider, makes it so anything can “be considered illegal if it provides access only to infringing content and no other legal content.”
Popcorn Time seems to exist in a strange legal gray area that few have managed to figure out completely. Of course, the streaming service maintains that it’s not violating any existing rules or regulations. Conversely, Hollywood will never budge from its opinion that anyone providing its content without express permission is breaking the law. Neither side seems willing to give any ground, leaving it to the rest of us to get to the truth of the matter.
In that same Wired interview, the developer runs through its plans for the future to make Popcorn Time takedown-proof. Without getting into the techno-babble, the Cliff’s Notes version is that it’ll be shifting off of using a central server and on to a peer-to-peer architecture. Essentially, this ensures that the life of the service will be based on its user base, not on the sort of server raids that have taken down predecessors like Pirate Bay in the past. Soon, the question of legality may become a non-issue if it becomes impossible to take down the whole operation in one fell swoop. But for those sitting at home in their pajamas streaming The Avengers on Popcorn Time, that question of “is it legal if I do this?” will always be important.
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