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Popcorn Time makes piracy so easy, you might not realize it’s illegal

Update by Caleb Denison 3-14-2014 – After making headlines for a couple days, Popcorn Time’s creators have taken the site down. According to ARS Technica, even though the creators maintain they were within their legal rights, the site stirred up enough noise to convince them to take it down, quoting one of the creators as saying, “our experiment has put us at the doors of endless debates about piracy and copyright, legal threats and the shady machinery that makes us feel in danger for doing what we love. And that’s not a battle we want a place in.”

The more you try to explain the world of torrents to your less tech-savvy friends, the more convoluted and unexplainable the subject becomes. Between seeds, leeches, and upload ratios, it’s a hole that keeps getting deeper. It’s usually best to keep it simple with something like, “It’s basically like downloading a movie file … from 20 people at once.”  

But now those long-winded explanations and drawn-out instruction sheets are no longer necessary. Today, all one needs to avail themselves of torrented media is Popcorn Time.

Popcorn Time sprung up on the Internet about a month ago, but recent coverage by TorrentFreak has placed it under the spotlight. Now the site is starting to see some healthy traffic and word of mouth advertising. Currently under development for eventual Windows, Mac OSX and Linux releases, Popcorn Time is a handy tool for seasoned film (torrent) buffs and novice cinephiles alike. After an easy software installation, one can quickly browse through a library of new and still-in-theaters films and pick one to watch in 720p or 1080p HD resolution (it’s not all brand new or in-theaters stuff; we came across films as old as 1945’s Notorious and 1951’s Strangers on a Train).

As a quick quality test, we downloaded the software and booted up the recently-released Thor: The Dark World. Surprisingly, within 10 minutes of dialing in the Popcorn Time URL and downloading the needed software, we already had a 1080p copy of the film running beautifully (considering the quickness with which the program operates), with much of the film on the way to being entirely buffered. The movie had an impressive array of eight available subtitle language options.

The interface is extremely straightforward, with a Netflix instant queue-style quilt of film cover art popping up upon startup. The only other visual aspect is along the left-hand side — a fairly comprehensive genre list with categories ranging from Animation and Biography to Film-Noir and Fantasy, and a search field. You can probably expect some additions to the interface as the Beta train pushes further along.

Popcorn Time Software Thor Playing
Image used with permission by copyright holder

In an interview with TorrentFreak, Argentina-based developer Sebastian explained that the app runs on very simple technology — it’s artfully centered upon a group of APIs, “one for torrents, another for the movie info, and another for the poster, [as well as] an API for the subtitles.” All of this API collaboration is via GitHub, making the end-product entirely automated with no hosting necessary. All Popcorn Time does is “take existing information and put it together,” according to Sebastian.

Sound’s great, right? Here’s the catch: While torrenting itself is not illegal, downloading and/or distributing copyrighted material is. The problem here is that Popcorn Time looks a lot like Netflix,  a popular and legal streaming service. It’s conceivable that users could go unaware that what they’re doing is against the law. And although law enforcement officials have been lax about pursuing even heavy downloaders, they have been known to go after those that upload considerable quantities of copyrighted media. And according to Popcorn Time’s FAQ, you do indeed seed (upload) parts of the movie while you watch.

Popcorn Time does state that “your movies will stay buried in a secret folder somewhere in your drive until you restart your computer. Then it will be gone for good.” This does seem like a pretty clever cover-your-tracks feature, but there will still be a significant breadcrumb trail left behind each time you watch a movie. Even though all the high-tech stuff is happening behind the scenes, you’re still torrenting.

All of the torrents come from YIFY Torrents, a non-private version of invite-only videophile film torrent sites such as PassThePopcorn. So: not only is Popcorn Time, at least for now, very illegal in the eyes of the RIAA and other industry watchdogs, it’s also not as secure in terms of user data encryption and privacy as a peer-to-peer network. Potential users would do well to keep all of this in mind before engaging in what, on the surface, looks just like Netflix streaming.

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Alex Tretbar
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Alex Tretbar, audio/video intern, is a writer, editor, musician, gamer and sci-fi nerd raised on EverQuest and Magic: The…
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