GitHub has removed pages belonging to the popular torrent streaming app Popcorn Time after the Motion Picture Association, a trade group that represents major Hollywood studios, filed a copyright claim.
Popcorn Time lets people stream torrents using a Netflix-like interface, and iterations of the program created by different groups since 2014 have long been targets for rightsholders. Notably, Popcorn Time doesn't host torrent files itself, but facilitates their availability for streaming and downloading.
One version of Popcorn Time, popcorntime.app, wanted greater transparency with users and so its makers put the source code for its desktop and mobile apps, its website, and its API on GitHub, a popular site for coders to share and collaborate on software. The GitHub repository for its desktop app was fairly popular, garnering more than 3,000 stars, the site's equivalent to "likes."
On May 1, according to a timestamp on GitHub, the Motion Picture Association (MPA) filed a takedown notice to GitHub under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The association alleges that Popcorn Time "blatantly infringes the MPA Member Studios’ copyrights and countless other copyrights. Indeed, copyright infringement is so prevalent within the Project that infringement plainly is its predominant use and purpose."
On Thursday, May 4, users noticed that those repositories had been taken offline and replaced by a notice from GitHub.
Crucially, this only means that the open source code for the app was removed from the public, but the app itself is still available for download from the Popcorn Time website and works perfectly fine. Moreover, the main GitHub page for Popcorn Time is still online and so are the repositories for its Android app and website. So, while the MPA takedown is a blow to transparency, it doesn't hinder piracy itself.
The GitHub website explains that all a rightsholder has to do is fulfill the basic requirements of the DMCA notice (sort of an honor system thing, as any statements are made under threat of perjury), and it will comply. If the notice concerns specific files in a repository, the owner has a chance to make any requested changes, but if the rightsholder alleges that an entire repository is infringing, then GitHub skips right to deleting it. After a takedown, repository owners can file a counter-notice for a shot at having their content reinstated.
This arrangement gives content-hosting services like GitHub (or YouTube, or Twitter) some plausible deniability and lets them avoid paying onerous copyright infringement settlements themselves. It also means that rightsholders are given the benefit of the doubt from the jump, making the system ripe for abuse. And abused it has been, time and time again, by companies looking to settle a score via copyright.
A spokesperson for Popcorn Time told Motherboard in an email that the team did file a counter-claim, and that GitHub has said the repositories will be online again after 10 business days. GitHub spokespeople did not respond to Motherboard's request for comment. Whether the repositories are reinstated or not, it seems like Popcorn Time will live to see another day.