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Popcorn Time — the 'Netflix for Pirates' — Gives Easy Access to Illegal Films, but Hollywood is Pissed

Popcorn Time offers free downloads of a videoplayer and complimentary search engine, which make pirated films accessible to people who normally would be daunted by the complicated process of streaming illegal films.

by Lisa Nienhaus
Sep 21 2015, 5:20pm

Photo via Federico Abad

Federico Abad's favorite movie is Disney's Beauty and the Beast. The 30-year-old Argentinian visual designer and programmer from Buenos Aires says he wants to travel to the United States to visit Disney World someday.

But he probably won't be welcome.

Abad is one of the film industry's least favorite people, and filmmakers consider him a thief. In 2014, Abad helped develop an open-source video player specially designed to stream movies, TV shows, and other copyrighted material shared on the web — most of it illegally. The software soon became part of an online platform and software package that he and his team dubbed Popcorn Time.

The Popcorn Time site offers free downloads of the video player and a complimentary search engine, which make pirated films accessible to people who normally would be daunted by the complicated process of streaming illegal, peer-to-peer "torrents" of films.

Days after Popcorn Time went online in mid-February 2014, it became an Internet phenomenon.  The site was quickly dubbed the "Netflix for Pirates," and blogs dedicated to file-sharing said it was a "breakthrough app" that offered "BitTorrent-powered streaming inside an easy-to-use Netflix-style interface." 

"It took us one week to create it," Abad told VICE News by Skype from Buenos Aires. "After one week online, we had hundreds of users. After one month, we had a million all over the world, in every single country."

Federico Abad (Photo via @abadfederico) 

Popcorn Time thrived as it gave people easy and timely access to a wide range of movies, something its critics say the film industry doesn't do. But the industry has viewed the service as a serious threat to the industry's business model, and has looked for ways to halt its use. 

Film industry interest groups threatened Abad and his fellow Popcorn Time developers soon after the site went live, he says, and he and his team voluntarily shut down the original Popcorn Time site on March 14, 2014, after just one month online.

"I knew it was big when I saw a small article about us in Time magazine,"  Abad said. "It was the first time that my father understood what I was working on."

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While his father told Abad he should make money from the site, his mother became worried, as was Abad and the other developers. They soon found out that a lawyer from Warner Bros. had visited each of their professional LinkedIn webpages.

"I don't know how he found us," Abad said. "Popcorn Time was a fun thing that we created for our friends, for our families, but it became too big. I never wanted to get into serious trouble because of this project."

Although Abad and his team shut down the original Popcorn Time, several international "fork" sites — sites that use the original open-source code but continue to modify and build on it — have continued to thrive on the web. Popcorntime.io is the flagship among these sites, and Abad supports and considers it to be the true successor to the original Popcorn Time. Abad and other developers say they don't know how many times the software has been downloaded, but the site has 141,000 fans on Facebook, and nearly 40,000 Twitter followers.

With the site's success, film production companies have sued users of the service. 

Survivor Productions, which made Survivor, a 2015 spy thriller starring Pierce Brosnan, filed a complaint against 16 Popcorn Time users in the US District Court in Oregon on August 20.

"Popcorn Time exists for one purpose and one purpose only: to steal copyrighted content," the company's complaint to the court said. "Survivor has been downloaded… hundreds of thousands of times with over 10,000 instances of piracy traced to locations in the State of Oregon."

On August 16, the production company of the Adam Sandler movie The Cobbler sued 11 Popcorn Time users in a nearly identical lawsuit.

It is not only Hollywood studios that are alarmed. Netflix called the rise of Popcorn Time in the Netherlands "sobering." In its letter to shareholders in January, Netflix wrote, "Piracy continues to be one of our biggest competitors."

It has been difficult for the film industry to get the Popcorn Time site taken down since, in the US, simply downloading the software is legal, while using it to download or stream a pirated film is illegal. In Denmark, two men were arrested because they ran websites that provided information on how to use Popcorn Time. In some countries, such as the UK, Popcorn Time has been blocked.

In the US, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) played a key role in shutting down Popcorn Time, as evidenced from a 2014 quarterly update that was revealed in the Sony email hack.  

"The Content Protection team scored a major victory in shutting down key developers of 'Popcorn Time,'" the MPAA update to the major Hollywood studios says.  "The investigative and enforcement effort required real-time, cross-border collaboration on three continents – and may have prevented Popcorn from becoming a major piracy threat before it could become popular."

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Howard Gantman, vice president of the MPAA, refuses to speak about Popcorn Time as an isolated case; he instead criticizes all sites and software that make copyrighted content available for free.

"Fighting piracy is a major issue for us," he said, citing film industry-funded studies that claim that nearly a quarter of the total bandwidth in North America, Europe, and Asia-Pacific countries is used for copyright infringing. Other studies that the MPAA cites estimate that 710 million pirated films and shows were shared on BitTorrent (a protocol to share files peer-to-peer) in the US during the last year, including 416 million movies.

That's a lot of lost revenue for the film industry. Gantman says his job is to make sure the film industry isn't decimated by piracy.

"We are protecting the creativity and the jobs in the film industry," Gantman said.

But is piracy through sites like Popcorn Time really harming Hollywood?

In 2002, Americans and Canadians went to movie theaters nearly 1.6 billion times, which is an all-time record. Since then, the numbers have been
stagnating or going down. By 2014, visits had fallen to 1.27 billion visits. Revenues, however, have remained steady or increased, and the summer of 2015 is on track to be the most lucrative in Hollywood history. The National Association of Theatre owners expects 2015 to be the highest grossing year for films in history, with $10.9 billion in box office gross sales by the end of the year. 

"Piracy is having some effect on movie sales," said James Gibson, an expert on copyright issues and a law professor at the University of Richmond. "But I do not think that it is an existential problem for Hollywood, like it was for the music industry."

Denise Mann, an associate professor in UCLA's Department of Film, Television, and Digital Media, maintains that Hollywood's problems come from different sources.

"Hollywood is not about to expire or to be replaced," she said. "But it is adapting too slowly to the new Internet age."

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Mann sees one company in particular that is adapting much more quickly than the studios: Netflix. For five years, Netflix has been the dominant player for legal streaming over the Internet, and it's pushing to expand internationally. During prime-time hours in March of this year, Netflix was accountable for up to 37 percent of Internet bandwidth use in North America. It consumed more bandwidth than YouTube, Amazon, and Hulu combined at peak periods.

As binge-watching TV series and movies at home becomes more popular, "old Hollywood is still depending on an aging system of releasing movies through a series of windows," Mann said. "That is changing with Netflix, Amazon Prime, and other services. That is the development Hollywood should be worried about more than about the piracy."

Abad goes even further, and says he even worries about the effect apps like Popcorn Time will have on the film industry.

"Of course I do not want the film industry to lose large amounts of money," he said. "It's a not piracy problem, it's a service problem: You have to give users what they want at a fair price."

For example, Abad says, films aren't released in Argentinia until long after they debut in the US, and long after they've been available illegally on the Internet.

"I would love to pay for a Netflix with a great catalogue," he said. "But their catalogue is years behind in my country."

The developer of the new Popcorn Time believes the site is forcing the film industry to deal with harsh realities.

"We show the world how convenient it could be if the movie industry would get up to the 21st century," he said.

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For Abad, his brief time as the film industry's most hated man has not had much effect on his life today. He did not make money with Popcorn Time, he claims. He says he still lives in his old apartment with two cats in Buenos Aires, and works in a relatively normal job at a Bitcoin security company. Abad tried to play it safe during his time as a pirate, which is probably why the film industry did not pursue lawsuits against him.

But considering that happy endings are essential to the Disney movies he loves, Popcorn Time has not helped Abad with his dreams. He says his former girlfriend left him due to the time he devoted to Popcorn Time. And he is still single.

"A girl tweeted to me that she hopes I will find a new girlfriend because of Popcorn Time," he said. "I gave her a retweet."

Follow Lisa Nienhaus on Twitter: @lisakatharina

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