Popcorn Time is like 'Netflix for pirates': Dan Misener

Popcorn Time is a new open-source app for downloading and watching movies. The interface looks like Netflix, but as one internet lawyer points out, it's still illegal.

Unlike torrent sites, Popcorn Time has a clean interface

The streaming site Popcorn Time appears to only provide access to old public-domain films, but it also contains pirated editions of recent films such as 12 Years a Slave and American Hustle. (Popcorn Time)

It's been called “Netflix for pirates."

Popcorn Time is a new open source app for downloading and watching movies. It's dead simple: a list of movie genres on the left and a wall full of movie posters on the right. That's it. Click a poster, and you're presented with the option to "Watch it now."

Under the hood, Popcorn Time runs BitTorrent software optimized for streaming. This means almost no waiting for a download to finish; the movie starts playing immediately.

This immediacy and simplicity is by design.

"I have a lot of friends who don't understand torrents and I wanted to make it easy and effortless to use torrent technology," says one of the app's designers, going only by the name Sebastian, in an interview with TorrentFreak.

"It reminds me of Napster. It's so easy," says Gil Zvulony, a Toronto-based internet lawyer who has seen the application.

It may be easy, says Zvulony, but's it's not legal.

"Its primary use is to make copyrighted material available. It doesn't have any other use. It clearly infringes copyright according to the Canadian copyright act."

Screenshots on the Popcorn Time website show movie posters for very old public domain movies such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and The Three Stooges: Malice in the Palace (1949).

But if you actually download the software and look at what's available, it's almost exclusively pirated material, including recent Oscar nominees such as 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, Gravity, Frozen… almost all of it copyrighted.

The Popcorn Time website carries a loud, yellow warning: "Downloading copyrighted material may be illegal in your country. Use at your own risk."

Zvulony thinks the app's creators are playing dumb, and are aware that people will use their software to infringe copyright.

Potential damages

Using Popcorn Time to download and watch movies may infringe copyright, but here in Canada, the financial risk to individuals is small. Back in 2012, Bill C-11 capped damages for non-commercial copyright infringement at $5,000.

"That's really for the worst type of case," explains Zvulony. Realistically, he says, "you're looking at $100 or $200 in terms of damages awarded, which makes it extremely uneconomical for movie studios to go after individual downloaders."

Though BitTorrent has a reputation as a "pirate" tool, it also has many non-infringing uses, such as the distribution of educational content for non-profit organizations. That said, piracy and copyright infringement seems to get the most attention.

For me, Popcorn Time feels significant because of how it pulls BitTorrent movie piracy from a world of sketchy torrent sites full of porn ads and scammy pop-ups into a simple, streamlined interface.

For years, services like iTunes and Netflix have been able to compete with piracy by offering the paid options in a cleaner, safer environment.

With Popcorn Time, it seems as though the bar has been raised on the pirates' side.

"It's like an arms race," says Zvulony. "There's always new innovation."


Dan Misener

CBC Radio technology columnist

Dan Misener is a technology journalist for CBC radio and Find him on Twitter @misener.