Tech Lab

New software could broaden illegal movie viewing

My wife and I pay $8 a month for Netflix, $79 a year for Amazon Prime — soon to be $99 — and another $100 or so a month for cable. Yet we still can’t see whatever we want, whenever we want it. To do that, we’d have to become criminals. I plan to resist the temptation. But thanks to a remarkable new piece of software, many others will likely not.

The software is called Popcorn Time, and I suspect that movie and TV producers yet unborn will curse its name. Remember what a piece of software called Napster did to the recorded music business? Free music for everyone, until Apple’s iTunes came along a few years later and made honest listeners out of many of us — for a buck a song.

Well, here we go again. Popcorn Time is a free program that lets anyone with a broadband connection watch recently released movies and popular classics on any desktop computer — without paying a dime.


Watching films without paying for them is stealing, impure and simple. It threatens jobs and livelihoods — not just the profits of big media companies — of far-from-wealthy employees and artists. I feel vaguely guilty even telling you about Popcorn Time, though readers with larceny in their hearts would have found it anyway. Besides, a little video piracy might prove to be a blessing, in the long run.

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I won’t tell you exactly where to download Popcorn Time. There are versions for personal computers running Microsoft Corp.’s Windows, Apple Inc.’s Mac OS X, or the free Linux operating system. I fired it up at the office and within five minutes was watching Matt Damon’s science fiction flick “Elysium.” The image quality seemed quite good, despite a “letterbox” effect that added large black bands across the top and bottom of the screen.

Popcorn Time was created by anonymous software developers in Argentina, who then abandoned the project for fear of a legal backlash. But since they gave away the software, others on the Internet are continuing to spread it around.

It is based on BitTorrent, a sophisticated file-sharing system created over a decade ago. When using BitTorrent, you don’t download a file from a single computer. Instead, you obtain bits and pieces of it from multiple machines. Say you want to watch “Despicable Me.” Your BitTorrent software finds dozens of other users with the movie on their computers and downloads a portion from each one. Meanwhile, your own computer contributes back by retransmitting parts of the movie to others who want it.

About 170 million people use BitTorrent every month, according to the company that distributes the software. BitTorrent has legitimate uses — video game maker Blizzard Entertainment, for example, relies on it to deliver software updates for “World of Warcraft” and other games. But it is mostly popular with music and movie buffs seeking something for nothing.


BitTorrent will soon be even more popular, thanks to Popcorn Time’s key feature — video streaming on demand. Normally BitTorrent makes you wait for a file to download before using it.

But Popcorn Time lets you watch almost immediately as it streams into your computer, just like Netflix. It displays a user-friendly screenful of movie selections and offers a handy search tool for finding still more. Once you have chosen a film, just point, click, and start watching.

For now, the selection on Popcorn Time is limited but quite revealing. “Frozen?” Check. “12 Years A Slave?” That, too. “Gravity?” Here you go. Prefer older favorites? No problem. I found the Star Wars movies — all of them — and all of the James Bond movies.

Yes, there is a pattern here. Movie thieves love the newest releases. But a lot of the choices are older still-popular films that are difficult to find on cable or the Internet, because of Hollywood licensing practices designed to wring out every cent of profit.

Say you want to watch “Goldfinger,” the 1964 Bond classic. Last year, it was available on Netflix; this year it is not. You can download the film from Amazon’s video service, but only if you buy it outright for $9.99. You can’t even rent the thing for two bucks, as with other films.


You’ll find similarly irksome restrictions on other films and TV shows from all of the pay services. I tried to report about that last year, but got nowhere because the movie companies would not talk about their licensing strategies. They’ve got a system, and it works.

So did the music industry’s distribution model, way back in 2000. They sold music on plastic disks. Don’t like it? Too bad. Then came Napster and similar online services. Many people used them not just because they were free, but because there was no other way to find good music online. The music industry responded with a scorched-earth policy, suing more than 30,000 listeners and the file-sharing services.

Now, Napster and imitators such as Limewire and Kazaa are long gone, but it’s been a pyrrhic victory for the recording industry, which earned $27.8 billion worldwide in 1999, but just $15 billion last year.

The bleeding has finally stopped, because today a consumer can purchase virtually every song ever recorded for a dollar or so, via Apple, Amazon or Google. This model gives consumers what they always wanted: music on their own terms. No more spending $12 for a whole album of lame songs; now you can buy only the songs you want.

Listeners can also subscribe to a streaming service such as Spotify or Beats Music and hear virtually anything for a low monthly fee. It’s simple, cheap — and legal. Unless you’re a born thief, there is no good reason to steal music any more.

The movie business doesn’t appear to have learned from the digital music catastrophe. They’re about to get a refresher course. I won’t join this cinematic rebellion, but millions worldwide probably will. I’m sure the studios will work hard to block the new service — though they haven’t yet called me back to say so.

Even if the movie industry succeeds against Popcorn Time for now, imitators will arise, surely as they did with music, and there will be no stopping all of them. The solution is the same one reluctantly embraced by the music industry: Stop turning customers into criminals. Give us easy online access, at reasonable prices, to all the movies and TV shows we want. Otherwise, like it or not, it’s Popcorn Time.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.