Piracy-powered video streaming platform Popcorn Time is a major threat to Netflix

Piracy-powered video streaming platform Popcorn Time is a major threat to Netflix

BARRIE, ONT. — Netflix Inc.’s public enemy no. 1 is a little sleepy.

It’s 10:30 a.m., and normally Popcorn Time programmer Robert English would still be in bed, waking up sometime in the mid-afternoon to work through the night. Instead, he got up at 7:30 a.m. after dozing for an hour-and-a-half, so he could make it to an interview at a café in his hometown of Barrie, Ont.

Mr. English works with a core team of about 20 people, including two other Canadians, on Popcorntime.io, one of the most popular of many versions of Popcorn Time. They’re all based on the same open-source code that brings free, pirated movies and television shows to people around the world.

The team is made up of volunteers, who are free to work whatever hours they want. As the project’s media spokesman, however, Mr. English is willing to adjust his own schedule a little.

“I don’t do a lot. I don’t go out a lot. I have a lot of free time,” he said. “I was just one of the people on the team who’s better at handling press.”

Being head of media relations has become a busier responsibility ever since Netflix singled out Popcorn Time as a threat in a letter to shareholders in late January. Netflix’s executives called Popcorn Time’s “sharp rise” in the Netherlands, relative to Netflix and HBO, “sobering,” and said that “Piracy continues to be one of our biggest competitors.”

Netflix declined a request for comment, but it’s easy to see why the company’s so concerned: For those users who aren’t bothered that the service uses mostly pirated content, Popcorn Time offers the same viewing experience as Netflix, but with a larger selection — and free. A Bloomberg story this year submitted that Popcorn Time “may pose the biggest threat Netflix has faced to its dominance.” Mr. English wasn’t able to say how many users the various versions of the service have worldwide, but Popcorn Time is available on every major operating system, including mobile platforms, and reportedly has over 1 million downloads just in the Netherlands (where it is especially popular) — about 8% of that country’s population.

That this potential giant killer of an app relies on a volunteer like Mr. English to handle its media relations tells you something about the rest of the Popcorn Time team. Appearing in his early 20s, he resembles what you’d expect from a young Internet renegade who devotes most of his time to an experimental pirating project to look — hoodie, jeans, wire-rimmed glasses, a scruffy beard, and a T-shirt with the logo of a video game he once worked on.

He’s prone to terse responses — one he relies on a lot is “there isn’t really much to be said about that.” He reveals little about himself beyond the following: He likes the video game Assassin’s Creed, doesn’t watch television or movies as much as people think, makes a living through freelance programming gigs and helped run his school’s website after teaching himself to code sometime around the sixth or seventh grade.

He vows that Robert English is his real name, but won’t give his age, or discuss where he’s living in Barrie. It’s not that he’s afraid of getting in trouble with the law, he says; he just prefers not revealing certain information because cultivating a little online air of mystery is “just one of my things.”

Mr. English said the rest of the members of the core Popcorn Time team are scattered across the globe and have very different personalities. However, there are few things in common: They’re in their 20s or early 30s, and they’re motivated by the challenge and possibilities of the project, not money. Popcorn Time’s motto is “Made with love by a bunch of geeks from All Around The World.” It doesn’t make any money, he insists. There are no premium subscription fees or advertisements. The only item available for purchase is an identity-masking service, that protects users from being sued by movie studios for violating copyright. That, Mr. English said, is offered by a third party and doesn’t earn Popcorn Time a thing.

And that is where Popcorn Time differs in its business-model, and perhaps its legal risk, from predecessors like MegaUpload, the pirate empire run by flamboyant German-Finnish entrepreneur Kim Dotcom. Before it was shut down in 2012, MegaUpload allegedly made US$175 million in annual revenue off its sharing site for TV, movies and pornography. When he was arrested, Mr. Dotcom had a rented luxury mansion in New Zealand, where police seized works of art, millions in cash and 18 luxury vehicles (their vanity plates read: GOD, STONED, GUILTY and MAFIA).

And that labour-of-love ethos that powers Popcorn Time is at the heart of the problem for services like Netflix, or HBO, or Canadian video-on-demand services like Bell Media’s CraveTV and Shomi, from Shaw and Rogers — in fact, for any broadcaster or movie studio. Fair play is one thing. But how do you compete with a limitless army of utopian computer nerds eager to work as pirates around the clock for free just for the satisfaction of it?

Mr. English has an answer for his legal, profit-driven competitors: Be more like Popcorn Time. Put newly released movies online immediately. Stop agreeing to aggravating rules that make certain shows available in certain countries, but not others. Take full advantage of the possibilities the Internet offers.

“It’s not about it being free. It’s about it being open and available to everyone,” Mr. English said. “Netflix managed to create an entire platform with millions of users for a fee. So obviously people are willing to pay for the content if they can get it in a nice, timely fashion.”

Popcorn Time celebrated its first birthday in late February, but the technology it relies on — BitTorrents, or just “torrents”— has been around for years. But where downloading pirated material using this method was before somewhat involved — searching out torrents on underground websites like The Pirate Bay, plastered as they are with adult content, and then waiting for minutes or even hours while downloading data through a torrenting software program— Popcorn Time does the complicated stuff for you.

Much like Netflix, users who download the software can just flip through poster images and click play on their chosen program immediately. Popcorn Time handles the locating and downloading of torrents in the background, and the files are later erased from the user’s computer. Still, while the user is watching, she’s also “seeding” the torrent to others, which makes every viewer an unwitting distributor of pirated content themselves.

Of course, the television and movie studios are watching — and collecting evidence. Kyle Reed, chief operating officer of Ceg Tek International, a company that movie studios hire to find and stop copyright infringement, said data collected by his firm show Popcorn Time’s popularity in Canada quintupled over a six-month period ending in January 2015, with the service accounting for 5.4% of Canadian BitTorrent use that month. Both Mr. Reed and Barry Logan, managing director of the Canadian anti-piracy firm Canipre, said their copyright-owning clients do not see any difference between using Popcorn Time and any other torrent software to watch pirated content.

“It’s still an infringement,” Mr. Reed said. “And as far as the tracking goes on our end, in terms of being able to see those infringements, there’s no difference to us.”

And the likelihood of Canadians finding a cease-and-desist notice in their mailbox after a Popcorn Time binge increased considerably in January, when the “notice-and-notice” provision of the Copyright Modernization Act came into effect. The new system means Canadian Internet service providers who receive infringement notices from copyright holders must forward those notices to the suspected customer’s address, while retaining information about that customer for six months in case the rightsholder decides to sue.

But David Fewer, director of the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic and an intellectual property and technology lawyer, notes that people aren’t breaking the law just because they use Popcorn Time, BitTorrent, MegaUpload or any other online file-sharing service. At least not as long as they’re not accessing copyrighted material.

He pointed out the technology itself has the potential to be used for legitimate means, such as by helping independent film producers distribute their work to a wide audience. It is much the same point that was used about indie artists, when MP3 downloading still lived in the underworld of Napster and Limewire, and record labels were suing instead of using iTunes.

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“Just like a screwdriver can be used to build a house, it can also be used to break into a house. That doesn’t mean screwdrivers are illegal,” Mr. Fewer said. “Let’s be plain, let’s be clear, this technology is good. It’s the use to which it may be put by some parties that’s problematic.”

And that means that even if he and his colleagues are doing it out of love, by programming for Popcorn Time and acting as its official spokesman, Mr. English could be vulnerable to a charge of facilitating copyright infringement, said Allen Mendelsohn, an Internet lawyer and BitTorrent expert based in Montreal —although he also said he thinks such a charge is unlikely.

“I could see where it’s possible, that certainly some of the elements of Popcorn Time would subject him to both civil and possibly criminal penalties,” Mr. Mendelsohn said. “I think he should be worried.”

Mr. English isn’t. “I just don’t really worry about it,” he said. “I don’t live in the U.S., where it probably would be a bigger issue.”

He’s not sure how long he’ll be putting in full-time hours working on Popcorn Time. He said he plans to do it until the project doesn’t require his services any more. The service will probably keep getting bigger, he said. Until, as is the way of the Internet, it’s replaced by another service — something newer and better.

But trying to shut it down would be very difficult, Mr. English said — the same team could get it back up and running again quickly and easily. That’s certainly been the case for The Pirate Bay, which has managed to keep reopening on different international servers, after having been blocked, cut-off and raided repeatedly over the last decade.

If Netflix and other legal content distributors really want to stop Popcorn Time, they might want to consider a different tactic: Hire the pirates onto their own team. They do seem to know how to please customers. At least non-paying ones.

“If Netflix did happen to offer me a job and it happened to line up with my skills, I would probably give it a good consideration,” Mr. English said. “Maybe even take it. I don’t know.”


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