Posted by Neil Bennett 20 June 2014
Why Popcorn Time is the Netflix of illegal downloading
What we watch and how we watch it is based on quality, satisfaction and convenience – which is why a new 'Napster' is the next big thing for watching films and TV shows.
A few weeks ago, a friend and I were discussing why we’re still watching Lost Girl, despite the Canadian Buffy-with-lots-of-sex TV show featuring a cast (above) including a few actors who couldn’t act their way out of a local amateur dramatics production, plotlines simpler that an average episode of Rastamouse and an on/off relationship with things like plot cohesion and character development. In short, it’s dumb as a sack as hammers.
My friend pointed out that for her one of its key strengths is the normalised way it presents sex and sexuality, including LGBT and poly lifestyles and relationships. The show’s fae society is a post-homophobic fantasy world where difference is both accepted and celebrated – and that’s worth putting up with the main male actor’s wince-inducing attempts at conveying emotion, which usually end up him looking off-screen as if expecting to be told ‘well done’ by the director and given a dog biscuit.
Most of the time, we’re happy to tolerate imperfect things if we can’t find better ones that give us something we’re specifically looking for. Brilliant TV shows with great acting, directing and art direction that tie in with particular genres or beliefs are rare – look at many people's obsession with Game of Thrones, arguably the first brilliant TV show in a genre where people used to watch Xena: Warrior Princess because that was the only fantasy worlds represented on TV.
So what has this got to with Popcorn Time and Netflix and people downloading shows illegally? Well, a lot. The amount of illegal downloading that goes on in the world is affected by two factors: how easy it is to get hold of what we want legitimately, and how easy it is to steal it. If we can get what we want easily (and relatively cheaply) from legal services, and it’s harder and less satisfying to steal, we’ll stick with the legit. It’s not just about individual shows, it’s about how we spend our time. If there was a Game of Thrones-quality show that was like Lost Girl but I’d have to wait hours to download it, then plug my laptop into the TV, I’m almost certainly gonna use the Netflix app on my phone to stick Lost Girl on my TV through my Chromecast. It’s because for a long time, legit has been much easier than the dodgy world of torrents – but Popcorn Time changes that back again.
When Napster became ‘a big thing’ in 1999, it wasn’t because Shaun Fanning had invented file sharing, it was because it made downloading music easy for the non-tech-savvy. Even your mum could download and install the software, type Boyzone into the search box and start downloading tons of terrible tunes.
Since Napster got stomped on by US record companies, systems like Bittorrent have normalised file sharing for some – and made it more about films and TV shows – but it’s kinda disappeared underground. Finding and downloading torrents can be fiddly – at least for your average person – and time consuming.
Conversely, legal services have got much easier and more satisfying to use. Netflix and BBC iPlayer changed everything, when both made it easy for you to watch shows and films on your laptop, iPad or phone – and cheap/simple devices such as the aforementioned Chromecast or the inclusion of services within TVs, consoles and set-top boxes make it even simpler. Watching torrents onto your TV can be a pain unless you’ve got a laptop plugged into your TV.
Where the legal services fall down is that they don’t have all the shows and films that you might want. You can stream Game of Thrones from Tesco's blinkbox or Amazon's Instant Video services, but it’s not on Netflix. Netflix has Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, Archer and its own shows like House of Cards and Orange is the new Black.
Popcorn Time has everything. Well, everything popular anyway. The interface of the Windows and Mac apps (above) are as easy to use as Netflix – even easier perhaps as you don’t waste time looking through its library once you’ve exhausted the big shows. With most torrent apps, you have to wait until a whole torrent is downloaded before watching. With Popcorn Time, it starts at the beginning, so you can watch a show or film as if it was being streamed. It’s also relatively easy to push the content to your TV if you’ve got a Chromecast.
I can easily see Popcorn Time becoming a ‘big thing’ and that makes it a big target for content creators who naturally would rather you pay for their shows and movies than steal them off the Internet. Popcorn Time’s creators say that taking it down as the US-based RIAA did with Napster would be impossible as there are many different versions of the open source application – and if courts take one off the Internet then another can be created in minutes.