Popcorn Time lets users search and stream a vast selection of pirated films right in the program. The free, open-source media player is a hybrid between a bittorrent client and typical streaming technology. Unlike traditional torrenting, however, the downloaded media files disappear from users' computers when they exit the program. And unlike many streaming sites, Popcorn Time provides an easy-to-use and non-spammy viewing process.
The app was up-and-running in late March. "Popcorn Time as a project is legal. We checked. Four Times," its anonymous developers declared. Later that month, however, they shut it down, saying they feared "legal threats" that made them "feel in danger for doing what we love."
A few weeks later, Popcorn Time was back up again, run by different anonymous developers at YTS. In an email exchange with Business Insider, the new crew said they "don't see a reason to contact a lawyer." The current website also states it "will never be taken down" in a bold banner.
But the team "probably should contact a lawyer," according to professor Jim Gibson, director of the Intellectual Property Institute at the University of Richmond law school.
"Their biggest legal problem is that they appear to be encouraging users to stream movies illegally," Gibson told Business Insider.
Uploading or posting unlicensed content online is illegal — even if it's free, according to Gibson. "That's the most basic part of copyright — protection of your work. When someone uploads a video online, they're literally making a copy," he said.
Online streaming sites and apps like Popcorn Time try to avoid copyright infringement by not hosting their own content. Instead, these sites act as search engines for links to streamed content.
"Popcorn Time is not hosting anything. Popcorn Time serves only information. And it's not forbidden to collect and serve public, open-for-all, information. You can look for the same information on Google," the site's team told BI via email.
In technological copyright cases, however, legal liability can be determined using a test known as the "inducement rule," which holds companies or websites accountable for distributing unlicensed content if they clearly encourage users to infringe copyright. The company would also be considered illegal if it provides access only to infringing content and no other legal content.
"I think there’s a case to be made that by the way Popcorn Time is set up, it might run afoul of one of those two liabilities," Gibson said.
For the site to encourage copyright infringement, it might have a most popular list, for example, Gibson explained. Well, Popcorn Time does — as shown in the above image. And most, if not all, of the featured films are copyrighted. Since Popcorn Time clearly highlights its access to these licensed films, it likely violates the first part of the inducement rule.
On the other hand, YouTube is a completely legal site. While users are free to upload copyrighted content, the site receives hundreds of take-down orders from big media companies daily, according to Gibson. And it usually complies.
"It does very much depend on the marketing and the uses [these sites] are encouraging .... With Popcorn Time, the devil is in the details," Gibson said.
The legal issues, however, may take a backseat to practicality. As previously mentioned, Popcorn Time uses open-source software — if one site offering the download shut down, another could pop up just as quickly. While copyright-holders or law enforcement probably could stop the software if they dedicated enough resources, they'd have a hard time locating those responsible.
And while we don't encourage downloading Popcorn Time, users shouldn't worry. The app does download media files to your computer — but only temporarily. Copyright-holders and law enforcement probably wouldn't waste time and effort going after minor private users anyway, Gibson explained.