How video piracy is killing the Hollywood star

Popcorn Time has a small user base, but its elegant design, accessibility and range of content prove a real threat to archaic models of video production and distribution.

Video piracy has long been a threat to Hollywood, but there's more pain to come.

A new software program, Popcorn Time, has been the centre of media attention this week, primarily because it’s a perfect example of just how agile video piracy has become. Reportedly developed in the space of a few weeks,Popcorn Time is basically an open source media player like Netflix, but free. The real appeal for users though, is its ease of use. Taking the difficulty out of accessing pirated content, Popcorn Time's elegant design has already seen it amass a dedicated following.

Despite being in operation for only a short time, Popcorn Time’s Buenos Aires-based creators shut the service down late last week, saying: “our experiment has put us at the doors of endless debates about piracy and copyright, legal threats and the shady machinery that makes us feel in danger for doing what we love. And that’s not a battle we want a place in”. They added that “tons of people agreed in unison that the movie industry has way too many ridiculous restrictions on way too many markets”. Furthermore, they added: “piracy is not a people problem. It’s a service problem. A problem created by an industry that portrays innovation as a threat to their antique recipe to collect value.”

But that’s just the beginning of the saga. Within a few days, a new collective of programmers took over the open source project, and made it available to users once again. Without doubt, Popcorn Time is an innovative piece of software, arguably more intuitive and functional than most of the legal options consumers have access to.

What’s more, there’s a greater range of material available on torrent than there is on any legal service, which makes Popcorn Time an important development, similar to the emergence of Napster at the beginning of the millennium.

When Napster emerged, it was near impossible to get the music you wanted legally in a digital format. The dominance of physical formats meant it was also difficult for many to obtain music they were interested in via record stores or music retailers.

Almost instantly, Napster easily opened up a world of music choice and in doing so created immediate change to the recorded music industry -- an industry that was still operating on decades-old principles.

Popcorn Time has done something similar. It has created something so easy and so elegant, that for many users it masks over the fact that what they are doing is still illegal. And while Popcorn Time claims it’s technically not doing anything illegal -- the content is not housed on Popcorn Time servers nor the users’ local drives -- users are still accessing content they haven’t paid for.

So you have the two main things users are after covered: function and range. Aside from Netflix, most of the legal options available to users fail on at least one of these, or both. This is why Popcorn Time has Hollywood rattled. Techcrunch went as far to say that Popcorn Time is “Hollywood’s worst nightmare, and it can’t be stopped”.

In discussing the legal evasiveness of the software, there are many salient points: How can the content industry compete against tools like this if the people who create them don’t want to work for the content industry? How can Hollywood compete against a wide group of technically proficient people innovating infinitely faster than those working for the content companies?

It’s a fascinating battle to watch, and Hollywood has a lot to lose. The entertainment business is a big one that employs millions and is the backbone of a large volume of high-value companies. In stark contrast, upstart, hacker-driven projects like Popcorn Time have nothing to lose, and in many ways, nothing to gain either. For them, the appeal is in the challenge of creating something new; in many ways they view the law as an annoyance that gets in the way.

One way Hollywood can compete is to attempt to innovate at the same speed. However, that requires access to the best minds -- and the best minds don’t appear to want to work in most content companies in their current state.

In its current form, Popcorn Time poses little immediate threat to the content business; its user numbers are too low. But it does mark the beginning of a new phenomenon for video piracy -- an experience that visually is not only more comprehensive, but more elegant and technically sophisticated than the legal options.

Some leading torrent sites have more than 1 million Australian users each month. How many new people will turn to torrents if the experience becomes less shadowy and ugly, and more aesthetically in line with their legal staples like iOS, Facebook and Android?

That is unclear, but what is certain is that the torrent sites have shifted some of their focus from purely evading the law to developing tools that are not only functional to a predominantly young male audience, but elegantly designed and focused on the mainstream.

Ben Shepherd is a media and technology consultant. He can be found on LinkedIn and on Twitter.

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