Popcorn Time makes watching torrents as easy as watching Netflix. The only problem? Using the program, just like using torrents, is totally illegal.
That little detail, believe it or not, isn’t perfectly apparent from using the program. Its site is slick: professional slick. Legitimate slick. And its anonymous creators (“a bunch of geeks from Buenos Aires”) carefully hedge on the issue of legality in a vague FAQ: “you’d better google” torrents and understand what you’re getting into, is basically the wind-up.
Here’s how Popcorn Time actually works: The program, currently available for Mac, Windows and Linux, basically pulls together APIs — the things that let programs talk to each other — to short-circuit the long, ugly and often painful process of downloading a torrent. While you watch the movie, your computer will still upload bits of data to others, a process called seeding. And when you finish a movie, it will still be stored on your hard drive until you restart.
TL;DR: Popcorn Time is torrenting — just with the comforting streaming facade.
If you only clicked into this post to learn how to watch free movies, you can basically stop reading right here; provided you don’t mind that whole piracy issue, you’ll find Popcorn Time offers a pretty extraordinary collection of movies — including brand-new releases (!) — with a user interface even nicer than Netflix’s.
But let’s parse the Popcorn Time phenomenon a bit further, shall we? First, there’s this fascinating hedging around the legal issue: torrenting may be illegal, depending “where you live,” the site says. It would be far more accurate to say torrenting is almost definitely illegal where you live, with the occasional exception, since most countries have signed either international conventions or bilateral agreements that extend the protection of U.S. copyright abroad. (That doesn’t mean everyone enforces these laws, but still — they’re on the books. And in either case, Popcorn Time itself can’t be liable — it never stores the pirated films on its servers, as the program makes very clear in its small print.)
Presumably most people who use torrents presently are aware that what they’re doing isn’t entirely on the up-and-up. Just look at a site like Torrentz. Its very use of the letter “z” oozes sketch.
And that’s the other really fascinating wrinkle in Popcorn Time — the degree to which it attempts to not only legitimize piracy, but normalize it. There’s a tangible sense, in the clean, responsive design and the hip sans-serif fonts, that wherever the movie’s coming from must be with-it — and thus, reputable. It’s an unusual view into exactly how much design and interface influence our psychology. It’s also kind of tricky — I could see someone like my mother, who loves movies but would describe “torrent” as a synonym for “flood,” using the site without realizing what it was.
And that’s kind of odd, right? That lack of transparency is so terribly characteristic of closed-source software — of the old system, the establishment, the very broad, theoretical concepts both pirating and open-source on some level stand against.
In either case, you can still use Popcorn Time to watch movies. (Free movies! New movies!) But don’t lose track of where those movies came from — a torrent is a torrent, no matter how you dress it up.