The Sweet Irony Of Popcorn Time

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So the big fun story of last week was this streaming movie app called Popcorn Time. Essentially, it aggregated torrent links and packaged them with artwork and a nice interface that allows one-click streaming of movies.

Popcorn Time is incredibly illegal almost anywhere, but it’s also almost impossible to stop people from using it without ISP intervention. Even though the original version of the app has been killed off, the project has already been forked and replicated by a new group. Now that the concept is out there I doubt it will ever go away completely — whatever iteration may come.

The absolutely lovely irony here is that Popcorn Time is doing for distribution of pirated movies exactly what the movie industry needs to do for itself.

Torrents are confusing and a mess. My mom could not download a torrent app, find a torrent that was not a virus and download a movie on her own with no help. But she could definitely download Popcorn Time. As fast and available as torrents are, they’re still fragmented, dangerous and complicated. They require a modicum of technical familiarity and engender some risk every time you place your trust in an un-verified link.

Popcorn Time unifies them under one roof — in exactly the agnostic, friendly way that the movie industry in aggregate has been so unable to do for its own products.

In contrast, streaming movies with one click is a much more complicated and tortuous affair. Titles are split across a strata that include a variety of creators, distributors, technologies and pay gateways. There is no such thing as a one-price-plan that offers unfettered access to any movie you want to watch, and even if you want to rent an item you’re going to have to have at least 2-3 accounts on services from Apple, Netflix, Amazon or half a dozen others in order to guarantee the flick you want to see will be available when and if you want to see it.

The torrent landscape — the illegal download market — has its own crumbling architecture of groups and sites risen and fallen. But the pirates are out-innovating the studios — and apps like Popcorn Time prove that the movie industry is not being held back because of technology, it’s the lawyers.

Because the technology exists to make this happen easily. Services like Ultraviolet are proof of that. Many main-stream companies have even turned to torrents for use in delivering updates. If you’ve played World Of Warcraft in the past few years you’ve likely utilized torrents to get updates, whether you realize it or not.

The other major media business — music — was struck by a very similar bombshell with Napster. Never before had the main stream been able to one-click download a song or album as easily — even if they wanted to pay.

The point isn’t that Popcorn Time marks the first time that you can download movies illegally — but it is drop-dead simple. It democratizes movie piracy in the same way Napster did for music.

Also, as my colleague Ryan Lawler pointed out to me when we were chatting about this, broadband connections have gotten a lot faster since Napster made its debut. Downloading a movie can take as little as 15 minutes, about the time it took to download an album back then.

The music industry underwent a series of changes as a result of Napster. Albums broke into singles, digital surpassed disc and that has all culminated in the rise of the subscription over the pay-per-play model.

Then Apple came along and essentially formalized the Napster model — throwing the labels a lifeline in their distressed and desperate hour.

Content deals in the media business are made on 5-10-year cycles, and always have been. These included fractured elements like video on demand windows, theatrical release, streaming rights and broadcast rights — all of which are promised to separate entities with their own ‘middle man’ businesses. And each of those businesses have lawyers whose job it is to negotiate those deals in the most binding, most profitable way.

Look at how technology has changed life in the last 10 years. Thanks to smartphones and easily available high-speed wireless internet, it’s unrecognizable. So we’re still beholden to content deals made for — quite literally — a different culture.

I don’t even have anything with a disc drive in it besides game consoles — and I only buy discs when I know I might play them once or twice through and then sell them.

Last night I was watching Shark Tank — and two young co-founders presented them with a business that rented e-textbooks, called Packback Books. College students are able to rent textbooks by the day when they need to reference them, adding up to a couple hundred dollars in savings per semester. These guys had exactly the kind of product we talk about every day on TechCrunch. 4/5 of the sharks 100% did not get it, at all. Kevin O’Leary especially was insistent in talking about why the powerful incumbent textbook publishers would never let this happen — largely informed by his years of negotiation and frustration with those publishers.

Which only served to make it that much more evident that those same publishers are ripe for someone to undermine their way of doing business, in a way that could change the industry.

I haven’t done any due diligence on Packback and or Popcorn Time, and this is not an endorsement.

But it strikes me that this is exactly the kind of thing that will need to happen for the movie industry to come to its senses. There will be no major shakeup of the back-room deals (though powerful people like Apple’s Eddy Cue have been at it for years). Instead, someone will find a way to make those deals obsolete entirely.

I’m not a piracy advocate, and never will be. I have friends in the movie and media business who are technicians, craftsmen — not high rollers. Their salary, like it or not, is directly related to you paying for a movie. It’s not the paying — it’s the way you pay. It’s not the renting — it’s the way you rent. It’s not the profits — it’s the greed. Something has to give.

It may start somewhat innocuously, with a revenue share rental model — or perhaps Netflix’s backdoor content creator strategy will tip the scales.

Or maybe an app will make it so easy to pirate films that  the aging carapace of a hundred years of the movie business will slough away for a new model.

But, sooner or later, it will happen.