For Hollywood and the film industry, the moment of truth has arrived, and they may have missed it.
About a week ago, the now-infamous Popcorn Time app became public knowledge. Built and released under the (false) guise of free speech, Popcorn Time allowed the everyday cyberspace surfer to watch just about any movie they wanted on their personal computer, as long as there was a digital copy in the hands of an individual with loose intellectual property ethics and a penchant for sharing.
This was a bit of news that didn’t quite go mainstream, because I think we’re all aware that pirated content is out there for all media in all formats. A lot of people know what a torrent is now, and since Popcorn Time was based on torrents, a technology that’s been around for ages, any geek with cred quietly scoffed at the newsworthiness of such an app.
But there was one key differentiating factor with Popcorn Time. It turned the digital video pirating experience into click a link + download an app = select a movie to watch now.
It’s that easy. I know. I clicked the link and downloaded the app. It took seconds. I opened it to an interface that looked a little like Netflix for movies that aren’t yet available on DVD. For the record, I didn’t select a movie, but only because I just don’t have the time.
OK, plus I’ve got some ethics.
This is Napster. This is iTunes. This is Kindle. This should be a wake-up call.
As you might expect, Hollywood flexed their muscles and coerced the original Popcorn Time developers to shut it down, much like the initial shot in the long war between the RIAA and Napster back in the 2000s.
That war was bloody for everyone involved, resulting in lawsuits against Napster, lawsuits against Napster clones, lawsuits against downloaders, and lawsuits against mothers of downloaders that resulted in ridiculous sums of money being awarded.
However, that was then, and technology has since evolved. Immediately after Popcorn Time went down, it got forked. Within hours, the source code was available on GitHub and is now being maintained by anonymous developers, the kind of hackers that are going to be difficult, if not impossible, to find and get all litigious with.
So we arrive at the moment where another aging dinosaur must finally come to terms with technology and disruption. How the film industry handles this Popcorn Time remnant will have a huge impact on what the industry looks like just a few short years from now.
I’m not advocating piracy. As a former musician who made money both from live performance and publishing, I’m of the mind that art is not free because good, true art costs time and money to produce. But I’m convinced that the music industry died not because of piracy, but because of the industry’s late, greedy, and misguided response to the technology that spawned piracy.
Pre-Napster, there were countless ways to pirate music, going back to the analog tape deck. The technology that brought about Napster made said piracy quick, easy, and free. The music industry would not let go of the existing structure — the bloated, overpriced CDs, the relationships with record stores and radio stations, the king-making power that went all the way back to the Beatles.
They fought tooth and nail to make sure that the format you bought music on was the 12-song, $20 CD, of which they received the vast majority of the revenue — not the artist.
The difference between Napster and Popcorn Time is that Napster tried to build a business around piracy. The fact that this spin-off of Popcorn Time is open source – no revenue, no ads — actually works against the film industry. There’s no one to point fingers at, no one to sue, and no way to stop it.
After years of lawsuits, the music industry wound up in the hands of Apple, Amazon, American Idol, and Pandora. Everyone else lost — the record companies, the record stores, and especially the artists. Now, I’m just guessing here but I feel like Jeff Bezos would really like for Amazon to do for video what iTunes did for audio. And if he doesn’t, someone else will.
The times have changed and Hollywood needs to change with it. The in-theater experience is expensive and slow to innovate. Netflix has strangled the margins on home video. Personally, I’ve resorted to borrowing DVDs six-months post release from the public library, mostly because I can’t remember a movie in the last five years that I would either see on opening night in the theater or purchase on DVD — even for the extras that are now relegated to said purchased version of the DVD.
Which seems to be the only innovation the film industry has come up with over those same five years.
Oh, there was 3D.
What’s even more disturbing for the industry is that this time, there may not be an Apple or Amazon willing to sink that much risk and money into a one-stop-shop for the medium. The margins aren’t there, there is already too much competition, and there is zero innovation on the distribution side of the medium.
The pirates are always one step ahead. And considering how many stories have popped up about Popcorn Time since its demise just a few days ago, it might already be too late.