I am not a lawyer. This is not legal advice.
Popcorn Time-style video streaming apps seem to be vulnerable to legal action by rightsholders.
For example, the popcorntime.sh domain was recently suspended, and the operator of a site which merely provided information about how to obtain and use Popcorn Time was sentenced to prison.
Although given that Popcorn Time's servers do not themselves host infringing content this may seem a bit unfair, it is simply the reality of the world we live in.
It is interesting to note, however, that although web browsers can be used in exactly the same way as Popcorn Time, namely searching for and viewing copyrighted movies, the developers of web browsers have thus far not faced successful legal challenges.
I believe that there are two major factors that differentiate Popcorn Time from web browsers, and contribute to Popcorn Time's legal vulnerability:
Upon opening a web browser, the user must supply the URL of the site they wish to visit. Compare this to Popcorn Time, where upon opening the application for the first time, the user is immediately presented with a selection of unlicensed Hollywood movies to download.
This difference greatly weakens Popcorn Time's claims against contributory copyright infringement. The developers of Popcorn Time cannot credibly claim to be ignorant to the types of movies that their users are downloading, whereas a web browser developer can credibly claim that the choice of website to visit is always left to the end user.
Web browsers have substantial non-infringing uses. "Substantial non-infringing use" is jargon for a legal test used in the United States which protects the creator or purveyor of a piece of technology from liability for its use in infringement by users if that technology has "substantial non-infringing uses". For the canonical example, see Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc..
Whereas a web browser provider can rightly claim that there are many websites, and it's possible an infringing one might slip in, there would be no way of knowing, the popcorn time developers cannot claim the same. There is a single, fixed Popcorn Time backend, run by the Popcorn Time team, serving the same search results to every user.
Fortunately, even given the above, I believe that Popcorn Time could implement a small number of strategic changes that would allow it to withstand future legal aggression:
- Add a URL bar, like a web browser's, to the top of the current GUI.
- Make the URL bar empty when opening the app for the first time, and display no default search results to the user.
- When the user enters a URL, use the existing Popcorn Time API protocol to contact the backend at that URL, and begin displaying search results from that backend to the user.
- If the app is closed and re-opened, keep the URL bar and the search results populated from the last run of the app.
These changes would be simple, have a minimal impact on the current (quite excellent!) user experience, and leverage interaction flows, i.e. a URL bar, that users already understand.
Additionally, the Popcorn Time team should create an official default search backend which focuses exclusively on free, non-infringing, user-created content.
These steps would, I believe, nicely protect the developers and distributors of Popcorn Time from further legal challenges:
Popcorn Time, when first opened, would display no search results by default, and would require the user to direct the app with the URL of a site that they would like to visit. This would avoid the current situation where a litigator sitting in front of a judge can open the Popcorn Time application, and it will by immediately display a choice selection of infringing content, which makes for a terrible first impression.
Users of the Popcorn Time application could use it to access both infringing and non-infringing content, providing a nice argument that the application does in fact have substantial non-infringing uses.
Infringement via the application would be entirely at the direction of the end-user, and not directly assisted by the default search results provided by the developers.
Developers wouldn't be running a search back end with infringing content, which is the only component of the current Popcorn Time system that stores problematic metadata about infringing content.
I suspect that the official free-content focused search backend would be successful and useful in its own right.
Since the search backend could now be switched by end users, a very large number of third-party backends would likely appear, serving content that might not be otherwise available from the current Popcorn Time backend.
In short, Popcorn Time should become a browser, and then all those lawyers and their handlers can go pound sand.