If you’re a movie buff, like myself, then you’ve probably heard of a little open-source project called Popcorn Time. Effectively, this app serves as a well crafted interface that allows the user to watch a vast selection of pirated films. Once the film is viewed, it disappears without a trace of it having been on the user’s machine.

Or does it? According to Popcorn Time’s FAQ, the app does in fact seed files for others to download. Therein lies the biggest offense.

I don’t use it. You shouldn’t use it. I don’t advocate piracy in any form. Neither should you.

The app started out with a group of anonymous developers (known only as Four Times) who eventually took the project down for fear of getting sued. Smart move. Popcorn Time was then picked up by another set of developers (at YTS). Shortly after picking up the project, the new developers shelved it. Now, yet another new set of developers are at the helm of Popcorn Time and are promising that the next iteration of the app will soon be upon us. Of course, at the helm of the new Popcorn Time website, it clearly states:

Downloading copyrighted material may be illegal in your country. Use at your own risk.

Believe it or not, there are countries where the downloading of copyrighted movies and music is actually legal (so long as it is done for personal use only). According to Swiss copyright legislation (Article 19), personal use can fall under categories such as:

  • “Any personal use of a work or use within a circle of persons closely connected to each other, such as relatives or friends,” is considered as private use
  • “Any use of a work by a teacher and his class for educational purposes,” and the “copying of a work in enterprises, public administrations, institutions, commissions and similar bodies for internal information or documentation,” are also considered private use

Now, this isn’t a pontification on legalities or the state of law in Switzerland. What I want to address is the tragic flaw in developing such applications within the world of open source. My case is very simple:

Open source has spent the better part of 30 years fighting and clawing its way into relevancy. In fact, it was March 1985 when Richard Stallman penned the GNU Manifesto.

Thirty years.

Both Linux and open source have come a very long way. But all of those strides could so easily be undone by the constant proliferation of tools such as Popcorn Time. And now, even a Linux distribution, ChaletOS has included Popcorn Time by default. The ChaletOS could be one of those Linux distributions anyone and everyone could use and love. After all, it offers an interface that is as close to Windows 7 as any Linux desktop has ever achieved (thanks to Xfce). Average Windows users will be right at home with an arsenal of applications that easily covers their work and personal needs. But then, the developers throw in Popcorn Time. What makes this doubly odd is that ChaletOS is hosted by Google.

Now, while there’s a certain level of gray area here, the one thing that is very clear is that the developers of Popcorn Time encourage users to download pirated films. Popcorn Time avoids punitive action because they aren’t hosting the pirated files themselves. But we all know how this ends up. Even though Popcorn Time isn’t hosting the files, there is a legal liability test, known as the Inducement Rule, which can hold a software developer (or company of developers) liable for distributing unlicensed content. That is exactly what Popcorn Time does.

I know calling upon the name of Richard Stallman (commonly referred to as RMS) is a bit tricky in this arena, as he would cry foul that all information should be free. But the truth of the matter is, we’re talking about intellectual property held by very large production studios that make no bones about coming after anyone and everyone who pirates their products. The last thing the open-source community needs is to be attached to yet another war on pirating movies and music. At a time when open source has made massive headway into the enterprise world and stands to gain a good amount of trickle-down into mid- and small-sized businesses, open source needs to remain viable on all fronts, including a legal front.

Understand this — it’s not a crime to include Popcorn Time in the ChaletOS distribution. However, any user that installs this flavor does risk action from their service provider if they use the Popcorn Time software. And why wouldn’t they? The interface alone (Figure A) is incredibly simple to use, with an almost Netflix-like quality.

Figure A

The Popcorn Time interface.

Any average user would fire up the application and assume they had a bevy of free movies to watch — at no cost and without ramification. And why wouldn’t they? They are running a free operating system loaded with free software, including the one that offers them free movies.

I installed Popcorn Time on an alpha release of Fedora 22 just to see what warnings I would receive. As you can see (Figure B), the warnings aren’t all that clear.

Figure B

The EULA for Popcorn Time.

Here’s the thing — most users don’t bother to read EULAs. They scroll through the “noise” so they can hit Accept, leaving themselves completely in the dark. However, this is a warning they should read carefully. But even upon reading, the user could wind up a bit confused. What this warning should say is “Most likely, you will be breaking the law if you use this application.” Let’s be honest, that’s the case for the majority of users that will run Popcorn Time.

If we’re being realistic, we know stopping piracy on software and multimedia isn’t going to happen. That doesn’t mean software like Popcorn Time has to be allowed to besmirch the name of open source with a litany of legal actions. I would hope that developers creating new distributions as ChaletOS would not include Popcorn Time in their software list, especially since the distribution is targeting average users (who won’t know what they’re getting into until it’s too late).

The creation of a free platform should not include software that would make the end user liable for legal action. That does nothing but place a stigma on the reputation of open-source software.

What do you think? Should Linux distributions, such as ChaletOS, drop the inclusion of Popcorn Time — or is it on the shoulders of the end user to use their software responsibly? Let us know your thoughts in the discussion thread below.