Streaming free movies online with Popcorn Time - founder Federico Abad tells the inside story
Inside Popcorn Time – the world's fastest growing piracy site
Popcorn Time, the piracy service that has put Hollywood in emergency mode, started in Buenos Aires, in Federico Abad's (29) bedroom.
Text: Osman Kibar
January 2014. It was two o'clock in the morning. Federico Abad was sitting in his bed and chatting with a friend when the idea hit him.
– I wanted to see a movie, but couldn't. What could I do? I just wanted to solve a problem, he says.
The 29-year old designer wears a Disney t-shirt and has the digits of the irrational number Pi tattooed on his forearm stretches his legs out in a dilapidated, black-painted bedroom in Buenos Aires' San Cristobal district. The city's world famous tango culture sprung from this area. In all discretions, this sleepy barrio has again gained global relevance as the birthplace of Popcorn Time- the world's fastest growing piracy site.
– Here in Argentina the internet is very slow. And movies are coming too late to the cinemas, up to half a year after the US premiere. If you hang out with a girl you can’t say "hey let's see a movie". You have to talk the day before, agree on which movie you should watch and start downloading it a day in advance. I thought there had to be a better solution, he says.
– I said we need a Netflix kind of thing.
A few weeks later, Popcorn Hour was downloadable from anywhere in the world. The streaming service has been referred to as "Netflix for pirates" and makes it possible to watch both new films and old classics for free, even if they are not available through pay services.
Its simple design makes downloading pirated content easier than ever – even for total newbies.
Ordered to block Popcorn Time
"The movie business’ worst nightmare just happened. (…) There was a hole and somebody filled it" wrote Hollywood's trade bible Variety. Torrent Freak, the file-sharing news site, wrote that Popcorn Time’s software “had broken new ground with its beauty and simplicity”. The global film industry is in panic mode about the site. A British High court recently ordered the country's largest ISPs to block Popcorn Time. Just two weeks ago, Danish police raided the homes of two youngsters who had posted information online about how easy it is to use Popcorn Time. Norway's Rights Alliance just announced that it has started monitoring the ip addresses of the Norwegian users of Popcorn Time and is considering going to court to have it blocked. A court in Israel recently concluded that blocking would be futile, because there are simply no effective ways to defeat the service.
Recent statistics DN has obtained from Popcorn Time indicate that about one in ten Norwegians are Popcorn Time users. The small application that provides access to all the pirated content available through the site has been downloaded 452,000 times in eighteen months in Norway. These users will be able to continue to watch films through Popcorn Time even if the site is blocked in Norway, as the Oslo District Court instructed Norwegian ISPs to do with a number pirate sites in a ruling earlier this week.
Pay for Netflix
Federico Abad opens his MacBook, clicks on a little smiling popcorn logo and fires up the projector hanging over his bed. A canvas on the opposite side of the room is covered completely by the pirate site's opening page. Under the motto "We are unstoppable. Download and enjoy it" a small legion of anonymous programmers has run the site since it originated here in Buenos Aires one and a half years ago. The man behind Popcorn Time has kept a low profile until now and hidden his identity behind pseudonyms such as "Sebastian" and "Pochoclín" when he has spoken publicly about the service. In his first open international interview, he takes us behind-the-scenes.
– I love Netflix. I pay for it too. But its catalogue in Argentina is absolutely horrible. Even the latest additions they put out are several years old, Abad says.
He currently follows "Mr. Robot" about a misfit hacker who works with the security of large companies he strongly dislikes – USA Network's new series that has gained a certain cult status since its recent release- “Mr. Robot” is not available elsewhere, apart from on Popcorn Time.
The hyperactive black cat Login follows Abad’s movements closely, while the slightly more antisocial Logout is hiding in the apartment where all blinds are pulled down. Lana del Rey, Ane Brun and Aphex Twin songs are streaming out of the flat screen's loudspeakers. The living room consists of a black leather sofa, an iMac, a bar trolley and an arcade game from the eighties pimped up with one terabyte of nostalgic video games.
– Almost all games from that era are there, says Abad. It includes all existing versions of "Tetris" which he plays every day. Pixel Art puzzles hang from the walls. Special editions of Rubik's cubes are on display beside a large flat screen. He has collected them since he competed as speedcuber with a record of 35 seconds.
Soon he will go to his day job, in a bitcoin security vault.
The Argentinian designer and programmer says he wanted to work with computers since he was ten. He cannot remember how early he got his first computer, a Commodore 64, about the time the production of the legendary machine stopped. After one of his teachers said there was no point in learning programming languages because there were so many, he dropped out of high school and started working for an American porn site. Since he lacked formal qualifications, he had to work harder than everyone else to be relevant in the rapidly growing IT environment in Argentina. The strategy succeeded: He got a job in mercadolibre.com, Latin America's largest marketplace, partly owned by Ebay. Then he became one of the first employees of the net phenomenon Taringa!, Latin America's largest social network.
The Creator of Popcorn Time meets us in an unnamed burger restaurant covered with graffiti in Buenos Aires' formerly dilapidated hipster area Palermo Soho. Burger Joint is the place where the core programmers behind Popcorn Time have hung out in their spare time between alternative designer shops, popular steak restaurants and bohemian lofts. Tagged posters of "Star Wars," "Pulp Fiction" and "Birdman" drape the walls.
– Here we have sat many hours and pitched ideas, Abad says. Many of his programmer friends regarded it as totally meaningless to "work to enrich the boss," but nevertheless held out in their respective startups and multinational companies. On the evenings and in the weekends they met here to talk about their dream projects. Downloading movies and music has been a natural part of their lives since services like Napster, Kazaa and Morpheus made file sharing a new global cultural practice at the beginning of the new millennium.
Two clicks away
Until Popcorn Time appeared, watching pirated versions of movies and series required a minimum of technical knowledge. Aggressive advertising banners, websites popping up unexpectedly and strange porn ads were part of the experience– almost underlining the fact that one moved into the internet's greyer areas. As designers and programmers in any other field, Abad and his comrades were convinced that the time had come for an upgrade. They wanted to give piracy a better and less complicated user experience.
– It was all too geeky. My mom couldn't use it. She couldn't just click and watch the movie she wanted. When I design something, she's my case study. If she can't use it, no one can use it, says Abad.
– The whole idea was that you should be able to watch a movie by just clicking twice.
It offered a number of technical challenges. When they found the technical solution, they could begin to realize their dream of a pirate site unlike any other.
The revolutionary aspect was the user experience and its slick design. One only needed to click on the poster to start watching the selected movie. The user experience was as good as in legal services, but the selection of movies and series was much better. It didn't cost anything. And there were no annoying banner ads or commercials either.
– All the elements we used already existed and had done so for a long time. But nobody had put them together in an interface that talked to the user in a nice way, said Abad.
– I explained to my mom that it was like making a salad. You have all the ingredients. You combine them and you get something completely new.
– After a few hours we had the first prototype ready, says Abad.
But suddenly he was alone.
His friend told him he could no longer participate. The solution was to publish the actual prototype on Twitter and Instagram and ask for help.
I wrote: "I have a nice interface and a prototype. Can anybody help me?".
Talk of the town
Soon the project become one of the top stories on Hacker News – the news website of Y Combinator, a famous investment company in Silicon Valley that provides seed money for startups - and is read by many programmers. Popcorn Time was suddenly the talk of the town.
– The project gathered so insanely much attention that developers totally freaked out. They said "this is too big for us." The entire core team dropped out and I was left alone, Abad says.
It was the beginning of a very special joint effort at a speed the internet had barely seen before.
-What was a problem in our city and in our country, turned out to be a global thing. We had not expected that the United States and countries with much greater internet speed also struggled with this. They said "we had the same problem, you have solved it and we are happy to help."
Popcorn Time trending
Abad had scraped together a handful of developers in his hometown Buenos Aires. He borrowed an apartment on the first floor of an old building in Palermo. It became a free zone for creativity and cooperation.
– Everybody sat up all night coding. Their bosses were mad at me, claiming that I stole their employees, who had concentration problems at work because of the project.
An increasing number of developers enrolled online. New contributions and input popped up from various corners of the world. Code contributions, translations, design improvements and new functionalities ticked in from different areas of the globe.
Soon more than a hundred contributors from all around the world were working around the clock with the project.
– We had so many contributions that the programmers in the team could not do any more actual programming, just evaluate others' efforts, says Abad. Two people had to work full time to examine and approve the contributions on Github, an online collaboration tool for code sharing and version control that has more than ten million users. There, Popcorn Hour became the "trending repository" of the week.
– When we made something new in Spanish and English, it could be available in 24 languages within an hour, Abad says.
His girlfriend left him because she claimed Abad believed he devoted more attention to Popcorn Time than to her.
– I said sorry, but this is what I love.
Who owns Popcorn Time?
The community of volunteers is the core of the particular form of organization that has made Popcorn Time possible: Nobody owns the project. And everyone can contribute. The social component is more important than the pursuit of profit in this new, decentralized and networked information economy that also gave birth to Wikipedia.
And everything, including source code, is "open source". Available to all.
– In a regular job there is always someone who tells you what to do. This is more like a round table where everybody’s voice and power is equal. We shared everything and discussed everything. If a proposal was good, we took it.
He adds that the team still had to work in a structured way and have a clear timetable.
– Without a vision, all the helping hands in an open source project can be harmful. So we created a horizon. Any ideas people came up with, we placed them there.
–What was the horizon?
– Do not talk to users in a hard way, always have a soft tone. You had to be able to see a movie with two only clicks and be as clean, fast and user-friendly as possible, says Abad.
Now only a nice logo was missing.
– I wanted a happy popcorn that gave associations to film and television. Originally I called it Popcorn Hour. But when someone on Instagram asked if not Popcorn Time was a better name, we took it, said Abad. The mascot was named "Pochoclín", a diminutive of the Argentine term for popcorn.
Netflix for pirates
It was important to all the developers that no one should make money on the project.
– I would not make money on someone else's efforts. All films have large budgets and many people who work with them. They are not mine. I didn't want to have a bad feeling about it.
– It was "just for the lulz", Abad says. Nothing else than just for fun, often a central motive in the internet's many uncontrollable corners, whether it is used for carefully coordinated hacker attacks or just informal, spontaneous pranks. Obvious to the initiated and often totally incomprehensible to outsiders.
– Using it costs nothing. And we didn't pay anything for the job.
But where does the raw material come from? Who provides the movies? Federico Abad has no clue about the origin of the films that can be viewed through Popcorn Time, beyond the fact that they come from Yify - an anonymous network that releases new movies online with the goal of having the widest possible selection of films reaching as many viewers as possible. Unlike other file-sharers in the elite division of movie piracy, they are not competing to be the first with the latest films and technical quality is an important priority.
Yify recently changed its name to Yts.
Abad only relates to the fact that films are there on the web, as freely available as magazines in a dentist's waiting room. His design has probably played an important role in making them accessible.
– Many thought it was legal because the page looks so professional. It doesn’t make you think of spyware and other illegal things.
– Then someone described us as 'pirates' Netflix "I thought 'wow, that's true." We made piracy user-friendly.
But soon one of Argentina's most famous directors, the Academy Award-winner Juan José Campanella started attacking Popcorn Hour.
"Congratulations" Sebastian", creator of Popcorn Time. You are just another Argentine thief on our already long list” the famous director of "The Secret in Their Eyes " wrote on Twitter.
"Sebastian" was the pseudonym Abad used in his entirely anonymous interviews with the media. Abad has a different view on piracy. It is not about theft of copyrighted material, in his opinion.
– I answered him anonymously that we do not harm culture, but that we on the contrary open it up and make it available. Going to the movies is very expensive in Argentina. Only a small circle has traditionally had access. We open up the culture so that not only a small group of moviegoers can participate.
– It must be more important for directors that many get see their movies, than earning money on them. Even if it is important to make money too, says Abad.
He adds that the team has worked with had several ideas meant to bring filmmakers revenue through Popcorn Time, which have not yet been realized.
– For example, opportunities to donate money to the director after watching the movie, or the ability to spread the films that do not get screened in a movie theater much broader release. And collaborations with filmmakers so they can get an audience through Popcorn Time.
– I am convinced that the Popcorn Time-killer is going to be a Netflix without borders. They should remove national restrictions for films, making them available in cinemas and in streaming services simultaneously everywhere, regardless of platform for phone, tablet and TV, wherever you want, with subtitles. Had they done so, it would kill Popcorn Time once and for all, Abad says.
The media coverage of Popcorn Time quickly spread from specialized techno blogs national newspapers and to the international media. In a few weeks in March last year Popcorn Time had been featured in almost all media the pirates from Buenos Aires admired - from the filesharing news site TorrentFreak to the trendy The Verge via Washington Post.
"Popcorn Time is so good at movie piracy, it's scary" Time Magazine wrote, the news magazine Federico Abad's father had read when he grew up.
I said "Dad, look, we are featured in the magazine you always read. They write about me." It had always been very difficult for me to talk to my dad about what I worked with, because he didn’t understand it. He just said that I worked with computers. Now I could say "this is what I'm doing" and our relationship improved.
Time Magazine's commentator concluded its praise of the piracy service with the following sentence: "I have a feeling that Hollywood will do their utmost to attack Popcorn Time". He was not mistaken.
One afternoon last spring, Abad stumbled upon a news video on Yahoo Finance.
Netflix' stock price had fallen and it was related to Popcorn Time, it said. "A beautiful, easy-to-use, super-fast front-end for what Hollywood would call stealing movies" the reporter said. The financial news site stated that Popcorn Time could be for the film industry what Napster was for the music industry - a service that makes it so easy to acquire goods, that it completely changes the rules of the game - and multiplies the number of pirate users.
"Really easy to use. Your mom could use it. A threat to Netflix. Definitely" said the reporter.
– When I saw that Yahoo Finance talked about us and that we were a threat to Netflix, I thought no, that's not possible. I can't have such an impact on the real world.
Warning from Netflix
In a letter to shareholders, Netflix sent out a warning about Popcorn Time. The streaming giant wrote about a worrying trend in Google's Dutch search traffic. The searches for Popcorn Time grew so quickly online, that the growth curve looked like it was straight out of a cartoon - the kind that shatters the framework and continues on the wall outside. Netherlands quickly became the second most popular market in the world after the US with 1.3 million downloads.
"Piracy remains one of our main competitors," wrote Netflix.
When Federico Abad opened the analysis tool Google Analytics, he could not believe his own eyes: Popcorn Time had been downloaded in all countries.
–There was a person in every country in the world who had downloaded the program. Even in countries that barely had access to the internet, there was a person with Popcorn Time.
Soon the team behind Popcorn Hour began receiving dubious business proposals in their inbox from the internet's darker corners.
– We received many criminal business offers. They said they could guarantee us up to $ 10,000 a week. They offered to give us five dollars for every time someone unsuspecting installed spyware and malware that changed all ads in a manner that channeled the proceeds to them. And stole information about users, such as their passwords, says Abad. If the profit margins they were proposed are true, the Popcorn team could have amassed a fortune of nearly 100 million USD.
– We rejected all the offers. We didn't do this for money. We just wanted to have a good service, not something that ruined people's machines.
One day last spring Federico Abad and the rest of the core team behind Popcorn Time experienced something that unsettled them.
Looked at your profile
Most of the contributors preferred to remain totally incognito, knowing how the Pirate Bay founders had been chased, sued and imprisoned. Most of the core team had been operating under false identities, used anonymization tools and been very careful with operational security.
All of a sudden all the developers discovered simultaneously that a lawyer from the film studio Warner Bros. had visited their professional LinkedIn pages.
– We do not know how, but he had managed to track us. We were quite unsettled. We thought it was a scare tactic. And we were frightened. None of us were anonymous anymore. They knew where we worked, where we lived.
Federico Abad worked at the time for the authorities in Buenos Aires. His job was to create an app that collected the plethora of information on the city's public and private transport.
Today it is used by most residents of Buenos Aires who use public transport and have a smartphone.
Abad's involvement with Popcorn Time was not unknown at his workplace.
–They said, "If you need a good lawyer, because it sounds like you will need it, let us know.
We know the best ones".
But the team had become anxious.
– We had just done this to see movies in a simple way with friends.
Suddenly it was beyond our control. We didn't want to end up in a lawsuit.
Abad and his friends decided to abandon the project. On March 14th 2014 they published an official goodbye message on the publishing platform medium.com.
– We didn't want to lose our jobs. We decided to give the project to the community, which could bring it further.
The powerful Hollywood organization MPAA didn't send any threatening letters, but instead contacted Github, the website where all had cooperated on coding - and requested that the source code of Popcorn Time removed because the project facilitated copyright violations.
Github removed the page. As a result, Popcorn Time's source code was instead spread on an unknown number of new sites among the 26 million projects on Github.
Abad has his own theory about why Popcorn Time has not been sued until now.
–We have not kept any information in our servers. We have not even had any servers. We don't own anything. We don't make money on it either. To stop it, they have to go to other sources.
Hollywood did not take the chance of losing in court against Popcorn Time, he believes.
– It Is my personal conspiracy theory, says Abad.
– Who are you going to sue? The first? The second? The third? I did the design. Was it illegal?
I didn't link the various parts together. There is no comprehensive overview of who did what.
For we don't have any business. We don't have any headquarters or a general manager. And now someone else owns the project.
Soon many more, new editions of Popcorn Time began appearing online. Since the project was open source from day one, it could pick up from where it stopped. Six new groups worked on the project.
– Just like when the dragon's head is cut and six new heads pop up, says Abad.
– I see Popcorn Time as my small child, who is now a teenager and has run away from home, doing wrong things and using drugs together with some strange people I do not know, says Abad.
– Every single day I have asked myself: What if I hadn't left? Perhaps nothing had happened.
Today, there are mainly two different versions: popcorntime.io and popcorn-time.se.
When Popcorn Time is discussed in the press, the two versions are often mixed together. They look the same because they have the same logo and mascot, but are quite different. The original team behind Popcorn Time prefers and exclusively supports Popcorntime.io.
–That's because the source code is public, I know it does not contain malware and that it works the way it was when we left the project. The Popcorn-time.se edition has been accused of containing malicious code and criticized for not having open and updated code, according to Abad. Popcorn-time.se has not responded to DNs inquiry on the matter.
Between 30 and 40 anonymous developers spread around the world today work on the project. They are located in twelve different time zones, making coordination a demanding job. One of the teams that took over development of the Popcorn Hour, has built a VPN service, a program that masks the users' identity. This means that information about IP addresses that the film industry collects no longer provides any real record of who uses the service.
– All cinemas at street level have vanished in Buenos Aires. Now are all part of larger buildings and shopping centers, says Federico Abad, heading into the Village Cinemas, an underground cinema complex in the affluent Recoleta neighborhood where he grew up and went to the movies, first with the parents, later with girlfriends.
One of the most beautiful theaters from 1919 lying along the central Santa Fe Avenue, the opera-like Grand Splendid, has been transformed into one of the world's most spectacular bookstores.
– Culture continues to exist, but in new forms. It's very simple. I love going to the movies. But sometimes you do not want it. You may be sitting on a plane, or want to see a movie at home at four o'clock at night when no theaters are open, says Abad. He believes the film industry itself has the best antidote against Popcorn Time.
On the pirate judgment that fell in the Oslo District Court Wednesday, he says:
– I think the blocking of sites is damaging to Hollywood. It only leads to "the Streisand Effect". It is the designation for the unique dynamics that frequently occur on the web, when censorship attempts lead to increased distribution and interest.
– The culture is immeasurable. To combat piracy, they must have global premieres in all platforms. A good Netflix without country restrictions. But Hollywood only makes problems.
Why should not I be able to watch a film shown in the cinema in the US? I'm not sure why, said Abad. He says that many have approached with a request to pay for its use.
– Culture has no borders. Netflix 'series are popular worldwide because they are released everywhere at once in high quality with subtitles. But Hollywood only makes trouble with all its limitations. Why should I not be able to watch a film shown in theatres in the US? I'm not sure why, says Abad.
–We have received many inquiries from people who say they would happily pay if possible.
People will pay for good things.
Abad thinks Spotify suffers from the same problems.
–I look up a song in Spotify and it is disabled in Argentina. As if you are not part of the rest of the world. I pay for Netflix. I pay for Spotify. So give me the entire catalogue. I pay for this!
In the gray zone
Today Federico Abad works for Xapo - a kind of bank vault for the digital currency Bitcoin. Top Investors in Silicon Valley have invested more than $ 40 million in the service Wall Street Journal has dubbed "The Fort Knox of Bitcoin".
Abad is a fan of the digital currency, but thinks it is still a bit too complicated for most people to use. He wants to revolutionize the use of bitcoin in the same way as he simplified downloading pirated entertainment.
– Sometimes innovation that really changes things is of such a nature, that it challenges the law. Bitcoin is one such innovation. It is not illegal, but in a gray area, he says.
– I will make Bitcoin so friendly, that my mother can use it when she goes shopping.
Abad says that the only major interview he has given earlier before he spoke with DN, was an Argentine woman's magazine that his mother also reads.
– My mother is very proud. She has told all her friends about it. And my dad asked why I left Popcorn Time. He said I could have become a millionaire. I answered no, Dad. I could have been in prison. I'd rather be with you.
“Has no legitimate purpose”
An employee of the MPAA has sent DN the following written statement, to be attributed to Stan McCoy, President and Managing Director of the MPA in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
“Creators and makers should have the right to determine how and where the work they own is distributed. Popcorn Time has no legitimate purpose; it only serves to infringe copyright thereby preventing creators from earning money for their work. The film and TV industry is comprised of hundreds of thousands of men and women working hard behind the scenes to bring the vibrant, creative stories we enjoy to the screen. Content theft undermines that hard work and also negatively impacts the audience’s experience online by often directing them to low-quality versions of movies and shows or sites infected with malware and viruses.”