PopcornTime, BitTorrent, and Police Warrants: Are Free Movie Downloads Worth the Risk?

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BitTorrent 001A blood curdling scream comes from the kitchen.  It is my wife’s voice. Is she cut?  Did she burn herself?  Are we out of coffee?  I rush in to see her mouth agape while staring at the cable TV bill.  She turns to me and says, “We have got to give up cable TV. This is ridiculous!”

Many of us are paying as much as $100 per month for cable TV, yet watch only a fraction of the shows. And really, isn’t it time we get premium cable channels a la carte?  Of course, these are questions for those of us who still ride dinosaurs and wear stone underwear. The current generation of media viewers hardly knows what cable TV is. They are downloading or streaming movies and TV shows from paid subscription sites like Hulu, Amazon Fire TV and Netflix. But many people are going a step further by using BitTorrent to view just about anything they want —  for free.

What is BitTorrent?

BitTorrent is a file sharing service that allows a community of people to quickly share large files among their computers.

These files might be music, videos, computer programs, and more.  Sometimes the files you exchange using this method are referred to as “torrents,” which makes the term confusing. I’ll use the term “BitTorrent” to refer to the file sharing method, not the files.

Just as when you send email you need to use an email program, in order to exchange files using BitTorrent, you need a BitTorrent program. If you’re interested in sharing movies, an extremely popular and easy to use program is PopcornTime. But don’t download the program until you read more.

How does it work?

The simple answer is teamwork.  But to truly understand the BitTorrent teamwork, let’s first talk about how a service like iTunes works.

When you download a movie from iTunes, your computer is making a single connection with the iTunes computer that sends the file to you. It’s like ordering a movie for delivery and getting that package at your front door. Ding! Dong!  “American Beauty” here.

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Now look at how BitTorrent operates.  When you open a BitTorrent program on your computer, it’s like joining a team.  Behind the scenes, your computer connects to a network of other computers that collectively becomes this giant computing team. When you download a movie with the BitTorrent program, it finds all the computers on the team with the movie and has them each send little pieces of the movie to you.  Your computer uses the BitTorrent program to then reassemble those pieces into the movie you want to watch.  It’s like getting a zillion packages delivered to your home all at once along with a super fast robot — the BitTorrent program — to unpack and assemble them for you.

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But it doesn’t end there.  Now that your computer has joined the BitTorrent team, all those tiny pieces of the movie file are made available to send to other computers requesting that movie. Yep, you’re not only downloading, you are now uploading!

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And remember how two people working as a team can do more than twice the work of one person working alone?  Well the same is true for computers. As the team grows, it also get faster.  And don’t forget, it’s totally free; the program, the shared files, the whole enchilada. (Wait! I didn’t say you should stop reading and download that BitTorrent program….read on!)

What’s the catch?

First off, the “team” you just joined isn’t moderated or protected in any way.  Your computer is connected to a public network of computers, making it susceptible to viruses and hacking.  Sure, the movie is free for the taking, but so are your bank account numbers. Oops, that $3.99 movie might just cost you your life savings.

Second, this type of sharing has legal issues. Using a BitTorrent program is legal. Technically, you could be sharing files you own, like home movies or photos. But if the file is the latest episode of “True Blood,” then you’re in the danger zone.  Remember that BitTorrent is efficient because everyone on the team who downloads automatically uploads those files as well. In case you haven’t heard, downloading and uploading copyrighted material is a criminal offense. And if you’re using BitTorrent, you can’t claim you were “only a user” — you were supplying the illegal downloads as well.

Now that you understand the major pros and cons, enter at your own risk. Just consider this: When you BitTorrent a movie, you are not only downloading, you are also uploading. Free stuff comes in, and free stuff goes out.  Are you prepared to give as much or more than you receive?

Ready. Set.  Choose!

Image credit: Jonathan Grossman

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