While nerds who already regularly use pirating software were unimpressed by Popcorn Time, branding it "simply a fancy bittorrent client", they were missing the point. This is an easy-to-use interface, that anyone can use to pirate any film. In particular, it offers a huge wealth of classic movies. Unlike torrenting, Popcorn Time – created by an anonymous group of Argentine software developers – doesn't require any tech skills, it doesn't force you to navigate a ton of scummy ads and it doesn't take hours to work; it's just point and click.
It's easy to forget how important this ease of use is: 91 per cent of EU citizens haven't illegally downloaded anything in the last year, partly because the blocking of sites like Pirate Bay means it's become harder, and partly because legal downloading methods like Netflix and Lovefilm are becoming more common.
Make no mistake, legal streaming is vital to the movie business. Hammered by falling DVD revenue, studios need a new way to consistently make money from old films. The rise of legal streaming service like Netflix seemed like a godsend – here was a way to make cash out of the back catalogue, and beat piracy at the same time.
Most people don't realise, but a movie's box office return is only a fraction of the value it can generate; indeed, many famous failures – notably the 1963 mega-flop Cleopatra – have actually been generating a steady profit year after year for decades (it broke even in 1986), mostly thanks to selling international rights.
Part of the reason Popcorn Time is such a threat is the international nature of the service: there's no more carving up of rights by territory, no more doing a deal in every nation. Popcorn Time shoots that out of the water – the very existence of the service makes it much harder for anyone to calculate the long-term value of a film, or sell film rights at all. It's much worse than torrents because it's so much easier to use, and what's more, being coded into innumerable languages by opportunistic coders.
Popcorn Time blows a huge hole in the Netflix/Lovefilm model. Both of them operate on the basis of having a limited catalogue of films and TV available at any given time; they can't keep everything online or they'd end paying far more for rights than they could afford.
Last week Popcorn Time launched with an infinitely bigger library than both Netflix and Lovefilm combined, because it wasn't paying a penny for rights. This means it could show brand new films (which won't be out legally for months) and old classics (which only occasionally rotate through legal platforms).
While the original founders of Popcorn Time naively thought they were legally safe because they weren't making any money, Hollywood lawyers of course came down on them like a ton of bricks.
In a statement closing the service on Saturday, the anonymous developers said: "Piracy is not a people problem. It’s a service problem. A problem created by an industry that portrays innovation as a threat to its antique recipe for collecting value."
To repeat: the genie is out of the bottle. While the original service was officially closed, it's live and easy to find on the net, with a community vowing to keep developing for it. As I wrote in this piece on music streaming, the constant innovation of pirates will push a better service from the labels and studios. It can only be a matter of time before we see a paid-for service with a virtually unlimited catalogue – a Spotify for films, if you like.
While this is all very well for the downloading public, I must say I'm a little uneasy at the constant pressure from the hacking community for absolutely everything to be free. They can't bear the fact that free online services like Spotify have ads or collect data from users. (And, it should be pointed out, the returns to artists on open platforms like Spotify are pathetic.)
It's not just big film companies and media moguls being ripped off: piracy has an impact on the ability and willingness of people to create art.
For example, a prominent Spanish literary novelist quit writing after discovering that her latest book was illegally downloaded far more often than bought; comic book creators bemoan the fact that between five and ten times as many comics are pirated as bought; the writer of Sons of Anarchy recently penned a fulminating article attacking the way "Convicted felons like Kim Dotcom generate millions of dollars in illegal revenue off our stolen creative work".
Ultimately, you can dress it up any way you like, but free downloading is stealing from someone. If you think creative work has a value, you should probably pay for it. Have a think about that before you next pirate something.