With the Oscars just a couple of weeks away, it's that time of year when screener copies of the top films are floating around Los Angeles. Academy members receive those screeners for free, but each year, some of those copies end up in the hands of pirates, who create bootleg versions for online viewing.
"Everybody’s excited for screener season. You get to watch all of the movies from the comfort of your own couch. Everybody’s excited about that," said Andrew Sampson, a developer who used to run a website that let users search for pirated movies.
From the screener versions, movie pirates are able to get a hold of high quality copies of the biggest film of the year, oftentimes before they’re even out of theaters. This year, they’ve been swiping up copies of films like The Revenant, Creed and The Big Short.
For consumers, it hasn't always been as easy as "point and click" to view bootlegged movies online. It took some tech know-how. But this year, there are new tools online that have turned pirated sites into an interface that's as easy to use as Netflix.
One of the tools is Popcorn Time, which has evolved with different versions over the past few years. It has a browsable Netflix-like interface, which lets users scroll through and watch some of the years top films. Another tool, called Torrents Time, is a browser extension that lets users go to the most popular torrent sites and click to play any movie they see listed. Rather than having to download an entire movie, it streams right in their browser.
Downloading pirated movies is illegal, and these tools make it easier for people to do so, but Sampson is skeptical of Torrents Time for another reason.
"You're installing a service that you have no idea who's actually made it," he said. He's advised users to avoid downloading these tools because he believes that they can open up computers to malicious attacks.
"[Imagine] leaving your door open every time you left the house. It's kind of just like asking somebody to walk in and take your stuff. That's pretty much what this is doing. You're installing somebody else's lock on your door."
When reached for comment through an e-mail listed on the Torrents Time website, the developers denied Sampson's accusations and wrote, "Despite Sampson's hollow statements, Torrents Time does not enable attackers to control your computer! It's safe, User Friendly and Fun." When asked over e-mail, the developers refused to identify themselves or to speak over the phone.
Whether or not these illegal tools are safe to use, they're illegal, and some have argued that the influx of pirated movies have hurt the motion picture industry, but the Motion Picture Industry of America would not comment on how much they estimate they are losing to movie piracy. Netflix itself called these tools one of their biggest forms of competition, in a 2015 letter to shareholders.
Andy Baio, the former Chief Technology Officer at Kickstarter, has been tracking leaked screeners since 2003 and has a breakdown of the leaks over at his website.
In the on-air version of this piece, Andrew Sampson was misidentified as Andrew Solomon. KPCC regrets the error.