Forget Pirate Bay or Popcorn Time or Sidereel. The future of piracy is live-streaming, and it's already here.
On Sunday, 8 million people watched the fifth season premiere of "Game of Thrones" on their TVs. But on Periscope, the buzzy new Twitter-owned live-streaming app, hundreds of users also watched the show through their phones, squinting at other people's shaky, over-bright screens.
That's next to nothing, of course - tens of thousands of people pirate that show every day - but the mere possibility of more people live-streaming has HBO running scared. The company promptly declared Periscoping "mass copyright infringement," despite the utter lack of any audience approaching "mass." And Tuesday, the company sent a series of takedown notices to Periscope over "GoT. "Which is extra-peculiar, since HBO usually takes a pretty chill stance toward "Game of Thrones" piracy.
This, however, is piracy of a totally different breed. There are no torrents, there are no files, there are no thumbdrives or DVDs. That makes Periscope a bit of a challenge - not terribly dissimilar from the era when VCRs threatened TV.
Consider, for instance, the takedown requests that HBO sent Periscope over the show. Under the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, the 1996 law that guides most Internet copyright dealings, online platforms aren't responsible for what users post to them - but if they receive a complaint from a rights-holder, they have to remove the violating content. The problem here, of course, is that there's no content to remove. Periscope is live, and "Game of Thrones" only lasts an hour. By the time HBO filed its takedown requests, they only applied to users who had archived their stream for later review.
There are other abstract ambiguities here, as well. Like: What if a user is livestreaming the episode to a private audience after it airs? That's not so different from taping a TV show for home use. Or what if he's livestreaming while critiquing the show? In both cases, the issue at hand is whether the Periscope is "transformational" - in other words, if its a distinct creative work or a straight rebroadcast of the show.
Intriguingly, that's a question that could theoretically apply to users streaming tons of other things, too: like concerts or plays or sporting events or even friends with weird tattoos.
"I couldn't tell you the point at which live-streaming becomes transformational," said Richard Stim, a California copyright lawyer. "That's a slippery standard."
So slippery, it would seem, that HBO wants to clamp down on it fast - even though, if we're being real, watching TV on Periscope is hardly worth the hassle. The quality is poor, the streams are hard to find, and if you join late or your phone needs to buffer, there's no way to pause or rewind. Fans - real fans, hardcore fans, the fans who might otherwise go out and buy a cable package - are unlikely to be seduced by a five-inch rectangle with overblown highlights and weird background noises.
Then again, you can't underestimate the adaptability of a bored, cheap person with a gadget in hand. Wednesday morning, one Periscope user live-streamed the movie "Argo." At one point, a dozen viewers had tuned in.