On July 24th, users of Project Free TV awoke to find their beloved TV-streaming website replaced by one word: “goodbye.” Aficionados of the less-than-legit streaming service lamented the shutdown across social media. What else can a person do, after all, when their sketchy, poor-audio-quality Bob’s Burgers and Game of Thrones episodes go dark?
The panic turned out to be short-lived. As one Reddit user so accurately put it: “Piracy space is like a goddamn hydra.” Truer words, etc., etc. Within 24 hours, not only were there entire threads on sites like Reddit dedicated to sourcing viable alternatives, it appeared as though Project Free TV itself simply moved to a new domain.
However while it seemed like it just got a bit too hot for Free Project TV, and they made a decision to take their talents to another domain, it turns out that might not have been the case. In an early November email exchange with the International Business Times, a person identifying themselves as one of the creators of the original Project Free TV announced they were back with a much tamer new site after a five-month break, and declared the new projectfreetv.so version an impostor.
“We launched our site this month. projectfreetv.so is just a fake copy of Project Free TV. We have just projectfreetv.us. We had some bad law issues [in the] past due to link exchange with linking sites. so that’s why we closed our old site and launched a new one.”
So, wait — is Project Free TV and its ilk going to be snuffed out? Or do they get to keep operating as the online equivalent of the dude selling bootleg DVDs on a folding table out of the back of his parked van?
Sites like Free Project TV operate in a gray legal area. They bill themselves as “a simple search engine of videos available at a wide variety of third party websites” who simply aggregate content and do not monitor or screen links provided by its rather broad and active user base. Furthermore, many streaming sites clearly post a link removal policy, along with a list of Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) compliance guidelines, along with a full disclaimer that if their sites link to copyrighted content, it’s totes not their fault:
“By clicking on any Links to videos while surfing on Project Free TV you watch content hosted on third parties and Project Free TV can’t take the responsibility for any content hosted on other sites. We do not upload any videos nor do we know who and where videos are coming from. We do not promote any illegal conduct of any kind. Links to the videos are submitted by users and managed by users.”
Furthermore there are still some very practical differences between “streaming” copyrighted content and facilitating the download of copyrighted files through peer-to-peer file-sharing methods like BitTorrent. In an age of super cheap bandwidth and storage, streaming methods have become extremely popular because they are a bit more convenient, especially for a more novice user who doesn’t want to take the time to figure out BitTorrent software.
In addition, from a user standpoint, “streaming” content offers the user a bit more protection. Streaming video more or less “passes through” your computer; you click the link, it plays from a remote source, when it’s over you shut the browser, and that’s the end of that. With a peer-to-peer systems like torrents, the files are actually stored on your hard drive. They stay on your computer where they are not only available for you to watch, but also for other users to download directly from your hard drive. So not only is it easier to prove you obtained an illegal copy of copyrighted material, you are almost by definition redistributing it the moment it hits your hard drive. (Copyright attorney Jordan Nahmias offers a pretty good explainer on the differences.)
Piracy sites using peer-to-peer technology like PopcornTV have become almost a honeypot; users are being sued by movie studios and distribution companies, who actually use the torrent site’s terms of service against the users. Basically the argument goes something like this: “PopcornTV posts warnings at every step not to use their service illegally, you as the user ignored those warnings, and oh look, here are the illegally obtained files being sent and received directly from your grandmother’s laptop.” (Gotta feel at least some sympathy for any unlucky bastard catching a six-figure lawsuit for watching The Cobbler of all things, but I digress.)
From an ownership standpoint, those waivers and disclaimers may have actually prevented the founders of Free Project TV from suffering the same international manhunts and subsequent prison time that befell the Pirate Bay founders, but they didn’t indemnify them from cease-and-desist orders and potential civil suits.
While it seems like the “bad law issues” noted in their IBT email have been resolved for the time being, if you are a fan of free TV streaming, get used to the “hydra model” of online streaming. Especially now, with the explosion of paid streaming services like Netflix and Hulu Plus, your favorite free sites will face even more legal scrutiny and continue falling off the face of the interwebs, however temporarily.
The good news for those who refuse to pony up the $7.99 a month for Netflix (I know, I know, it’s not the money, it’s the principle of the thing) is whether the sites play musical chairs with domain names, or are replaced almost instantly by the proverbial six heads, it looks like free streaming TV is here to stay as long as you know where to look. After all, the original Project Free TV — along with 33 other streaming and torrent services — had been completely blocked by ISP providers in the UK since 2013, but even casual streamers continue to find access to free content.
Of course, it’s incumbent upon us to remind you that while streaming is theoretically the less risky method, “borrowing” copyrighted materials, videos or otherwise, is still illegal and could potentially open you up to civil lawsuits or even jail time. We are not recommending the use of any of these sites, and remind you that if you choose to, you are doing so at your own risk. In the words of the Federal Bureau of Investigation:
Photos via southpark.cc.com, Tumblr, Getty Images
“The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of a copyrighted work is illegal. Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by fines and federal imprisonment.”