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Pirating movies and games has always been an ugly practice. Besides a willingness to break who-knows-how-many laws and risk a trip to prison, it requires visiting hideous websites to download files that can only be opened with unsightly programs. Now that is starting to change, thanks to the dedication of a few hobbyists and the frustration of many more pirates.

Put another way: services like Popcorn Time, which allows users to stream torrented movies, and the OpenEmu gaming app are bringing piracy into the 21st century. And both of those tools are free to use, partly because that might allow them to avoid any legal troubles and partly because asking people to pay for something that allows them to access everything else they want at no charge would be breathlessly oblivious.

It’s worth noting that some people will use Popcorn Time and OpenEmu without running afoul of any laws. But because Pando has a primarily American readership and pretending that people won’t use these tools to stream “The Avengers” or play “Super Mario Bros.” would be disingenuous, let’s not act like most of the people using this software have pure intentions.

The point is that these tools are advancing piracy software enough to make watching a few movies or playing a few games seem less like an ordeal and more like a pleasure. For anyone used to finding their content on the Pirate Bay or — see if you get this reference, millennials — LimeWire, using these tools is like graduating from a Betamax player to Netflix.

In Popcorn Time’s case, it’s almost exactly like using Netflix. The service allows users to watch movies without browsing dozens of torrent sites, fussing with download preferences, or having to deal with all the other frustrations associated with piracy. It also has a larger catalog than Netflix and doesn’t feature any regional locks.

OpenEmu isn’t quite as convenient. It requires downloading a variety of video game console emulators and scouring the Web for digital copies of their corresponding games. But it does bundle a bunch of emulators into one app, find the cover art that shipped with those games, and support a variety of video game controllers.

These tools aren’t just competing with their predecessors — they’re competing with services that allow users to access content without having to worry about breaking the law. Depending on whether you value convenience (which is free) or legality (which costs a few dollars) more, there’s no contest.

The travesty-commonly-known-as-iTunes is infamously awful, and purchasing classic games on consoles like the Nintendo Wii U can be a lesson in frustration. Streaming services like Rdio or Spotify offer convenience but require a monthly fee, and users don’t own the music. Console makers like Microsoft and Sony offer no way to experience decades of gaming history. It’s no surprise that some people are turning to piracy in their search for alternatives.

Now, thanks to these tools, it seems that they will be able to do so without having to worry about searching through awful websites or ugly apps. Welcome to the 21st century, pirates.

Reactions from around the Web

TorrentFreak reports on the speed with which Popcorn Time has grown:

What started out as an experiment for a group of friends soon developed into something much bigger. Popcorn Time now has 20 collaborators on Github and continues to expand at a rapid pace. Developers from all over the world have added new features and within 24 hours it was translated into six languages.

BGR notes that torrents haven’t taken the content industries by storm:

If Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu Plus are any indication, torrenting isn’t quite the destructive force many groups have made it out to be. Torrenting is a popular alternative to legal streaming, buying and renting, but the abundance of poor quality torrents coupled with the unfriendly method of acquiring movies and TV shows through torrenting has kept a majority of viewers glued to their TVs, browsers and tablets.

The Verge details the breadth of OpenEmu’s capabilities:

Presently, the attractive interface supports games for a healthy number of classic consoles, including the NES, SNES, Genesis, Sega 32X, Sega Master System, and TurboGrafx-16. Portables are represented too: the Game Boy, Game Boy Advance, Nintendo DS, Game Gear, NeoGeo Pocket and even the Virtual Boy are playable.

Pando weighs in

David Sirota noted how convenient access affects entertainment downloads in December:

As more people (yours truly included) get rid of their cable service and rely solely on their Internet connection for content, consumers seem willing to pay a la carte for easy-to-access content rather than go through the rigmarole of finding a free version of that already-available content. It is more often when a piece of content simply isn’t available at all (or isn’t available in a timely fashion) at a legitimate online source that piracy becomes more of a draw.

[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]