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You can watch Pluto TV in VLC, and the MPA considers this piracy

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Ad-supported free TV, but it’s in your browser. What’s the harm? | Screenshot: Chris Person

The Motion Picture Association (MPA) issued a DMCA notice to a GitHub repo that contained a playlist that let viewers watch Pluto TVs streams on their own apps, such as VLC, MPV, and Tvheadend. The move was first noticed by TorrentFreak, and GitHub has complied and removed the repo, which ultimately does nothing. If you still have a tiny text file, you can still do exactly what the MPA tried to stop.

Pluto TV, for those who do not watch it, is a service owned by Paramount that allows users to legally stream movies and TV shows free of charge on many devices. They have a mobile app, apps for Xbox and PlayStation, smart TVs, and dongles. Users do not even need to sign up to use it. In turn, Pluto’s business model is predicated on serving ads and tracking user behavior. It’s part of a newer breed of streaming product called free ad-supported television, or FAST.

The GitHub repo in question contained M3U playlists to watch Pluto TV’s content via an app like VLC. The repo basically took links that were already available and gathered them in one place. It should be noted that M3U files aren’t torrent files; it’s just a simple playlist file that can direct to local files and web sources. If you are old as sin, like me, you may have used one in the past to make a playlist of MP3s on your iPod. In this instance, the M3U playlist allowed the users to watch Pluto on a simple video player instead of being tethered to Pluto’s.

While this complaint sort of makes sense if you don’t think about it at all, once you dig in, it’s a little baffling. First and most importantly, ads were still being served via the stream; it was just happening via whatever third-party client the user was using. The main difference here is the app being used, and honestly, is that really such a bad thing?

Second and most hilariously, Pluto itself did not encrypt any of its streams. These were publicly available via their API and did not include any kind of DRM. So that raises the question: how does that make it the problem of the GitHub user Mart1nho, some random person who posted an M3U playlist? How is watching a stream with ads, albeit on VLC instead of the Pluto app, piracy? Also, does taking down one GitHub repo really address the issue at hand?

The answer is, well, no. Was I, theoretically, able to find a way to pull the publicly available Pluto channel URLs and compile them into an XML file and another file called playlist.m3u? Perhaps. Was I then able to load those files into the video player of my choice and then stream Pluto’s content through both VLC and Perhaps. Was it a much more enjoyable experience as a result? Yet again, perhaps!

A window showing a Pluto TV stream of Shout Factory TV.
What watching Denkou Choujin Gridman on Pluto TV on might, theoretically, look like.

Honestly, I do not see the issue here. I am more inclined to watch Pluto TV if I have a way to do it flexibly on my own video player. Watching Pluto TV did not require a login to begin with. And just so we are clear: I was still being served ads by Pluto TV. Those were baked into the stream. And I am fine with that!

An image of a Downy ad being played in VLC.
An ad being served via a stream played on VLC, the same way it would be on Pluto TV.

“At the end of the day, this is just about control,” said Katharine Trendacosta, associate director of policy and activism for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) about this takedown. “The MPA simply doesn’t like the information being out there that you CAN watch on an app they do not have a relationship with. As long as DRM isn’t being BYPASSED (and even then, I’d argue that the fact that you can’t do that even if you have the right to use the material, is unconstitutional) this isn’t illegal.”

While nowhere near as important, this reminds me of a case of DMCA overreach, namely the case of YouTube-dl. For those who do not follow the YouTube downloader software drama the way I do, YouTube-dl was and is a crucial piece of software for downloading videos from YouTube that is used in tons of open-source software. I not only use YouTube-dl; I personally recommend a fork of it, YT-DLP, in a previous article.

GitHub received a takedown notice, complied, and people rightfully complained because it was bullshit. With the help of the EFF, it was eventually overturned. And while I don’t see this happening in this case, it does bring up some questions about the increasing overreach of copyright holders as it relates to publicly available streams. What exactly is the definition of piracy? And who ends up being the target when copyright holders attempt to swing their weight around?

Also, and most importantly, what if this is actually just a better way to watch TV?

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