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Plex makes piracy just another streaming service

As streaming offerings become more expensive and convoluted, people are setting up their own smaller, more intimate platforms

Illustration by Alex Castro

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An illustration with logos of Netflix, Disney Plus, Hulu, YouTube, Plex, and HBO. The logo colors bleed into the dark background for a more colorful effect.

Have you heard about the best new streaming platform on the internet? It’s totally customizable, works on any device, and, best of all, is basically free. The only problem — and, I mean, come on, it’s barely a problem — is that it might be illegal, depending on how you use it. (In other words, depending on how much piracy you plan to do.) I’m talking, of course, about Plex.

There’s more streamable content now than ever and even more ways to consume it; these days, we’re drowning in choices. Even so, streaming all that stuff looks a little different in practice, namely because signing up for a bunch of services can get expensive — fast. Besides, if you subscribe to more than, say, two services, it’s overwhelming to cycle through their various offerings to find something you want to watch. Having too many choices is exhausting.

Because of the convoluted nature of licensing agreements and the vagaries of corporate competition, what’s on Netflix is substantively different than what’s available on Hulu or Amazon Prime. Different still are the network-specific streamers, like the up-and-comers HBO Max and Disney+, and the more niche offerings, like Shudder, Kanopy, Mubi, and Criterion. All of them have the same aim, which is to lock up intellectual property to keep people streaming. It’s a lot!

Having too many choices is exhausting

Plex, a company that sells media server software, has found itself in the strange position of being the answer to that problem. It has two components: the piece of software that organizes media on your computer’s hard drive and the client-side program that lets you and your friends and family stream that content from wherever you are on just about any device. It’s clean. It’s beautiful. It is extraordinarily simple to use. It looks a little like Netflix. Except, all of the content is custom, tailored by the person running the server. In the company’s words, both pieces of its software are “the key to personal media bliss.”

What Plex doesn’t say, however, is how that bliss is achieved. Because what’s on Plex servers is populated by people, most of the commercial content you’d find there is probably pirated. And this is the main tension of using Plex: while the software itself is explicitly legal, the media that populates its customer-run servers is not — at least the stuff protected by copyright law. The company, of course, doesn’t condone this particular use of its software. A spokesperson provided a statement that read, in part, “Plex supports content creators and does not condone piracy,” before directing me to its terms of service page.

For what it’s worth, the company is legitimate. It started as a freeware hobby project in 2007 when developer Elan Feingold had a free weekend while his wife was out of town. In his words, he needed “something to keep [him] busy.” It so happened he’d also recently gotten into a “heated argument” with a friend about programming languages, and so he decided to try to port the Xbox Media Center to a Mac. A couple of software executives who had recently sold their company PostX to Cisco — Scott Olechowski and Cayce Ullman — got involved. Then, in 2009, the project became the commercial business that’s still around today, to carry out the mission Feingold laid out in a 2008 interview: to create “a free, *highly extensible* HD media *platform* for all.”

My inbox is a wasteland of free trials canceled just in the nick of time

A decade on, it’s clear that Plex has achieved that mission; today, you can even kill your cable subscription and get live TV through the app (after a small technical investment). What’s especially compelling about Plex is just how easy it makes consuming media.

That convenience can’t be overstated. Because even though piracy has become a lot less worth doing in the golden age of streaming, it’s making a comeback as it’s now more inconvenient to figure out how to legally stream the things you want to see. My inbox is a wasteland of free trials canceled just in the nick of time. That means if you’re technically savvy, maintaining a Plex server becomes a calculation of how much you’re willing to pay for convenience. If you’re someone who has access to one of those servers, on the other hand, the calculation is easier: why bother paying when you can just stream from your friends? 

Liz called me from a train on the way to Washington, DC from the middle of nowhere, in her estimation, and the signal kept cutting out. It was as though our conversation was buffering or otherwise suffering from one of those various afflictions that plague streaming media. She said that her Plex experience had been mediated by a robust community she belonged to in the late ’90s and early 2000s whose server is updated regularly with new television shows and films. Then she grew cautious.

“Unfortunately, I’m not supposed to talk about it,” she said. I pointed out that she hadn’t given me any identifying details. She continued (albeit conspiratorially).

Her forum’s Plex contingent, which is maintained by a few people with servers in their houses, only very rarely gave out these coveted invites. To get one, you had to either know one of the people running a server or been very vocal on the forum at the time. (She described herself as an “internet old.”) “They haven’t given out any invites in like 15 years or something like that,” Liz said. “I once saw somebody try to sell their account for like, $1,000 on some Yahoo Quora thread,” and they were immediately banned. She estimates that there are “thousands” of users, although there’s no way to know for sure. Even so, it’s reliable, safe, and clean.

“You’re not, like, going into the Pirate Bay and taking a risk on some random tracker,” she said. “It’s people that you know and trust. And we’ve been commenting on each other’s statuses for, uh, gosh, I guess, like 15 years at this point?” 

To put it differently: today, piracy looks like what the futurists envisioned about streaming media. You sign up for a service, stream as much as you want, and it just works. Most of the people I spoke to for this story had the same experience. By and large, they’re internet-savvy people who needed a solution to a home media problem and stumbled across an off-label use that doesn’t necessarily feel illegal.

“I once saw somebody try to sell their account for like, $1,000 on some Yahoo Quora thread.”

Shawn’s story was similar: he was looking for a home streaming solution that wasn’t difficult to maintain. Plex replaced a complicated Linux setup. “I wanted to be spending more time relaxing with family instead of jumping through Linux hoops,” he wrote to me in an email.

For Shawn and his family, Plex is mostly for TV shows, the occasional movie, home videos, and music. It fills the gaps between Netflix, Amazon Prime, and the stuff he’s bought on iTunes. (Right now, Shawn and his wife are watching Schitt’s Creek, which is on Netflix, but they’re also watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which is on a broadcast network, via Plex.)

“One daughter was watching all of White Collar, which Netflix yanked halfway through with no warning, so now it’s accessible to her via Plex,” Shawn said. Otherwise, he’s sometimes streaming audio that isn’t available anywhere else, like “imported Underworld remixes from the ‘90s and unreleased Fiona Apple tracks.”

Plex gives him the option to drop any media in a library, which is organized and streamable almost instantly. If his nine-year-old wants to rewatch her performance in a school production of Les Mis, he pointed out, it’s immediately available. Shawn seemed a little embarrassed that he’d given me what was essentially a sales pitch. On the other hand, he said, “as a parent and someone who has to stare at a screen all day for work, anything that makes my digital life simpler and more organized gets a gold star.” It’s a custom streaming service built exactly to his family’s specifications.

Jon came to Plex after getting a Chromecast and wanting to stream video from his computer to his TV because it was the easiest solution for that problem. Initially, he just set it up for personal use. But now, he’s hopped onto his roommate’s friend’s server, which he says hosts maybe a dozen people. “I’ve pirated a decent number of things,” he said. “I would prefer to pay people for the content that they make and everything,” Jon continued, noting that he does still subscribe to Netflix, Hulu, and HBO (although he shares that with someone else).

“You could put needles under my fingernails and I still wouldn’t pay for CBS All Access.”

For him, Plex is for the stuff that falls through the cracks, like media that isn’t on a streaming service — the Alien franchise, for one — or things that are only in theaters because he’s not a huge fan of going to the movies. (Of theaters, he says: “I hate that movie theaters have reclining seats right now. If I wanted to watch something in a recliner, I would stay at home.”) Jon says he hasn’t rented a movie since the last time he didn’t have access to Plex. 

Andrew found Plex because his wife had a hard drive full of .MKV files that Roku wouldn’t play with sound. “For most of my adult life I’ve basically watched movies and TV via my laptop or desktop monitor,” he wrote in an email. “There’s been no need to set up a media server to stream to a smart TV until about two years ago when I finally got a one-bedroom apartment (and subsequently a house).”

He has Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime subscriptions, but he uses Plex for the other things: “Stuff from HBO like the recent Chernobyl miniseries or Star Trek: Discovery,” he said. “You could put needles under my fingernails and I still wouldn’t pay for CBS All Access.” Andrew calls it an essential antidote to the ongoing fragmentation of streaming media.

Patrick was part of an imageboard site that invited him to a more secret splinter site. From there, he joined the group’s Plex servers in 2015. He says there are probably 100 people who have access.

“We usually don’t buy anything,” said Patrick, who’s a very online teacher. “I would never buy TV shows on Amazon or iTunes. We just wait for it to come to streaming. And if it’s not on streaming, then we’ll wait for Plex.”

Plex servers function a little like secret societies or private clubs. They can be large (like Liz’s), small (like Shawn’s), or any size in between, but they have a single purpose: to simplify the experience of streaming media and make it feel human. Every Plex server’s media catalog is different. They go beyond licensing agreements (because piracy) and anonymous algorithmic curation (because a person is choosing what’s on there) to make the streaming experience personal.

“The Plex mission is to provide a unified media experience that allows users to bring together the media they care about into one app, available on just about anything with a screen,” a spokesperson for Plex wrote in a statement. The one thing they carefully don’t mention is why. 

For him, maintaining the server is a little like running one of the linkblogs of the early aughts

I’ve been a Plex user for a few years now. A friend of mine who lives in the Midwest maintains it, adding things based on what people in our little online community request. (He uses a “pretty beefy” gaming computer to run it, he told me over chat.) For him, maintaining the server is a little like running one of the linkblogs of the early aughts.

“I get to sort of organize my favorite media into one place that my friends can easily see and dip into,” he said. And the requests give him some insight into media that’s outside the mainstream — stuff that isn’t Game of Thrones, Mad Men, or Breaking Bad. It’s a catalog of what we’ve been into over the years. It’s a record of different lives across the country and the world. 

For me, logging into his Plex is a little like visiting a library. There are reams of stuff to watch and listen to, and most of it falls outside what’s available on American streaming platforms (read: anime). It’s far from the only way I consume most television and films, but it does have its place, which is more communal than anything. 

The other day, that friend was upgrading his digital storage, which he uses to keep everything organized on the Plex server. We all pitched in a little to defray the cost, but it was also to recognize the value of what he’d done for us. Streaming from someone’s library feels categorically different than watching the same thing on Netflix. What I mean to say is that each Plex server is special because it’s made for people.