For almost a decade, Jetflicks offered one of the best streaming deals out there. For $9.99 a month—less, if prepaid for a longer increment of time—subscribers could access popular shows from across all the major networks and streaming platforms, commercial-free, as soon as the day after they aired. It was like having Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO, and a basic cable subscription, all for the price of a fancy sandwich. If that sounds too good to be true, well… it was.
In late December 2016, a Jetflicks subscriber used the service to stream a recently released episode of The OA, a Netflix show with a fervent fan base. A week later, they downloaded two episodes of the Syfy network’s 12 Monkeys. It’s the kind of casual piracy that takes place on countless Kodi boxes and other devices every day, all over the world. Except this time, the customer was an undercover FBI agent.
A grand jury indictment this week charged eight people with allegedly operating two of the biggest illegal streaming sites in the country. They ran not out of some Eastern European server farm, but in Las Vegas, Nevada. They had a customer service line, a US bank account, and even put out the occasional press release. The biggest question might be how they kept going for so long.
Jetflicks and Chill
According to the indictment, which you can read in full below, Jetflicks dates back as far as 2007, the same year Netflix launched its streaming product. Over the years its alleged operators built it into a sophisticated streaming empire, at one point claiming to host 183,000 television episodes and more than 37,000 subscribers.
As detailed in the indictment, the service had fine-tuned the act of automated piracy. The actual indexing of shows was left to third-party software with names like SickRage, Sick Beard, and SABnbzd, automated programs that can scour torrent sites and Usenet for the latest television shows, download them, and use data from a TV database like TVDB to flesh out episode titles, images, and more. What Jetflicks offered was a home base for all of that content, along with a website and apps to help less tech-savvy users reach it.
Jetflicks also didn’t try especially hard to hide what was going on, even after it received a cease and desist notice from the Motion Picture Association of America in November 2012. (Three days after that letter, the indictment alleges, Jetflicks contributor Darryl Julius Polo “searched the internet for ‘mpaa website moles,’ ‘fake mpaa user account,’ ‘correct letter to dmca response,’ and ‘dmca reply.’”) A Twitter account that appears to be associated with the service actively promoted its “JetStamp” rewards program in 2014, for which Jetflicks also issued a press release. The indictment details how alleged ringleader Kristopher Dallmann maintained a Wells Fargo back account in the Jetflicks name, using it to pay for a domain name service provider and server rentals.
It’s unclear why the Jetflicks group worked so brazenly. Yes, there’s ample legal grey area when it comes to piracy, especially in the case of streaming content. The law considers the streaming of copyrighted material a “public performance,” which while still illegal—and carrying up to a year of jail time—doesn’t rise to the level of a felony. Similarly, cases involving the dissemination of torrents have typically wound up in civil courts, rather than criminal.
“The public performance right has never been provided by Congress to be a felony. It’s a misdemeanor,” says attorney Ira Rothken, who defended MegaUpload founder Kim Dotcom after the feds seized that site in 2012. “The felonies are distribution and reproduction, and those require a certain number of units in a certain period of time.”