Game of Thones - Piracy is Coming

TorrentFreak has reported that the first episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones season three broke historic download records, with more than a million as of April 1st, 2013. Canada ranked fourth internationally in terms of the highest number of TorrentFreak S3E1 downloads, representing 7.4% of total downloads at the time of reporting.

 

For a comprehensive, entertaining, pun-filled and generally geek-tastic video primer on the two sides to the Game of Thrones piracy debate, please see this Idea Channel video by Mike Rugnetta.

 

The Cultural Buzz Argument

The dominant pro-piracy narrative has focused around the concept of “cultural buzz” and the promotional value of piracy and its residual impact on sales. David Petrarca – the director of HBO’s Game of Thrones – recently had this to say of the illegal downloads:

“No, it’s great. It really helps the show’s cultural buzz, and it does not impact the bottom line because HBO has more than enough money to keep making the show… this makes HBO the center of a cultural conversation about illegal downloading, about streaming content, about the production of content and distribution of content, which is probably somewhere they really want to be.”

Even HBO’s programming president Michael Lombardo echoed these positive sentiments about privacy,

“I probably shouldn’t be saying this, but it is a compliment of sorts… The demand is there. And it certainly didn’t negatively impact the DVD sales. [Piracy is] something that comes along with having a wildly successful show on a subscription network.”

 

The Moral and Legal Retort

But not everyone is happy about this historic record. Anti-piracy advocates fall into two camps: those that believe piracy is wrong and those that remind piracy is illegal. The distinction is subtle, and there is some overlap, but the latter argument seems far more prevalent in online discourse.  Blogger John Birmingham politely points out to pro-torrenters that they’ve got their understanding of criminal law wrong.

“Specifically, there was one argument that kept coming up again and again. That unauthorised downloading is not theft; at worst it’s a copyright violation, which somehow sounds less serious. Almost admirable and kinda Robin Hoody in fact… And sure, in a strict literalist interpretation of most statutes in the various jurisdictions which take seriously the protection of intellectual (as opposed to ‘real’) property, theft and copyright infringement are treated separately. But both are usually defined under criminal law, and both are punishable with fines and jail terms.”

The more moral argument is furthered by Game of Thrones actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau,

“What you hope is that even though people watch it online, they will still buy the DVD. You can always hope…At the end of the day it’s stealing. I know it doesn’t feel like it but it is and it’s not right.”

 

Analysis

Market failure is being touted as a justification for the piracy; delays in the availability of HBO shows around the world have been argued to lead to fans downloading out of necessity. This doesn’t necessarily explain why the US was the country responsible for the highest percent of illegal TorrentFreak Game of Thrones S3E1 downloads. HBO is a born-and-bred US channel that is more accessible domestically than anywhere. So it seems that the math to this argument doesn’t add up. Moreover, I’m unclear why market failures would justify breaking the law. If the capitalist claim were that piracy effectively hurts Hollywood enough to be an appropriate bottom line motivation, then I believe we’d see some kind of adjustment in content distribution on the part of HBO. That doesn’t seem to be happening in any short order.

And even if it did, it likely wouldn’t matter. Laws don’t serve at the pleasure of the market; the market serves at the pleasure of the rule of law. Citizens who have problems with anti-piracy law should be voting with a ballot, not a cursor. From this paradigm, illegal downloads starts to look a lot more about laziness than consumer rights. Finally, these statistics are shaky ground for the foundation of any debate. There’s a definite English bias – 4 of the top 5 countries on the list are English-speaking and it’s an English-speaking show. Sure Game of Thrones could be the most downloaded show of all time. Or it could be the most downloaded English show of all time.

In honesty, I don’t know what the most popular shows are in India and China. But if they’re not English and BitTorrent has an English show bias, then the data set starts to look particularly weak. And in addition to factoring in language, a truly fair comparison would weight downloads by country population and broadband internet penetration.

In conclusion, excitement about Game of Thrones piracy is noble fantasy.

Denise Brunsdon is an IPilogue Editor and a JD/MBA Candidate at Western University.

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