What Game of Thrones piracy says about the future of media distribution

By Carlos Romero


One thing no one can argue is that HBO’s Game of Thrones is a smash hit. The third season premiere on Sunday drew 6.7 million total viewers in the US. Ratings in the United Kingdom were equally impressive. The show, adapted from George R.R. Martin’s  best selling series fantasy A Song of Ice and Fire, has been a boon to the network that many have seen lagging in quality and popularity over recent years behind basic cable hits such as AMC’s Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and The Walking Dead.

Controlling such a valuable property includes many spoils of water - such as endless media articles, water cooler discussions, and rampant fan interest online. It also comes with a dark side. On Tuesday morning it was announced that the season three premiere was also the most downloaded torrent of all time, clocking in over a million downloads worldwide within 24 hours.

Despite assurances that such rampant illegal downloads are actually compliments, HBO will alert service providers about the downloads over the week  put several Internet users on alert for infringement. While a personal lawsuit against end users via the service providers is unlikely considering the massive failure of the Hurt Locker suit that was finally thrown out of court in late 2011, the strategy of alerting service providers, who then alert end users that there may be illegal downloading from their IP address, is part of a greater effort to combat internet piracy.

The Copyright Alert System is a response to the failure of SOPA/PIPA to pass last year. Service providers, such as Verizon and Comcast, can slow down a users internet connectivity to a crawl is they receive 6 or more alerts from copyright holders that infringing material was downloaded from their IP address. Personal information would only be shared under a subpoena or court order. As stated above the likelihood of that is currently minimal, but could hint at another effort to take the copyright battle directly to the end users.

HBO has other strategies in place to combat piracy for Game of Thrones. Their primary tactic for this third season has been to tighten the worldwide window of the premiere in as many territories as possible so that there is no longer major delays. You can see every new episode on an HBO run channel or HBO Go at roughly the same time in New York and Hong Kong. Indeed, closing the launch window is a smart business decision. The easier it is to access legal content the less temptation there will be download illegal copies of a protected copyright work. This same model is catching on across the film industry as well, hopefully leaving the antiquated staggered distribution model a relic of times long past.

But is it enough? There have been calls to make the show more accessible by removing it from the HBO pay-for firewall and directly accessible to customers on iTunes or other online stores. The argument is strongly supported by the rapid rise and success of eBooks, which are now easily outselling their hard copy brothers.

HBO has been quite hesitant about making this leap. They’ve tested the waters with HBO Go, an application to view HBO shows on tablets, laptops, and mobile phones so long as you have an existing subscription to the network. The clear implication in their refusal thus far to go beyond that is a belief that their current pay-for model is more lucrative than one including individual downloads would be. The primary argument is that access to individual episodes so close to the release date could dilute the overall value of access to the network and result in less subscriptions.

It’s a good point to make, but one that ignores the larger realities of the digital age. From TiVO to the Hopper to Hulu and Netflix, it is growing difficult to ignore that fact that consumers are pushing the media distribution market to open up more accessibility, particularly on the internet. Gone are the days that scripted shows are primarily events watched together at the same time on television and discussed together the next day. The internet has provided a platform for something humans have always craved in their entertainment: convenience.  

Working on Wednesday night? No problem, you can watch Modern Family on Hulu the next day. Have a date on Friday? Just record Spartacus: War of the Damned and watch it Saturday morning. Have no TV at all? That’s fine, you can legally find most content you want for a price. Customers want convenience in watching their entertainment when they want and where they want. The challenge now for the content providers and copyright holders is to find a distribution model that provides accessibility and a financial stable source of revenue over the life of the work.

Game of Thrones will likely remain hugely popular over the next few months, both on legal and illegal sources. The questions remains how long HBO is willing to lose revenue on torrents for such a hugely valuable property. They would be wise not to make the the mistakes of the music industry, who fought legal distribution of individual songs for so long by going after end users rather than making their works easily accessible and for a fair price. That soured the industry on an entire generation of potential purchasers and even today the industry is in recovery mode from those early mistakes. The video media industry would be wise not to make the same mistakes. 

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