Being the world’s most pirated TV show might be a somewhat dubious honor, but it’s definitely a sign that there are a lot of people who want to watch HBO’s historical fantasy series Game of Thrones – even if they don’t want to pay for the privilege.
It’s a subject that became the topic of hot debate back in 2012, after webcomic The Oatmeal published a cartoon titled ‘I tried to watch Game of Thrones and this is what happened‘. It chronicles the online adventures of a young man who, credit card at the ready, is attempting to find a legitimate way to watch Game of Thrones through any means necessary – except, of course, by buying cable and actually subscribing to HBO. After searching on iTunes, Amazon and Hulu and having no luck (and, as mentioned before, being unwilling to get cable and subscribe to HBO), the character pirates the show with an easy conscience.
Somewhat ironically, a legal disclaimer at the bottom of the page states that the comic strip is copyrighted material, adding “Please don’t steal.”
One of the apparent effects that this cartoon had was to turn a lot of people into experts on how to run television network overnight. The Internet has been flooded with smug, condescending articles explaining that HBO just don’t “get it“; that by not making Game of Thrones episodes available immediately on demand with an Amazon Prime or Netflix type of service, the network was losing out on an influx of cash from pirates who really, really want to pay for Game of Thrones, but just aren’t being given enough opportunities to do so.
Piracy has been an oft-debated issue, even among people who should by all rights be opposed to it for business reasons. Speaking in a 2011 interview with The Cambridge Student, Gabe Newell, CEO of the digital video game distribution company Steam, said that much of piracy is owed to pirates offering a better service than legitimate providers.
“If a pirate offers a product anywhere in the world, 24 x 7, purchasable from the convenience of your personal computer, and the legal provider says the product is region-locked, will come to your country 3 months after the US release, and can only be purchased at a brick and mortar store, then the pirate’s service is more valuable.”
It’s just common sense, isn’t it? All HBO needs to do is do away with the old-fashioned notion of cable subscriptions, catch up to the modern age, and enjoy the flood of money from former pirates who are finally able to hand over the money that they’ve been so eagerly clutching in their fists. After all, there’s an obvious pattern going on here: just look at the world’s second-most pirated show in 2014, which was… Orange is the New Black.
Here’s where the theory starts to fall down, because Netflix actually offers a better service than pirates do. Netflix shows are generally available to watch in their entirety from the initial release date, and the service is available to anyone with an internet connection and a device with a screen. It also has the edge over piracy by not requiring third-party software like BitTorrent and being available to watch on any computer, phone or tablet in North America, South America, Australia, New Zealand and many countries in Europe, without the need to carry around storage devices.
It’s difficult to convincingly plead poverty when it comes to Netflix shows, because the service costs a measly $8.99 a month with a free trial for the first month. If even that feels like too much, people can always share an account with three other friends and pay just $2.25 a month. Short of literally just giving its media away, it’s hard to imagine how Netflix could make Orange is the New Black more accessible and affordable. So why are so many people still pirating it?
The answer to that is a bit murky, because there are a lot of pirates in the world with a lot of different motivations, but it can probably be boiled down to this: there are a lot of people who want to watch Orange is the New Black, and a lot of those people don’t want to pay for it. One of those clauses is the most important, and it’s not the latter one.
The Piracy Debate
For all the tutting and sighing about HBO’s outdated ways from people on the Internet, it often seems like those people are far more concerned about Game of Thrones being pirated than HBO is. During an earnings call in 2013, Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes actually bragged about its status as the most-pirated show in the world, saying that the title was “better than an Emmy.” In a recent talk at the Oxford Union, Game of Thrones producers Daniel Brett Weiss and David Benioff seemed similarly unfazed by how many people aren’t paying to watch the show.
Q: Game of Thrones is the most-pirated show on Earth at the moment. How does that make you feel.
D.B. Weiss: [Jokingly] Winning! No, it’s a difficult question because obviously you’re working very hard to do something that costs lots of money to do, and if it doesn’t make the money back then it ceases to exist. On the other hand, the fact that so many people want it so badly that they can’t wait to get their hands on it… it’s a mixed feeling. Ambivalence.
David Benioff: We just shot in Spain and apparently the show is more popular in Spain than anywhere else in the world, and I think that’s directly because of piracy. When we first went there to scout, this was after the first season… and we were meeting all these people who had watched the show, but it hadn’t actually aired there, and so of course they were all watching it illegally on the internet. And the show became more and more popular and now people are watching it legally and people are buying the DVDs, so I think eventually HBO gets their money. But I think the main thing is the show has become a phenomenon, which is incredible for us and incredibly gratifying. And, you know, if it got there by unorthodox means I’m mainly just glad people are watching it.
D.B. Weiss: That sounded very pro-piracy.
David Benioff: It did. [Audience laughs].
This kind of ambivalence towards piracy is shared by other successful content creators. In 2012 game developer Markus “Notch” Persson, who became a billionaire thanks to his hugely popular indie game Minecraft, outright told a player who explained that they couldn’t afford to buy the game, “Just pirate it. If you still like it when you can afford it in the future, buy it then. Also don’t forget to feel bad.”
Even with creator approval, there’s really no legitimate moral or ethical defense for piracy. Whether people are doing it because they don’t want to wait for a show, they can’t afford to buy it, they don’t want a cable subscription, or they just don’t want to pay for it, piracy is still illegal. It’s not exactly on the same level as shoplifting or mugging someone, but it’s also not on the same level as stealing a loaf of bread to feed a starving family.
For now, though, the numbers are still in HBO’s favor. For every 3.7-4.2 million people who pirate an episode of Game of Thrones, there are 11 million HBO subscribers tuning in to watch it legitimately and paying to do so. It’s not surprising that HBO is unwilling to make drastic changes to its business model on the assumption that the majority of the people pirating the show would be willing to pay for it – an assumption that, as the Orange is the New Black piracy figures demonstrate, is fundamentally flawed.
That’s not to say that HBO will not eventually move on to an online, on-demand, simultaneous global release distribution format, especially since that does seem to be the trajectory that television as a whole is taking. The network has already made moves in that direction with the upcoming streaming service HBO Now, which will be available for $14.99 a month through providers like Apple TV. But whatever decisions HBO makes with regards to how its shows are distributed, they won’t be the result of any deep-held anxiety about piracy rates.
That’s because HBO no doubt knows that even if Game of Thrones were available to watch online, on-demand, on a global release date and with a low pricetag, it would probably still be the world’s most-pirated show. Why? Because it’s a really great show, and there are millions of people who all want to know if Tyrion’s going to survive.
Game of Thrones returns to HBO on April 12th, 2015.