Game of Thrones (source: HBO)
As expected, last Sunday’s Game of Thrones series finale generated tons of buzz, not only setting a record for HBO ratings, but also setting records for on-line piracy. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the initial broadcast of iconic show’s last installment was watched by 13.6 million viewers, and that number rose to 19.3 million viewers with replays and early streaming, which made it the most highly watched show in the history of HBO. On the downside, however, TorrentFreak reported that, by Monday afternoon, the episode was also viewed “more than 200,000 people were actively sharing the three most popular torrents, with the most popular one being good for 130,000 sharers alone.”
This situation had been anticipated. A week earlier, on Monday, May 13, Simon Trudelle, Senior Director Product Marketing at NAGRA (North American Gaming Regulators Association), which has been fighting piracy for two decades, issued a press release addressing the problem of what he referred to as “impact piracy.”
“As a high-value television series, Game of Thrones enjoys incredible consumer awareness; its popularity also drives up piracy figures to record levels over time. The piracy threat surrounding Game of Thrones clearly indicates that we are now fully operating in a globally-connected consumer market, where the Internet can be massively misused by pirates…
“The overall impact of pirated Game of Thrones’ episodes differs in the short-term and long-term. In the short-term, the social dimension of the premium end-of-series experience will bring friends and families together in their living rooms – even if pirated material is available online. However, because the Internet can bring top-value content to consumers on a worldwide scale for years to come, the long-term effect of pirated content is an increasing concern for content owners.”
This was not the first time a season finale of Game of Thrones had set a record for piracy. In fact, after the series’ Season Five finale aired on June 14, 2015, TorrentFreak gathered data suggesting that, in the first eight hours following the broadcast, the episode had “been downloaded an estimated 1.5 million times already,” setting the all-time record for on-line piracy.
Adding to the complexity of the situation is that, in an indirect manner, piracy actually benefits the producers and distributors of television series like Game of Thrones. In late January, Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business released a research analysis titled “The ‘Invisible Hand’ of Piracy: An Economic Analysis of the Information Goods Supply Chain” by Antino Kim, assistant professor of operations and decisions technology at Kelley, Atanu Lahiri, associate professor of information systems at the University of Texas-Dallas, and Debabrata Dey, professor of information systems at the University of Washington, which was published in MIS Quarterly. In this study of “the economic impact of piracy on the supply chain of information goods,” Kim and his co-authors stated their findings:
“When information goods are sold to consumers via a retailer, in certain situations, a moderate level of piracy seems to have a surprising positive impact on the profits of the manufacturer and the retailer while, at the same time, enhancing consumer welfare. Such a ‘win–win–win’ situation is not only good for the supply chain, but is also beneficial for the overall economy. The economic rationale for this surprising result is rooted in how piracy interacts with double marginalization.”
Writing about the analysis in Metro UK, Jeff Parsons explained the concept using Game of Thrones as an example: “HBO (the manufacturer) benefits because piracy stops Sky (the distributor) marking up the product. It similarly stops HBO from upping the cost because it knows that Sky has to deal with competition¾a benefit for Sky.”
But if piracy has some benefits, it also has serious consequences for those who view pirated material. In what is an excellent illustration of the old adage “Be careful what you wish for,” Kaspersky Lab issued a warning on April 1 that the distributors of pirated programs are using popular TV shows as bait to spread malware. Game of Thrones had the dubious distinction of containing more malware than any other series, with The Walking Dead and Arrow in second and third place respectively.
A month later, on May 2, the Consumer Information division of the Federal Trade Commission issued a similar warning. In that warning, Alvaro Puig, Consumer Education Specialist, explained the dangers posed by this new threat.
“Purveyors of pirated content are now spreading apps and add-ons that work with popular streaming devices. If you download one of these illegal pirate apps or add-ons, the chances are good that you’ll also download malware. If malicious software on the pirate app gets inside your wireless network, it may try to infect other devices connected to your network. That could put at risk the computer you use for sensitive transactions like online banking or shopping. It could also expose your photos and other personal information.”
So what is to be done? In the NAGRA press release, Trudelle suggested possible steps to address piracy.
“In today’s increasingly complex media environment, it is equally important to preserve both the value of premium content for content owners, and the enjoyment of that content for consumers. In the case of the final episode of Game of Thrones, preventing leaks and if needed, identifying the source of any leak is critical.
“To preserve the value of high-value content for both consumers and content owners, sophisticated content protection technologies, such as forensic watermarking, and anti-piracy services can help identify leaks and trace them back to the source. With the right technologies in place, it is possible to identify which legitimate clients the stream is leaking from, and then stop the distribution through that point.”
Unfortunately, the problem of piracy will continue to persist not so much because people want free entertainment, but because so many people feel entitled to free entertainment. Perhaps some piracy-induced malware will be a kind of poetic justice for those people, forcing them to ask themselves if the “price” of free entertainment is worth it. But in the meantime, it is in the best self-interests of the average consumer to avoid pirated material and advise their friends and acquaintances to do likewise.