The people behind "Game of Thrones," reportedly the most-pirated show on the Internet, have always taken an oddly laissez-faire view of piracy. Director David Petrarca once told a crowd in Sydney that illegal downloads help the show by generating “buzz.” Both author George R.R. Martin and HBO programming president Michael Lombardo have called the piracy rates a compliment. And now, in perhaps the strongest endorsement of all, Jeff Bewkes -- the CEO of Time Warner, which owns HBO -- basically bragged about illegal downloads to investors during an earnings call.
"If you go around the world, I think you're right, that 'Game of Thrones' is the most pirated show in the world," he said. "Now that's better than an Emmy."
Better than an Emmy? From a business standpoint, he may actually be right. According to analysis from the Wall Street Journal, roughly 11 million HBO subscribers watch “Game of Thrones” legally, and 3.7 to 4.2 million pirate it online. Bewkes credited that gigantic audience for the lasting Internet buzz about the series -- and more importantly, a wave of new subscriptions.
There’s also some evidence to suggest that piracy has contributed to GoT’s strong DVD sales. According to industry analyst Nash Information Services, the show’s first season was the best-selling TV DVD of 2012. Notably, “The Big Bang Theory” also sold well -- and it’s the Internet’s third-most pirated TV show, according to copyright news site TorrentFreak.
Those numbers have long complicated the traditional thinking on piracy, which equates illegal downloads with stealing and claims the United States loses billions in copyright infringements each year. The actual story is probably a bit more nuanced. There’s plenty to suggest, for instance, that HBO doesn’t necessarily lose business when someone pirates "Game of Thrones" -- in all likelihood, that person would never subscribe to the network, anyway.
But that hasn’t stopped networks from spending millions on lobbying and piracy prevention, and it certainly hasn’t stopped the matter from evolving into a hugely politicized, international trade issue. Last April, the U.S. ambassador to Australia actually begged Australians to stop pirating the show.
“I realize that fans of Game of Thrones who have used illegal file-sharing sites have reasons,” he wrote in a Facebook post that asked fans to stop "stealing" the show. “Please celebrate UN World Book and Copyright Day by doing the right thing -- Tyrion Lannister will thank you for it.”
Ironically, Jeff Bewkes probably would not.