Though its characters remain locked in myriad unresolved battles, the HBO series “Game of Thrones” can claim one clear victory: Its season three premiere is, officially, one of the most-pirated shows of all time.
TorrentFreak, a Web site that tracks torrents and piracy, logged more than 1 million illegal downloads in the day after Sunday’s episode aired, including more than 163,000 simultaneous downloads on one file. That broke the 143,000 record set by “Heroes” in 2008.
“These are mind-boggling numbers that we’ve never seen before,” TorrentFreak’s Ernesto Van Der Sar wrote in a blog post.
But more mind-boggling still, given the current “piracy, it’s a crime” climate, is the muted reaction from “Game of Thrones’” network, cast and crew. In an interview with the BBC last month, actress Rose Leslie — who plays the wildling Ygritte, herself a lawless type — called the show’s high piracy rates a compliment. A “back-handed compliment,” but a compliment nonetheless.
“I probably shouldn’t be saying this, but it is a compliment of sorts,” HBO programming president Michael Lombardo echoed in an interview with Entertainment Weekly ahead of the season three premiere. “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.”
That complicates the usual rhetoric on piracy — some of which HBO has advanced in the past. We’re used to hearing that piracy is “stealing.” That it kills jobs. That it contributes, somehow, to child labor and gang violence, as the Department of Justice posited in a 2011 PSA. To quote the owner of a film distribution company, who lamented the rise of digital piracy in the Wall Street Journal, “it’s changed us. It’s a very damaging trend.”
But some contrarians, both on “Game of Thrones” and around the industry, are finding reasons to doubt that narrative. For starters, they point out, subscription networks like HBO make it difficult to watch the show legally unless you have a premium cable package or know a hospitable friend who does. Otherwise, you can’t watch “Game of Thrones” online — not on Hulu, not on Netflix and certainly not on HBO’s online service, HBO Go, which demands your cable provider and password as soon as you click into the site. Paying subscribers outside the U.S. have to wait as long as a week to see the shows.
On top of that, there’s some suggestion that piracy might actually help the “Game of Thrones” franchise. Director David Petrarca has said as much already: Downloads “generate buzz,” he told a crowd in Sydney, and “that’s how they survive.” A recent Wall Street Journal story broke the numbers down this way: 11 million HBO subscribers watch “Game of Thrones” legally, and 3.7 to 4.2 million people pirate it online.
Depending on your point of view, that means HBO lost out on subscription fees from a quarter of its audience — or that 4 million fans are tweeting about the new episode and eyeing that pricey collectors’ edition, when they wouldn’t have otherwise.
So far, it’s an issue the industry hasn’t been able to settle. Do people pirate things instead of buying them, or do they pirate some things in addition to buying others? A recent European Commission study on music piracy in Europe found that piracy doesn’t correspond to dropping sales.
It’s “fair to assume that not every pirated copy of an audiovisual work represents lost revenue to the content producer,” copyright lawyer Jonathan Rose told Forbes in March.
In either case, it doesn’t seem to be hurting “Game of Thrones” or any of its companions atop the most-pirated list. “Game of Thrones” moved more DVDs on its first day than any other HBO release. According to industry analyst Nash Information Services, that makes it the best-selling TV DVD of 2012 — followed closely by “The Big Bang Theory,” which is also the third-most pirated TV show, according to TorrentFreak.
Still, the old fears of piracy remain — and many studios, including ABC and NBC, are ramping up their fights against it.
“At the end of the day, it’s stealing,” “Game of Thrones” actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau told the BBC. “I know it doesn’t feel like it, but it is. And it’s not right.”