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Nothing Will Stop People from Illegally Downloading 'Game of Thrones'

A new study from Australia found that, by the old gods or the new, piracy of the mythological dragon sex show will persist.

by Linda Yang
Jun 26 2016, 3:16pm

Photo courtesy of HBO

Hell hath no fury like a Game of Thrones fan exposed to a spoiler—or worse, called out for illegal downloads by an American bureaucrat. In 2013, to commemorate the UN World Book and Copyright Day (woo hoo?), former US Ambassador to Australia Jeffrey Bleich posted a public message on Facebook titled "Stopping the Game of Clones."

To start his post, Bleich wrote out a succinct plot summary of the show Game of Thrones, describing it as "a great epic chronicling the devious machinations of a rival noble house fighting for supremacy," before sinking his teeth into chastising the entire country of Australia for pirating the show.

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"Piracy is not some victimless crime," Bleich wrote, imploring Australians to remember that "[a] show like Game of Thrones takes a lot of work and talent by many artists to create." Knowing that he was pleading on behalf of stars like Kit Harington and Emilia Clarke—who will make $500,000 per episode next season—Bleich added that "in Australia about 8% of the workforce works in the copyright industries and depends on people obeying the law."

The comments section was swarmed by articulate Australians, some American comrade-in-arms, and two angry Norwegian interlopers. Unfortunately, they weren't particularly upset about Bleich's missed opportunity to use the phrase: "A Lannister always pays his debts." Instead of devolving into the usual cesspool of spam, the comments section became a forum for fans to vocalize complaints and to refute the ambassador's claims. Actually, they said, they had no choice but to pirate episodes of the mythological family sex show. They had to.

One commenter decried the obtuse communication channels available to him. "Maybe if you got HBO to answer my emails they might have a system of stopping piracy," he wrote. "I wrote to them about 12 months ago and several time since then." Another decried America's capitalistic ways with "It's always about money with the Americans." A stray American commented, "Posts like [these] make me ashamed that I'm a US citizen. Please realize our politicians don't represent the people, only big business."

"Can someone actually tell me how to legally pay to download season three?! This dude is ranting on but not offering any solutions," asked another commenter. To watch Game of Thrones legally, Australians still have to pay for a subscription to Foxtel, the Australian paid TV network, which owns the rights to the show and prevents distributors such as iTunes from releasing episodes until after the entire season has aired. "The meager options available to Australians are subscriptions to PayTV services, or DRM enforced distribution... GoT notwithstanding, this is an issue with distribution and publishers, not the studios," wrote a commenter.

Maybe if you got HBO to answer my emails they might have a system of stopping piracy.

Now, three years later, researchers at the University of Melbourne, Australia, have published a study on Bleich's now-infamous Facebook post and subsequent comment storm. From the study, conducted by Kate MacNeill of the University of Australia, we learn that attitudes have traditionally contextualized illegal downloaders as criminals. But after coding all 252 Facebook comments according to traditional criminal sociological theory, the researchers found that traditional attitudes that conflate unauthorized downloading with criminality are "not a productive way of understanding the dynamics of downloading." In fact, they write, "Many of the justifications for these behaviors contained in the Facebook comments demonstrated an informed critique of the market mechanisms at work in the distribution networks."

In other words, while it may sound like guilty consciences talking, the whiny Australians were actually right.

A quick glance at Bleich's post's comment section demonstrates that the Game of Thrones fans seem to know what they they're talking about. They complain of bad distribution systems, arbitrary time delays, and greedy monopolistic cable providers keeping them from their beloved TV show. What's more, the study found that people believed downloading Game of Thrones illegally was actually the right thing to do. "The analysis of the comments posted on the Facebook site of Ambassador Bleich suggest that unauthorized downloading is viewed by many as an ethical act of rebalancing within an otherwise distorted market."

It's common fact that people are going to access Game of Thrones through nefarious means this Sunday; for the fourth year in a row, it was the most pirated show on TV. (By a lot.) Your impulse to hit up a couple of friends and an ex or two Sunday afternoon for a HBO Go password instead of signing up for an entire cable package is perfectly normal, explains Rebecca Tushnet, a law professor at Georgetown focusing on intellectual property and copyright law. "Sometimes you find these paths [to accessing media] worn in the park that aren't official paths," Tushnet told Broadly. "Those desire lines, they exist because people see a simple path and they make it."

Market inadequacies can lead consumers to look for these "paths" in the form of illegal torrents. "This is more to do with the way Foxtel charges outrageous prices for a bundle of services, most of them utterly worthless and riddled with ads," said one commenter cited in the study.

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Others condemned the condemner—in this case, former Ambassador Bleich. "Is this trolling?" another commenter wrote. "You don't deserve your job if all you do is parrot out MPAA statements about copyright." Another commenter blamed Bleich's patronizing attitude on Yankee America as a whole. "Entire nations have been born on theft. Like yours, for example."

While it's easy to see why people download media illegally on the internet, it's much harder to stop it. The study showed that the criminalizing rhetoric used regarding digital downloading is not an adequate deterrent for users looking for a quick Khaleesi fix.

"While there's definitely room for enforcement," said Tushnet, "I do think that seeing it as a market problem is often the most productive thing." As it has been shown with Spotify, "whenever you introduce easy licensing, rates of unauthorized downloading go way down," said Tushnet. "Most people are looking for convenience at a reasonable price."

Whether that price is compatible with $500,000-per-episode salaries is another story.

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