Does Piracy in the Digital Age Cost More Than Four Fingers?

The commercial success of HBO’s Game of Thrones has become a worldwide phenomenon that has stood out amongst all of the television series released since 2010. The series, based on George R.R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire anthology, has received critical acclaim for the series’ portrayal of the epic fantasy that Martin created in his novels. Game of Thrones’ success has also raised another issue that has raced onto the world stage, particularly in the last five years, that has created many challenges for HBO but also global copyright laws. The issue of digital piracy and illegal downloading has exploded onto the news as one of the greatest challenges to the copyright laws and internet privileges in the modern digital age. This issue has opened debates surrounding the issue of personal privacy in many countries as telecommunication companies and production companies try to combat the problem of digital piracy but despite the all the counter measures that companies and governments try to institute, digital piracy remains a problem that has yet to be solved.

When Game of Thrones premiered with its first season in 2011 there was a lot of anticipation for the series that had an all-star cast that included Sean Bean and Lena Headley and was coming out just as many other television series were coming to the end of their run. By the end of the first season, Game of Thrones was obtaining on average four million viewers per episode, all of whom were subscribed to HBO with their telecommunication service providers[1]. What the amazing statistic about the success of Game of Thrones is, are the amount of viewers that watched the show, but were not subscribed to HBO or any television service at all. Estimates and statics report that the show receives at least double the amount of viewers who have illegally downloaded the series instead of being subscribed to HBO.[2] The latest finale to the series which ended season four, aired on June 15 2014 is the perfect example to see just how fast the show is pirated after an episode of Game of Thrones airs, with torrent trackers counting over one and a half million downloads within twelve hours of the episode airing in Australia alone.[3] The staggering amount of downloads represents the audience that does not subscribe to HBO services and also represent all those who do not support the show in any way,unlike watching the show while being subscribed to HBO’s channel, does. Putting the numbers into perspective shows how much digital piracy has become a major problem for HBO and how these numbers have been directly affected by Game of Thrones. In 2014 the top ten rated pirated shows included many well known television series such as The Big Bang Theory by CBS clocking in at thirty-three million downloads and, CW’s Arrow which came in fourth behind Big Bang Theory at twenty-nine million downloads[4]. The top two shows in 2014 were AMC’s The Walking Dead with forty-seven million and Game of Thrones in first place with forty-eight million illegal downloads over the course of the year[5].

Where did the age of digital piracy come from and why has it become so prevalent when talking about the HBO series Game of Thrones? To answer this question there has to be an understanding of the internet during the early 2000’s when torrenting websites were invented. In the early 2000’s a man named Bram Cohen created a way for computers to share large files such as television shows over the internet which would have been impossible before. What Cohen came up with was the ‘torrenting protocol’[6]. Cohen’s code was called BitTorrent which operated on its own within the internet community and became incredibly successful with the founding of The Pirate Bay in 2003.[7] Pirate Bay quickly became the largest BitTorrent website where people could access illegal downloads of television shows, movies and more until the website was finally shut down in December of 2014[8]. While the site may have been removed from the internet after years of legal struggles and copyright battles, the legacy that The Pirate Bay and BitTorrent have left on the internet has made the reality of stopping digital piracy impossible. The legacy left by the influence of The Pirate Bay is that there are now a generation of people known as “cable cutters,” people who have completely removed the middle man (that being the telecommunications companies) and gone completely with streaming services that are from pirated sources.[9]This brings another interesting point into the discussion about the rise in digital piracy and the connection with Game of Thrones. While Game of Thrones was not the first ever pirated television show to appear on the internet, it has brought to the surface the dark world that is digital piracy, mostly because of the show’s popularity among the digital generation and the staggering numbers in which the show is downloaded.

The move to digital piracy for many households can be understood in one respect which helps to show why the rates of digital piracy have skyrocketed over the last five years. The cost of telecommunication services in Canada can be used to understand the effects of cost versus content when it comes to watching television on the internet or through a cable box connection. A slightly above average internet package that provides good upload and download speeds and unlimited bandwidth costs $99.95 a month[10]. Compare that price to the cost on getting a basic cable television package and adding the subscription service to HBO gives a cost of $77.95 for two months before jumping to $99.95 per month because of the special credit that is given to enjoy HBO free for two months[11]. Looking at these numbers it is not surprising why so many people choose to stick with just an internet plan and download a show compared to spending double the amount of money to have both internet and HBO subscribed television service in a family home.

What is the cost of digital piracy

What is the cost of digital piracy

The problem of digital piracy presents a dilemma for governments, copyright enforcement and the television networks because it has become so main stream in the digital world. How do companies deal with the growth of phenomenal shows and the increasing pirating rates that occur with every new episode? This question is interesting when looking at HBO’s strategy for trying to curb the increasing rates of digital piracy that continue to occur at staggering rates. The website TorrentFreak reports that the popular reason that Game of Thrones is pirated is the delay that occurs from the premiere in the North America to the time it reaches the other one hundred seventy-six territories that the show is sold to[12]. This has been addressed by HBO by trying to make the show available to all the territories faster, but they have also addressed the issue of internet piracy by launching their own streaming service called ‘HBO GO’ which is run through HBO for those in the United States and through The Movie Network for subscribers in Canada[13].This fails to address another problem that outside of North America there is not a direct streaming service to the other territories that HBO sells Game of Thrones but HBO did announce that HBO GO will become an international service in 2013[14].

The cost of torrenting and use of illegal downloading makes an interesting point about the profitability of Game of Thrones. In 2012 as season two of the series was just beginning to air HBO was making roughly two and a half million dollars per episode from viewers who were subscribed to HBO which makes an interesting point about how much digital piracy affects the production of the show[15]. If the revenue of Game of Thrones from subscribers amounts to almost three million dollars it is shocking to imagine how much revenue each episode could bring to HBO if digital piracy was at even half the numbers it stands at when a new episode of the series premiers. The shocking amount of illegal downloads and the effect this has on the revenue of the show has even prompted the stars of the show such as Nikolaj Coster-Waldau to be concerned that illegal downloading will have a negative impact of on the funding that fuels the show’s production[16].

The opposition to digital piracy comes not only from HBO or the actors that star in Game of Thrones but also from the governments around the world that have the largest amount of digital piracy. The group named the Center for Copyright Information developed a system that involves six strikes that would try to deter illegal downloaders by increasing the severity of punishments with six strikes[17]. The system works with telecommunication companies to monitor users downloads and start with an initial warning that illegal downloads have been detected and offer support to get to legitimate sites where they can obtain the files that the downloaders were attempting to download[18]. The more strikes that a downloader receives for illegal downloading the further a company can go to limit them from downloading, from limiting download speeds to 256 kilobits per second and eventually begin suspending internet accounts for periods at a time to prevent downloaders from getting what they want[19]. This problem however is not the going to be efficient at stopping the most hard core pirates who are determined to get at what they are after, partly because these pirates no longer use BitTorrent sites that are most commonly used[20]. There have been multiple campaigns set up to try and get pirates to realize what they are doing is illegal such as the “Piracy is a Crime” video featured below, but these have also proven to be ineffective as the piracy rates continue to soar.

The Game of Thrones phenomenon that started with the release of the HBO series in 2011 has brought to light one of the main problems of the digital age. The growth of digital piracy since the beginning of the 2000’s has created many problems for governments, telecommunication companies and production companies as they fight to stop the illegal downloads that take revenue away from these sources. In the case of HBO, Game of Thrones has quickly become the most widely downloaded television show surpassing AMC’s The Walking Dead. The Game of Thrones phenomenon has brought to light the problem of digital piracy but it has also shown that stopping piracy completely is still a task that seems to be impossible to stop and there remains to be any true measure that will stop the illegal downloads of media.

[1] Michael Idato, “As One Out of the Box: Fantasy Blockbuster is Fair Game for Pirates” 2012 Fair Fax Media Productions Pty Ltd. p.8

[2] Idato p.8

[3] Adam Harvey “Game of Thrones Piracy War: Foxtel Has Itself to Blame for Illegal Downloading of Hit Show” ABC News June 17 2014.

[4] Todd Spangler “Top Ten Pirated Shows of 2014” Variety News. January 2 2015

[5] Spangler p.2

[6] Caitlin Dewey, “You Can Take Down Pirate Bay But You Can’t Kill the Internet it Created” The Washington Post  December 10 2014.

[7] Dewey p.1

[8] Dewey p.1

[9] Idato

[10] Bell Canada Services as emailed to the Author on 03/04/15

[11] Bell Canada Services as emailed to the Author on 03/04/15

[12] Carol Pinchefsky “How is HBO Protecting ‘Game of Thrones’ From Online Piracy” March 4 2013.

[13] and as viewed by the author and

[14] Pichefsky p.1

[15] Stuart Levine “Reign of Thrones”  Daily Variety April 11 20012 p. 1

[16] Pinchefsky

[17] Todd Spangler “A Shot Across the Bow: ‘Six Strikes’ Aims to Scare Digital Thieves Straight but Can it Work?” Mulitchannel News February 11 2013. P. 10

[18] Spangler p.10

[19] Spangler p.10

[20] Spangler p.11

Picture for Article: Tim Surette “Game of Thrones: The Laws of Gods and Men Review: As the Whore Turns”


Band, Jonathan. “The Copyright Paradox: Fighting Content Piracy in the Digital Era” Brokkings Review Winter 2001 p. 32-34

Dewey, Caitlin. “You Can Take Down Pirate Bay But You Can’t Kill the Internet it Created” The Washington Post  December 10 2014.

Harvey, Adam. “Game of Thrones Piracy War: Foxtel Has Itself to Blame for Illegal Downloading of Hit Show” ABC News June 17 2014.

Haxorcat-Youtube user “Piracy is a Crime” Video from Youtube.  Accessed 05/04/15

Idato, Michael. “As One Out of the Box: Fantasy Blockbuster is Fair Game for Pirates” 2012 Fair Fax Media Productions Pty Ltd. p.8

Jackson, Paul. “Fighting Piracy and Protecting Content in the Digital World” APB January 2010 p.22

Levine, Stuart. “Reign of Thrones”  Daily Variety April 11 20012 p. 1

Pinchefsky, Carol. “How is HBO Protecting ‘Game of Thrones’ From Online Piracy” March 4 2013.

Rugnetta, Mike. “Is Piracy Helping Game of Thrones” Video from Yotube. Accessed 04/05/2015

Sisario, Ben and Vega, Tanzina. “Playing Whac-a-Mole with Piracy Sites” The New York Times Business News, January 29 2013. p. B3 (L)

Spangler, Todd. “Pirates Up Ante with Netflix’s House of Cards” Variety Volume 319 Issue 3 p. 12. 2013

Spangler, Todd.  “Top Ten Pirated Shows of 2014” Variety News. January 2 2015

Spangler, Todd.  “A Shot Across the Bow: ‘Six Strikes’ Aims to Scare Digital Thieves Straight but Can it Work?” Mulitchannel News February 11 2013. P. 10