Why piracy is a scale problem

Last night on LBC I was asked to comment on the latest video piracy figures from TorrentFreak. For the second year running, Game of Thrones was the most pirated TV show, with more than 14 million downloads for the season finale. This is a significant increase from around 8 million for last season’s finale in 2014.

The point I made to LBC’s Olly Mann last night is that this increase has to be put into context. There may have been 6 million more downloads than last year, but there are around 300 million more internet users. Somewhere between three and four billion (it was 3.2 billion in May according to the UN).

The nature of the internet means that a huge and growing proportion of these users will have been exposed to the hype and discussion around Game of Thrones. People want to know what the fuss is about, and even with all of HBO’s efforts to simultaneously release the show across 170 countries and deliver it direct via its HBO NOW app, there are a huge number of people unable to access the show that they have heard so much about.

Or to do so at a rate that feels reasonable.

The cheapest way to watch the series in the UK legally is with a Now TVsubscription at £6.99 a month. There’s no arguing that this is good value, especially if you binge on the whole series in a single month, or enjoy all of the other content it has to offer. But there’s no ‘snack’ price for single episodes available in a low-friction fashion that might give people a direct alternative to torrenting. And there’s no way to watch the content offline, as you can with a download — a popular option judging by the number of people you see watching GoT on their laptops while travelling between London and Manchester*.

People are not inclined to criminality. If you don’t believe this, take a peek outside your thin, fragile window and see if there’s a rampaging horde out there coming to smash it, kill you and steal your possessions. There isn’t. The vast majority of people follow the rules we’ve all laid down, not just by law but more importantly by shared convention over thousands, even millions of years.

The crime of internet piracy is not as visceral as straightforward theft because we are physically detached from any victim and unconvinced of the impact. Our evolved conventions are much more powerful than our imposed laws in shaping our actions: a few keyboard taps just doesn’t feel like a crime without an object to be removed and without our peers to witness it. Especially since we are not ‘removing’ anything: we are simply copying. ‘File-sharing’ is technically a much more accurate term.

The pirating of TV shows and films is a crime that I believe many people would not commit if there was a truly direct alternative that was available to the whole, global internet community equally and offered the same possibilities as the download experience.

*It’s worth pointing out that many people who do torrent Game of Thrones and other shows may have paid to access them legally in other ways. What if someone has a Now TV subscription but wants to watch GoT on the train? Torrenting is the obvious option. Likewise if someone has purchased a DVD or Bluray but wants to watch a film on their tablet: should they be expected to buy the same intellectual property many times over for different devices? Industry attempts to address this issue (like Ultraviolet) have not been very slick.

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Tom Cheesewright