Free Markets And Piracy

This weekend the latest season of Game of Thrones premiered on HBO, and online the show – which already has the dubious honor of being the most stolen television show in the world – promptly set a record for piracy:

Game of Thrones season three premiered last night, and that’s kind of a big deal. If you’re a fan, you’ll need no convincing. But if you need proof of its potency, here you go: according to numbers collected by TorrentFreak, the Game of Thrones season three premier now holds the record for the biggest BitTorrent swarm ever.

After the show’s premier, there were a whopping 163,088 peers clamouring to download and seed the episode simultaneously, beating out previous record-holder—the season three premier of Heros— by some twenty thousand. And as of now, it’s been downloaded over a million times, par for the course as far as GoT goes.

A torrent, for the uninitiated, is a method of peer-to-peer file sharing that is impossible to regulate thus enabling widespread piracy which drives the entertainment industry batty. For good reason.

But there’s an economic lesson at hand. Game of Thrones isn’t the most pirated show in the internet because it’s the most popular show in the world. It is, indeed, a very popular show but it also airs on HBO which makes its content relatively difficult to get.

Compare the piracy of Game of Thrones to music piracy, which has been in decline as services like Rdio, Pandora and Spotify have brought us easy and cost-effective access to music on demand.

Even elsewhere in the television and movie world, popular shows like The Walking Dead and others don’t get pirated nearly as often as HBO shows because they’re available on other services like Netflix and Hulu.

If given a choice, more people will access the content through legal (and paid) options instead of pirating it.

HBO’s quandary is that their business model currently depends on cable subscriptions. They are still very much tied to cable companies, and any effort to go around those cable companies to services like Netflix or even just to their own streaming service (which is only available if you have a cable subscription) is likely to anger Big Cable.

The company’s choice is clear, though. Either make the content more accessible, or continue to have it stolen. I don’t condone the stealing – as a capitalist, I think those who produce the content have the right to get paid when others consume it – but it’s a reality of the world we live in.

From an economic and social standpoint, the lesson is that people want what they want. Where there is demand, there will be supply, and regulations – be they implemented by government of private industry – often do little to stop it. Whether we’re talking about the failed “war on drugs” of today, or the failure of alcohol prohibition of another age or the impotency of the entertainment industry and government to rein in online piracy in the future, it’s hard to fight the free market.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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