The start of the month of April means different things to different people. Some choose to focus on April Fools’ Day. Others find solace in the oft-repeated truism that ‘April showers bring May flowers.’ However, still others look to April as the start of a new season of HBO’s Game of Thrones. This season’s premiere episode, aired 12 April, garnered a record audience for the series, attracting nearly 8 million viewers despite having the first four episodes of the season leaked online beforehand. Game of Thrones is widely recognized as being one of the world’s most pirated TV shows and, as such, serves as a good stepping on point for the study of intellectual property infringement (piracy) and internet control as well.
HBO has traditionally held a belief rare in the entertainment industry, namely that illegal downloading is not an existential threat to the industry and can, in fact, bolster a show’s popularity and its cultural impact. To date, the sole instance of copyright infringement that HBO has taken an active stance against with regards to Game of Thrones is live streaming via services such as the Twitter-owned Periscope app, and even then HBO is essentially ignoring the tens of thousands of people pirating the show every day. The entertainment industry as a whole, however, is much more of the opinion that piracy is a cancerous scourge destroying the profitability of the music, television, videogame, and film industries. Publically, the entertainment industry claimed that piracy was costing the economy of the United States $200-250 billion per year in addition to approximately 750,000 jobs. The upside is that these numbers being tossed around by the entertainment industry have repeatedly been found to be baseless and of absolutely no value to any real understanding of the effects of piracy. The much more dangerous flipside, however, is that they often are taken at face value by both policy-makers and the public at large.
This innate trust for the entertainment industry has, in recent history, led governments to pursue policy in the interests of finding a quick fix for piracy. Perhaps the most prevalent of these was the United States’ attempted Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which aimed to require internet service providers to block sites associated with intellectual property infringement. While, thankfully, relegated to the past and devoid of any legislative impact, the SOPA affair drew attention to the role of corporate interests in politics and, more notably, how clashes of corporate interests can play out in the public sphere.
The interests of the entertainment industry as a whole and internet giants such as Google and Amazon diverge when unhindered access to the internet comes into question. With regards to the afore-mentioned SOPA debate, the entertainment industry faced stiff (and eventually overwhelming) resistance from lobbyists for tech companies. In 2012, the Internet industry spent about $20 million more than ‘showbiz’ on lobbying, though this difference in spending is only a part of the reason why SOPA failed to enter into law.
Internet focused corporations, such as Wikipedia, Mozilla, and Google, have proven much more adept at mustering public support, and used this support to great effect to combat SOPA. Wikipedia had a ‘blackout’ to draw awareness to SOPA, where it effectively shut down for a day in protest of the proposed act. Google and Mozilla also utilized their web platforms to protest SOPA by altering their logos to reflect censorship. The ability of these platforms to draw awareness to, and shape perception of, legislation like SOPA is something that the entertainment industry simply cannot match. Google alone processes around 3 billion searches per day and, while these are certainly not all unique users, this simple statistic illustrates just how great the reach of internet corporations can be. This campaign by internet corporations preyed on the cultural fears of Western society—namely the general opposition to censorship.
This general fear of censorship played against Hollywood lobbyists in a big way, blocking SOPA and fostering the general perception of the entertainment industry as attempting to manipulate government policy for its own corporate interest. This negative view of the entertainment industry almost certainly plays a role in motivating individuals to seek out pirated content. In this manner, Hollywood’s own attempts to combat piracy have created an environment where individuals are less inclined to pay for content that they see as simply lining the pockets of manipulative and profit-focused corporations. Within this environment, shows like Game of Thrones (and HBO’s take on the piracy of the show) serve as an example of how relations between show runners and fans should be.
The success of Game of Thrones in terms of popularity, profitability, and cultural influence serves as a stark indicator of the ills of the entertainment industry as a whole. HBO’s tolerance for (and tacit approval of) piracy, as well as the dispelling of Hollywood’s general myths of the damages of piracy, has set a new standard for producer-audience relations. Far from being crippled by the rampant piracy of one of its flagship shows, HBO has flourished, with Game of Thrones attracting record numbers of legal viewers and selling DVDs like wildfire. In light of this success, the long-held ‘wisdom’ of fighting internet piracy at every corner is finally being challenged, and HBO has been all the more profitable for its progressive approach. What remains to be seen is how the industry will change as a whole. Will entertainment providers finally recognize their exaggeration of the threat of piracy, or will HBO’s progressive air be lost like words in the wind?