Contrary to popular thinking, the rampant piracy of "Game of Thrones" has not harmed the network that airs it, HBO programming president Michael Lombardo told Entertainment Weekly on Sunday, just hours before the show's season three premiere.
"I probably shouldn’t be saying this, but [piracy] is a compliment of sorts,” Lombardo reportedly said. “The demand is there. And it certainly didn’t negatively impact the DVD sales. [Piracy is] something that comes along with having a wildly successful show on a subscription network."
The show's creator, George R. R. Martin, said as much earlier in March, telling The Verge he believes the distribution model for most television shows is a barrier to entry for most people, particularly in international markets where U.S. programs usually take a long time to emerge. He pointed to new distribution models like Netflix, which launched every episode of its political thriller "House of Cards" all at once, saying that if HBO switched to a similar model it would "cut down on some of the piracy."
Even the show's director, David Petrarca, agreed with this point, telling an audience in Australia last February that the rampant piracy has only added to the "cultural buzz" enjoyed by "Game of Thrones." And that kind of buzz is "how [shows] survive," he explained.
"Game of Thrones" was the most pirated television show in 2012, according to piracy blog Torrent Freak, followed by "Dexter" and "The Big Bang Theory." HBO's medieval drama notably received more illegal downloads than it did estimated total viewers on the network itself -- a distinction only "Homeland" and "Dexter" shared last year. And if downloads of Sunday's "Game of Thrones" season three premiere are any indication, it is already on pace to rank among the most popular shows online again in 2013.
So why, if the conventional wisdom about piracy holds true, why are HBO's president of programming and the show's creators more upset about this? Probably because the conventional wisdom on the cost of piracy is almost entirely bogus, and there's recent scientific studies to back that claim up.
In particular, a North Carolina State University study published in 2012 (PDF) found that putting newly released music on file sharing networks actually increased its sales. "I don't find any evidence of a negative effect [from piracy] in any specification, using any instrument," researcher Robert Hammond wrote. "My results suggest that it’s possible to think of [illegal downloads] as promotional activity, but more work needs to be done to understand how general that result is,” he later told Raw Story.
Another study published in March (PDF) by the European Commission Joint Research Centre found the same thing: people who downloaded the most music also bought the most records, and many times they would not have purchased an album at all if they couldn't first preview it online.
Despite HBO's seemingly begrudging acceptance that piracy can be seen as a form of advertising, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) have since the late 1990s led the charge to censor the Internet and chill the spread of new technologies in the name of protecting their intellectual property rights. After spending years suing individuals for illegal downloads and extracting exorbitant judgments, the RIAA began focusing its efforts in 2009 on lobbying Internet service providers (ISPs). Now many of those same ISPs are engaged in a so-called "six strikes" scheme that has them spying on their customers' connections to monitor for potential file sharing activity, which can get repeat offenders booted off the network.