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Who will win the Game of Thrones piracy war?

Australians are among the world’s most enthusiastic pirates of television. Smashing viewing records, the recent Game of Thrones Season 6 premiere was illegally downloaded by more than 100,000 Australians in the first 12 hours of airing on HBO. And HBO has sent thousands of copyright infringement notices to suspected pirates, requesting them to remove all torrents of the show. But while TV networks and the government attempt to make it more difficult for us to access content illegally, it seems that we are still not afraid of the copyright police.

Why we illegally download

So is this a case of Australia’s convict roots driving a severe lack of conscience? It’s more likely due to the fact that for some time Australia has lagged behind the US and UK in TV distribution stakes. However, if the service is good, figures show we are not opposed to paying for entertainment services. After launching in Australia for example, more than 1.89 million people subscribed to Netflix and the figure continues to rise.

The issue is that we now expect to access content as soon as it comes out – and if we cannot do it through a reasonable legal avenue, we will resort to pirating. A report from Australia’s Productivity Commission found that illegal downloads were often driven by frustration, not by a blatant disregard for the system. The report said the current intellectual property system supported IP exporting nations, rather than consumers.

Technology writer Mark Serrels recently pointed out that he didn’t feel guilty about illegally downloading Game of Thrones because a subscription to Foxtel Play did not represent good value for money when compared with alternatives – at $50 per month Foxtel is much more expensive than Netflix at $12 per month, he argued. As long as it’s reasonably easy to get hold of high-quality, free illegal downloads, it seems that television and music distributors face a losing battle.

Why is it a problem?

We all like to get stuff for free and we all want to watch our favourite show as soon as it airs. So why worry about illegally downloading a file? What does it matter when you are just one of a million people? The impact of piracy is pretty scary when you break it down.

If fewer people are paying for content, it will reduce profit for the creative team that made the material. That results in less money being invested in new products, which means less innovation and time being spent creating things in the future. As film producer and politician David Puttnam once said, ‘Pirates are effectively kicking to death the very industry that they see themselves as accessing.’ Piracy impacts the livelihoods of entire creative industries from the distributor to actors and artists, and at a global economic level drains billions out of the economy.

What can be done?

Professor Yong Xiang from Deakin University’s School of Information Technology has worked with researchers at Japan’s Aizu University to create a digital watermark, which would enable distributors and internet service providers to track the source of an illegally distributed file. The technology would be embedded in the footage or song without interfering with the quality of the visual or audio. ‘It’s important to curb the problem,’ Prof. Xiang says and suggests the only barrier to getting the system up and running is finding ‘companies with the willingness to try the technology’.

Your internet service provider can track your activity through your IP address. Some internet companies can slow your downloads if they suspect your of torrenting. And while you might think that you’re a needle in a haystack, global production companies have set out to recoup piracy losses through landmark lawsuits. The company that owns the rights to the film Dallas Buyers Club targeted illegal downloads in Australia in a two-year battle. In this case, the company, DBC LLC, did not proceed with speculative invoicing of iiNet consumers found to have obtained the film illegally. But lawyer Graham Phillips, who acted for iiNet in the case, said other companies might try similar legal avenues in future and said it served as a warning to pirates.

What does the future hold?

Big companies will continue to fight against the pirates. Recently the Australian arms of Universal Music, Warner Music and Sony Music applied to have Kickass Torrents blocked in Australia. But entertainment media organisations continue to struggle against those with the ability to hide their identity using privacy tools such as TOR software.

Some people argue that piracy enables consumers to fight for a better service. It forces large corporations to ensure they’re providing the best possible access to content in a timely manner. And the fact that people often will pay for content if the cost is minimal, sends a strong message about how much consumers value material and are willing to spend on it. So one solution to reduce piracy would be to reform the way the TV is provided in line with what consumers want, making shows cheaply and immediately accessible after airing.

However, Prof. Xiang concludes that watermark technology is needed to protect the entertainment industry. He says it’s strong enough to navigate challenges such as proof of copyright ownership and the source of illegal distribution by giving law enforcement authorities a secret key to extract data. In addition he believes such technology could be applied in a number of additional ways including embedding QR code or credit card billing information, creating new services that would benefit both distributors and consumers.

Want to understand the way piracy works? Study Information Technology at Deakin University.

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Professor Yong Xiang
Professor Yong Xiang

Associate Head of School, Faculty of Science, Engineering and Built Environment, Deakin University
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