Last Tuesday US Ambassador to Australia Jeffrey Bleich took to Facebook to plead with Australians to stop pirating the popular HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones. Ambassador Bleich chastised his audience reminding them that “stealing is stealing” and pointing out that “the show is now available from legitimate sources within hours of its broadcast in the United States” (how that helps Australians I do not know). Bleich brings up the usual reductive pro-copyright ‘arguments’ like that “piracy is not some victimless crime” or that paying for digital content is something “we all know it is the right thing to do”. I don’t know why Ambassador Bleich thought that writing this Facebook Note was an appropriate use of his time, however, giving credit where credit is due, the Ambassador did express these views in a venue where comments could be made and it is these responses that I’d like to highlight in this post.
While Bleich’s original post glossed over the root issues surrounding illegal online downloads, many of the responses in the comment section were both thoughtful and legitimate counter arguments to the Ambassador’s pirates are the problem narrative.
One of the most commonly expressed sentiments in the comments was frustration in the lack of legal availability of HBO’s content abroad.
Can someone actually tell me how to legally pay to download season 3!?
I’d pay for Game of Thrones if I could get it day of release, in high definition…
I’d be more than happy to pay to watch these shows, if you’d let us…
Piracy is caused by distribution problems. People are willing to pay for content if they can get it…
These complaints all point to the fact that Game of Thrones episodes can be difficult to acquire by legal means, especially abroad. Commenters were quick to point out that this dysfunction was best illustrated by a viral comic from The Oatmeal a while back. Click here or on the image below to read the full comic.
However this problem does seem to have been recently alleviated, to some degree, in the case of Game of Thrones where even Australian netizens can purchase Game of Thrones episodes for $3.49 on iTunes only two days after their original US air date. While this is a great step forward for Game of Thrones, other HBO and network TV content is still difficult to receive in foreign markets. Many of the commenters noted that sites like Hulu are available in the US only, and other services like Netflix have only limited international reach.
It is also worth noting how streaming HBO (via HBO GO) in the United States still requires customers to have a paid cable TV account with their local cable incumbent. Susan Crawford does a great job in her book Captive Audience discussing how cable providers are defendeing their traditional cable distribution platform by forcing a TV-Everywhere model where customers can stream content online only if they authenticate themselves as a paid cable TV subscriber.
Commenters from Australia seemed to be expressing similar frustration in regards to their dominant cable company Foxtel with comments like…
you cannot argue that Foxtel is a valid alternative since a) many people don’t even use televisions in the core demographic we’re talking about, and b) people who just want Game of Thrones shouldn’t have to pay for a whole Pay TV service.
Foxtel is overpriced crap.
Foxtel charges outrageous prices for a bundle of services most of them utterly worthless and riddled with ads. I wouldn’t take up any Foxtel subscription even if you paid me.
A final complaint about international distribution that was repeatedly echoed in the comment section was the way that free trade agreements (don’t even get me started on the Trans Pacific Partnership) worked to price-gouge Australian consumers. For example the way that modern DVDs and Bluray discs are encrypted regionally so that copies sold in the United States cannot be played on DVD players in Australia, allowing companies to charge higher price for Australia compatible discs.
HBO Doesn’t Mind The Piracy
Other commenters questioned why Ambassador Bleich cared so deeply about the issue when HBO and Game of Thrones director David Petrarca don’t seemed to be bothered by the record setting amounts of pirating of their show. Speaking on that exact point, as well as touching on HBO’s distribution problem, was an NPR All Things Considered piece, which a commenter also linked to. Not to be outdone another commenter pointed out the Torrent Freak article discussing the same issue.
Stealing is Stealing
Many commenters were outraged by the Ambassador’s “stealing is stealing” comment and tried to educate him by explaining the distinction between stealing and piracy/copyright infringement, though some commenters did this in a more polite way than others. Some of the more blunt comments included…
“Stealing is stealing.” Yes, but copying is not stealing. Nice strawman.
Sure “stealing is stealing”, but also copyright infringement is copyright infringement. Don’t confuse the two.
“stealing is stealing” and copyright infringement isn’t. To claim that copyright infringement is theft is propaganda and undermines your entire argument.
Copyright infringement is not stealing. Stop spreading lies.
Best look up the definition of “stealing”, ambassador.
…stealing in Australia is NOT copyright infringement. There are clear and distinct legal differences…
-Errol Coultis Dear
And my favorite…
Stealing is stealing. Infringement is infringement. And clueless ambassador is clueless ambassador (with too much free time on his hands apparently).
However other users gave more helpful or thoughtful critiques of equating copyright infringement with stealing including commenter Paul Esson who linked to Dowling v. United States which was a 1985 Supreme court case that decidedly stated that copies of copyrighted works could not be considered stolen property under the law. While most commenters’ legal analyses seemed shaky, several people pointed out the inherent differences between stealing and copying like Otto de Voogd who linked to the music video below, or Justin L. Bridget who posted a this simple yet effective image.
Don’t forget the Snark
Of course this is a comment section and like any other it had it’s fair share of snark. Highlights below…
I just downloaded episode 4 and I’m not from Australia, u mad bro?
Good point sir… I hope the cast, crew… never go broke because of the Australian peoples love and dedication for a TV show and epic book series… These Australian fans would never later purchase the books, blu rays, dvds and other assorted merchandise from the series… The Australian people have always been respected and treated well by TV channels and entertainment companies and their products offered here are always delivered in a timely, reasonable fashion, and Australians always pay fair prices for all of their products…
Wow, glad to know you have your priorities in order ambassador…
Just downloaded season 1 – 2 from The Pirate Bay, cheers
While we’ll never know what compelled Ambassador Bleich to write this initial post (though the commenters are certainly convinced it was the business interests of Hollywood and the MPAA) it did provide for an opportunity to talk about the the dysfunctional international intellectual property regime, and the convergence of entrenched businesses and government that look to perpetuate it. Thank you Ambassador Bleich for kicking off this much needed discussion.
Update: Wired Magazine has a funny article about Game of Thrones character’ hypothetical response to the conrovesy.
Comedian Mindy Kaling makes a joke about online music piracy that touches on the difference between stealing and copyright infringement.