When an estimated 5.4 million people tuned into this weekend’s final episode for season three of HBO’s Game of Thrones, the fantasy series based upon George R.R. Martin’s novel was quickly crowned “HBO’s Second Most Popular Series Ever” – coming up just behind The Sopranos (specifically, the fifth season of The Sopranos). Between the two screenings on HBO on Sunday night, the episode had 6.3 million viewers in total according to the premium cable channel, but even HBO was underestimating the success of the episode. It turns out, the final number was closer to 6.5 million – and the reason for that bump is because Game of Thrones has amazing success in the realms of Internet piracy.
According to a report on the TorrentFreak blog, the third season finale for Game of Thrones has set a new record for the most pirated television episode on BitTorrent, with “more than 170,000″ sharing the episode simultaneously less than a day after the episode originally aired.
“In recent weeks the hit show has been shared millions of times online,” the blog explained, “but never before have we seen this many people sharing the same file.” At its peak, 171,572 people were apparently sharing a single torrent, with 128,686 sharing compete copies of the episode while 42,886 were downloading.
The report also stated that the season finale episode had been illegally downloaded more than a million times within the first 24 hours of availability, with a prediction that such number could reach five million illegal downloads within weeks. On one hand, this new record could potentially be used to feed the argument: Already advanced by some connected with the HBO show, that piracy is actually a compliment and demonstrates that there is a fanbase for Game of Thrones that is actively participating in seeking out and watching the show. On the other, piracy is piracy, and this can also be pointed at as a sign of those fans taking potential money (from DVD or download sales) from HBO’s virtual pocket.
However, what is particularly interesting about the timing of this record-breaking news is that it does coincide with the show reaching a new ratings peak on HBO. Such piracy isn’t hurting the show itself; At most, it’s preventing even more new viewers from tuning in, but surely the HBO paywall does the same. All of which leaves the question of just how dangerous this kind of piracy is - Could it actually be the case that those downloading the show today through BitTorrent might end up watching the series legally later? Conversely, once a freeloader, are you always a freeloader?