HBO declares war on Game of Thrones pirates, but it may be a losing battle

More than 90 million fans pirated the season's first episode, says one source

Season seven of Game of Thrones has only just begun, and already HBO is cracking down on people illegally downloading the wildly popular TV series.

But it's questionable how successful the TV network's attack will be, especially when many pirates are turning to streaming — a form of piracy that's hard to track but easy to do, even for Luddites.

"It's just a lower technical bar," says Dan Deeth of Sandvine, a broadband equipment company that tracks home internet usage.

According to TorrentFreak, a news site that covers piracy issues, HBO is targeting people suspected of illegally downloading Game of Thrones by sending notices to their internet provider.

The letter asks the provider to immediately inform the customer that they've behaved badly and need to stop.

The notice also encourages the provider "to inform the subscriber that HBO programming can easily be watched and streamed on many devices legally by adding HBO to the subscriber's television package."

Last year, HBO sent a similar message to pirates and raised the ire of many Canadian Thrones fans. That's because new episodes of the show are only available to Canadians with a pricey, top-tier TV subscription.

"It's just not viable for me to spend 150 bucks for HBO," says Josh Randell, who lives in Corner Brook, N.L. He received two warning letters last year telling him to stop downloading Game of Thrones and informing him it's never been easier to legally watch the series.

"It's never been easier, then why can't I get it easy?" says Randell. He says he would happily pay $14.99 US a month for HBO Now, a streaming service only available in the U.S. that offers full access to Game of Thrones shows.

Streaming is king

Despite the warning letters, Randell continues to pirate Game of Thrones, and so do many other people across the globe.

According to the U.K.-based piracy monitoring firm, MUSO, this year's season opener was pirated an astonishingly high 91.74 million times around the world.

"It's a big number but it's a big show and there's high demand," says MUSO CEO Andy Chatterley.

The company based its data on internet traffic to more than 23,000 piracy sites. It found that in most of the cases — a whopping 84.9 per cent — pirates used unauthorized streaming to watch the episode.

MUSO stands by its data but Sandvine's Deeth believes the statistics should be viewed as an estimate, claiming it's hard to track some forms of piracy. But he does agree with the company's findings that streaming, instead of downloading, is now the preferred way to steal content.

"Streaming is just easier to now do because the technology has gotten better," says Deeth, who's based in Waterloo, Ont. "Things like those Android boxes have made it easier for the average consumer."

He's referring to TV boxes loaded with special software that are often advertised with the promise of "free TV," and sold for a one-time fee, typically around $100. Once buyers connect the device to a TV, they can easily stream a vast selection of pirated movies and shows — including Game of Thrones.

"It's as easy as Netflix," says Deeth.

But the shift to streaming will make it even more difficult for TV networks like HBO to catch pirates. Deeth says illegal downloading is public, which means the anti-piracy police can at least figure out the internet provider involved and get it to send the suspect a warning letter.

But he says unauthorized streaming is much harder to track because the content is often encrypted.

"It's impossible to tell what file's what, who's sharing what," says Deeth. "The content is anonymous."

Give them what they want

Deeth suggests the best solution is to offer people easy and affordable streaming services that include premium TV shows.

"If you give people the services they want at a price they think is appropriate on the devices they want to watch it on, they'll pay for it," he says.

Thrones fan Randell agrees. "The content creators deserve their money," he says. "But I want to pay for the content I want, not the content I want plus a bunch of extra crap."

Bell Media owns the rights to HBO content in Canada. It told CBC News that while it continues to look at other options, for now Game of Thrones remains only available to traditional TV subscribers.

"We strongly discourage piracy, which hurts content creators, and encourage all Game of Thrones fans to subscribe to HBO Canada," said spokesperson Scott Henderson in an email to CBC News.

CBC News also asked HBO for comment."HBO aggressively protects its content but finds it counterproductive to publicly discuss our anti-theft tactics," said spokesperson Jeff Cusson in an email.

CBC News, July 30, 2017 (Sophia Harris)

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