The finale of the recent season of Game of Thrones has opened up debate about illegal downloading in Australia.
File-sharing website TorrentFreak reported Game of Thrones set a new record for illegal downloads this week, with about 1.5 million file sharers downloading a pirated copy of the season four finale of the show in the 12 hours after it was released in the US. Data was released showing Australians have increased their lead as the world champions of piracy.
The outcry, of course, was led by the company most affected by the downloading of the program, Foxtel.
Foxtel says about 500,000 Australians watch each episode via a paid subscription, while another half a million download it illegally. They claim that the people who do the downloading are thieves, and is urging the Government to enact legislation that will make it much more difficult to illegally download popular programs, video games and music.
It all sounds like the late nineties when music companies were complaining about kids downloading and sharing their music for free and beginning witch-hunts to prosecute those who did.
And this is where the Australian Government needs to tread carefully. As in the late nineties, the questions around piracy shouldn’t be “who?” and “how?”, the questions should be “why?”.
Why are Australians downloading illegally more than any other nation?
Could it be because our small and heavily protected media industry is not giving consumer a fair go?
Could it be because Australians must pay much more than consumers in other markets to watch a quality program legally?
Could it be that we are expected to wait to see programs that the rest of the world has already seen?
The argument isn’t really about free, it’ about fair.
Sure, whenever a product can be digitised there will be a small amount of piracy but other industries have also proven that the vast majority of consumers are happy to pay a fair price for media when it is made conveniently available.
iTunes changed the music industry forever and that has led to other services like Pandora and Spotify.
Amazon launched Kindle and we started downloading books and magazines, quickly followed by tablet devices that allowed us to easily subscribe to magazines.
Millions of Australians rent movies and television programs through iTunes / Apple TV, Foxtel on Demand and other services.
But the piracy issue has raised it’s head in Australia mainly due to Foxtel doing content deals with quality television distributors like HBO in an effort to protect a dying business model.
I, like many Australians, am happy enough to subscribe to Foxtel’s basic service and receive a plethora of sport and a handful of decent programs on other channels. I also rent movies and television series through Apple TV / iTunes when they are released in a timely manner.
Programs like The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad and Mad Men aren’t the subject of massive illegal downloading (compared to GoT) because they are made quickly available on either iTunes or standard Foxtel channels. We are happy enough to pay for this.
Many of us are also very happy to pay for viewing programs on Netflix, the home of House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, even though it is geo-blocked in this region.
Programs like Game of Thrones, Louis and (for a while) House of Cards have been downloaded illegally in large numbers because they are not made easily or quickly available due to content deals. Foxtel uses these deals to try to commit consumers to more expensive packages, just for one program. It’s cynical and we don’t like it.
While Foxtel squeals about Australian’s stealing content from artists, Choice’s Erin Turner says Foxtel “has an outdated business model” and can only blame itself.
“It expects people to pay for a whole range of products when they may want [just] one. You’re getting Real Housewives of every city, rather than just Game of Thrones, which you want,” she told 7.30.
“It also locks people into viewing content on particular devices. They’re developing this. Ultimately the problem is there are few competitors to Foxtel in Australia.
“There are few choices. If you want to watch Game of Thrones for example, Foxtel is the only place to go.”
Foxtel wants the Federal Government to introduce laws that would force internet companies, or ISPs, to block illegal download methods, and send warning letters to offenders. Worryingly, the Government is paying attention to Foxtel’s argument rather than questioning “why” this is happening.
Piracy in a wealthy western economy like Australia is a strong signal that the business model is wrong, not the consumer. The market is making a decision because they don’t accept the deal they have been offered.
Like the music and publishing industries, television, especially subscription TV, needs to look at it’s business model and give consumers what they want rather than treating them with contempt. It is the only fair and proper way to address illegal downloads.