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Meet the “Pro-Piracy” Professor Who Studies ‘Game of Thrones’ Downloads

November 2, 2017
by Bill Snyder
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It wasn’t long ago that we all watched television on a bulky, cathode-ray TV connected to a pricey cable or satellite service. Now televisions are flat and the pay-TV industry is fading fast as consumers switch to online streaming on a plethora of digital devices. But the companies that pump out the content are still dependent on outdated business models and stubbornly ignore the transformational effects that fan fiction and even piracy could bring, says Abigail De Kosnik, an associate professor of new media studies at UC Berkeley.

De Kosnik garnered some notice in the technology press last summer when alpha60, a data analytics project she and her husband run, revealed that roughly 14 percent of the people who watched the season premiere of HBO’s Game of Thrones never paid for the privilege. Instead, they pirated it through BitTorrent—a free, decentralized technology that allows users to upload music and video and share it with thousands of others.

The level of piracy may not be high enough to shake the Seven Kingdoms, but it does seem to be giving television executives a bit of heartburn. HBO, which declined to comment on De Kosnik’s data, has already sent warning letters to thousands of alleged video pirates via their Internet service providers, according to TorrentFreak, a website devoted to the technology of piracy.

But De Kosnik, who has written extensively about popular media and the culture of fans, says that video piracy is far from being an evil that should be stamped out. Media companies should learn from pirates’ activities, she says, and viewers should not be punished for consuming it on the cheap.

“My philo­sophy about [media-pirating service] Bit­Torrent is that it is one of the best ways to acquire media—and I think media com­panies have a need to embrace pro­to­cols that people want to use to acquire media,” says Abigail De Kosnik, associate professor of new media studies at Cal.

“My philosophy about BitTorrent is that it is one of the best ways to acquire media—and I think media companies have a need to embrace protocols that people want to use to acquire media,” De Kosnik says.

But aren’t pirates simply stealing someone’s intellectual property?

“TV was free for years. You’d pay by watching commercials. Cable is way overpriced and that’s one reason why people are using BitTorrent,” De Kosnik says, noting that the media has long blamed those who torrent for entertainment industry struggles. “There’s a lot of antipiracy rhetoric that puts a lot of guilt on Internet users.” 

Companies like HBO have to find ways to cope, and it’s futile to think that consumers should be the ones to help the entertainment industry adapt to technological change, she says.

That may not sound like an argument the industry would endorse, but none other than Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes made similar points in an interview with Forbes in 2014. “Our experience is, [that piracy] leads to more penetration, more paying subs, more health for HBO, less reliance on having to do paid advertising…. If you go around the world, Game of Thrones is the most pirated show in the world.” (Time Warner is the parent company of HBO.)

Even so, there’s a good deal of money at stake. When three films—The Imitation Game, American Sniper, and Selma—were nominated for Oscars in 2015, illegal downloads of those hit releases soared, costing Hollywood an estimated $35 million in lost revenue, according to Irdeto, a digital security company. A Facebook user pirated a stream of an important boxing match in Australia and it was viewed by 100,000 of his followers, the security company says.

De Kosnik points to the development of the telephone network, and says that the telegraph industry disappeared because it couldn’t adapt. Premium TV and cable could go the same way, she warns. But the pattern of illegal viewing could be a source of useful information for HBO. Alpha60 revealed that most of the illegal BitTorrent downloads occurred in large cities in Asia, and that should give HBO a clue of where its service is overpriced or simply not available to millions of people who would like to be viewers.

“It is not the user’s or consumer’s problem to solve a business model question,” De Kosnik says. “How anyone is going to monetize this is the business of people who want to make it their business.”

“Piracy works to promote media titles, make them more popular, get more people talking about them, make them more relevant to contemporary cultural conversations,” De Kosnik says. “Piracy can be a form of marketing that media companies don’t have to pay for, and pirates can become loyal customers or, at the least, loyal marketers who get others interested enough to become customers.”

“It is not the user’s or consumer’s problem to solve a business model question. How anyone is going to monetize this is the business of people who want to make it their business,” she says.

Although some media companies say they are doubling down on efforts to combat piracy, De Kosnik calls those efforts, “an impossible fight.”

“Any new uses to which we put new technologies are signals to industries,” De Kosnik says. “What piracy is saying is that the old models are not the best models.”

Detour to Cal

De Kosnik’s had earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Stanford and was on track to enter a doctoral program, when she realized she needed a change. “I was so done with school. I couldn’t imagine myself spending the rest of my 20s in a library,” she recalls. And with the encouragement of her mentor, she looked for work in business. At first, her job with a private test-tutoring company kept her interested and engaged. About the time she was promoted to COO of one of the company’s subsidiaries, a mentoring session with her then boss made her question whether the business world was right for her: “He was telling me my whole job was managing expectations. There’s not much creativity in that,” she says.

Even so, she accepted a promotion and agreed to move to New York City. But right after she signed a lease, the devastating attacks of 9/11 occurred, and De Kosnik realized she couldn’t live in that city. The tragedy, she says, “made me realize you can’t defer your dreams.” After a period of travel, she returned to school and earned a Ph.D. in comparative literature studies from Northwestern University.

De Kosnik now holds a joint appointment in the Berkeley Center for New Media and in the Department of Theater, Dance & Performance Studies. She makes no bones about being opinionated, a trait that earned her bad reviews from a few former students who found her classes “one-sided.” Twice as many student evaluatrs, though, rated her teaching as “awesome.”

A feminist who studies LGBTQ culture, De Kosnik says she’s well aware that Game of Thrones has frequently been criticized for its depictions of violence against women. “Those are legitimate critiques of the show,” she says. “But nearly 100 percent of mass media content is problematic in some ways.” She watches the show, “but I don’t watch the scenes where woman are brutalized,” she says.

She says she became interested in studying and quantifying piracy when it occurred to her that television scholars in the digital age had challenges measuring viewership. “I’m Generation X, basically parallel with the Stranger Things kids, and I grew up in a period with four television channels. Nielsen ratings appeared in the paper…. Now, Netflix doesn’t release any ratings, and neither does Hulu…. One thing I knew I could get a sense of viewership from BitTorrent downloading…. It doesn’t quantify everything but at least it tells us how many people acquired a piece of content, whereas one Nielsen family represents to Nielsen 30,000 households.” The “unsanctioned” numbers, she feels, paint a more accurate picture of content demand.

What’s next on her personal agenda? De Kosnik plans to deepen her research into BitTorrent by studying illegal downloads of more shows, including the CBS reboot of the Star Trek franchise. Selling data from alpha60 to entertainment companies is an attractive option, she says, but not if it’s used to prosecute users. “I’m pro-piracy. I don’t see pirates as the enemy or piracy as something that should be illegal.”

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