Monday, May 14, 2012

HBO and Book Piracy: Random Thoughts

How often are books pirated? I don't know the answer to that. I think physical books are rarely pirated, unless you count loaning your favorite book to several friends "piracy." E-books are probably pirated more often, but again, it's not my impression that it represents massive losses in sales. Perhaps there's not much of a problem because digital books are relatively cheap to buy and are usually readily available: if you want to buy one, you can. If you'd rather steal it, you probably don't represent a lost sale because you never would have bought it anyway. With physical books and e-books you get exactly what you pay for: one book, a book you wanted.

I recently heard that Game of Thrones has the honor of being the most-pirated TV show on cable. In general, I don't like "stealing" anything, but in this case I'm going to blame the victim. There are only two ways to buy that program legally: you can sign up for HBO—which also requires you to buy a buy a basic cable package if you don't already have it (my family, for instance, does not have cable); or you can buy it one episode at a time through iTunes, but very belatedly, which will keep you out of the "buzz" loop. Also, iTunes charges $3.99 per episode, which means by the time you've watched a season, you've paid more for it than buying the box set when it's released. And I'm pretty sure (although I'd have to check on this) the iTunes GoT episodes have DNR protection on them, which means that they can't be loaded to a thumb drive, and they end up dying with whatever computer you download them to.

This is clearly a marketing mistake. Customers should be able to buy GoT alone, by itself, the way you can buy one book. Not for any sort of ethical reason but for an economic one: HBO is missing an entire market segment. They're missing casual TV watchers who want only one of their products. And since GoT is already streamed online by HBO (via HBO GO) for its subscribers (thus the technological hurdle is crossed), it makes no sense that they shouldn't allow non-HBO subscribers to purchase individual episodes the day after they're aired, or get an online "Game of Thrones Season Pass." Another creative marketing alternative would be to say that if you buy all 10 episodes via iTunes, you're entitled to the DVD set at the end (which you've effectively already bought), and then release the iTunes episodes in a more timely fashion. Or they could allow cable subscribers to turn their subscription on and off by the season. There are dozens of creative solutions waiting out there.

The current model—making customers buy HBO so that they can watch one show—is the book publishing equivalent of Farrar, Straus and Giroux telling their customers, "You can't buy Monstrous Beauty alone, but you can buy every hardcover of the entire fall 2012 season in order to read it." Don't like that deal?  "Fine! You can buy it unbundled from the rest of the season when it comes out in paperback, and every other reader has moved on."

Honestly, Game of Thrones appeals to a generation of people who've purchased their music collection one song at a time. Someone at HBO is a dinosaur.

Finally, I believe that trying to solve the problem of piracy through legislation and harsh enforcement is a mistake. It's something studios and video game companies (and maybe even publishers) want, but it's short-sighted, for a couple of reasons. First, the solutions should come from creative marketing and technological innovations, which can only happen if there's pressure to develop those solutions; and second, a certain amount of free access to content actually spurs more purchases through word-of-mouth advertising, and somehow that power should be harnessed rather than quashed.


  1. I completely agree with you. I don't have HBO either, and iTunes takes way too long to get it. So I’m forced to watch it online. I’m a college student so getting HBO wouldn’t be very practical for me, but if iTunes released each episode as soon as it aired on TV I’d definitely get it there.
    I think there's also a larger problem here, even for books. I lived in Jordan for a couple of years, and they don't have cable there, and their book selection is diminutive, so you're forced to watch and read everything online.

  2. Ah! Really interesting perspective, SA. I hadn't thought about the situation regarding books in other countries.