Posted on 2016/11/08 by

Game of Clones: Copying, Authorship, and Ownership of the World’s Most Pirated TV Show

Game of Thrones is the most pirated television show in the world, with up to 1.5 million copies being downloaded on a single day. Additionally, the book series, A Song of Ice and Fire, has sold more than 58 million copies, and Archive of Our Own returns more than 150 000 unique fanfics of Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire. It might just be one of the most reproduced narratives of our times. What does this massive amount of copying do to the ideas of authorship, ownership, and appropriation?

It is hard to look at Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire as a single story, so it is also a little difficult to determine authorship. Does it belong to author George R.R. Martin, who created the world of Westeros and The Seven Kingdoms? Or does the narrative belong to the HBO adaptation’s show-runners Dan Weiss and David Benioff, who have taken the narrative beyond the books, and will most likely write the ending to the story? Or does it belong to the legions of fanfic and fan-theory writers, who have been filling in missing details and theorising about untold plot points while (not-so-patiently) waiting for the “official” series to continue?  All of these participants have “authored” elements of the Seven Kingdoms in some way, and claimed different versions of the story. This lines up with Marcus Boon’s definition of “appropriation”: the act of claiming the right to use, make or own something that someone else claims in the same way.” (Boon 205) Martin, Weiss, Benioff, and all the story’s fans claim parts of the story. But does claiming mean ownership? Do the fans own this story?

The “obvious” answer would be “no”: the story belongs to George R.R. Martin, its original creator. He claims ownership through authoring the narrative – it’s his name on the cover of the books, after all. But not everyone sees it this simply, and many people feel that they have a stake in A Song of Ice and Fire. For example, Martin regularly interacts with and responds to his fans and critics as if he has a responsibility to them, and they often interact with him in a way that suggests they feel that they own the story. Martin’s fans definitely have “the expectation …that they’ll be able to interact with the fictional worlds they adore, and even sway the activities of their creators” (Wershler et al 17).  The fans may not be claiming authorship of Martin’s work, but with this sort of attitude and interaction, they are claiming a sort of ownership over the narrative.

Martin does not always respond favourably to this attitude, but he is often very supportive of and very interested in how invested his fans seem to be in the world he created. This situation reminds me of Benjamin’s description of a movie actor, who “knows that in the end he is confronting the masses. It is they who will control him (Benjamin 33). Martin’s critics and fans are not powerfully “invisible” like Benjamin’s masses: he greets them at conventions, responds to them on forums, and reads fan theories. However, they are influencing Martin’s work. Many fans feel like they are not waiting for Martin’s next instalment, but their next instalment of A Song of Ice and Fire. Martin occasionally caters to this feeling, with apologies about delays in writing, and defences for certain story-line choices. Despite these clear nods to fan influence, and many claims from fans over a certain “ownership” of the story, Martin insists that he is writing the books for himself, to his own standards and at his own pace. When fans clamor for “their” next book, he responds that he will not finish his story until he is done with it.

So, whose story are David Benihoff and Dan Weiss finishing? The two show runners (who are also big fans who “nerd out” about Martin’s story-lines) adapted the first five books of Martin’s series for the first five seasons of the HBO series Game of Thrones. But by the sixth season, they had run out of source material to adapt. Instead of putting the series on hold while waiting for new material from Martin, Benioff and Weiss took over as authors, and wrote their own new material. They had shifted from adapting source material, to possibly becoming source material.

This shift elevated Weiss and Benioff’s status as authors, which in turn strengthened their claims to authorship/ownership of Games of Thrones, and increased the perceived value of their adaptation. As Marcus Boon points out, “the copy is never allowed the myth of essence that is accorded to other things, and that is used to establish their value” (Boon 233). Perhaps it could have been said that it would be impossible to judge the value of Game of Thrones, because it was always a mere copy of A Song of Ice and Fire. Until it wasn’t. Now that it’s no longer “adapting” from Martin’s written work, is Game of Thrones still an adaptation? Or is it an original in its own right? Has the adaptation appropriated the “essence” and value of the original?

Boon would argue that a copy can only establish value “through deception and dissimulation”, which perhaps could be stretched to included Weiss and Benioff’s deviation from the source material (233). Both Weiss/Benihoff and Martin stress that the two stories will now be different, so that the unwritten original won’t be “spoiled” by the TV adaptation. Martin stresses that “some of the spoilers [fans] may encounter in season six may not be spoilers at all … because the show and the books have diverged, and will continue to do so” (Sims Divide).

I think it’s not really easy to say that Martin’s books still hold the title of “original” and Benioff and Weiss are still producing an adaptation. The roles of copier and copied have been switched, which seems to suggest that Benihoff and Weiss are producing the original now, and Martin is producing the copy.

On top of Benihoff and Weiss and Martin copying from each other, there are also fans copying the books and shows. Game of Thrones in particular is notorious for how much it is copied. However, everyone involved in making the show seems to appreciate that “reproduction do[es] not diminish and destroy the original but – quite the contrary- set[s] off and highlight[s] its value” (Assmann 147). Martin, Benioff, Weiss, and even Time-Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes have all spoken favourably about how frequently the show is pirated, as if it is a compliment. Bewkes is quoted as saying “Game of Thrones is the most pirated show in the world. Well, you know, that’s better than an Emmy” (Tassi Game). Upon hearing that Australia illegally downloads the most episodes per capita, Weiss exclaimed, “Yes! I’ll take it!” (Windolf Connections).

Why are Martin, Benioff, Weiss, and Bewkes, not only unworried that people are stealing their work, but actually pleased? They probably realise that “such free “advertising” or publicity may enhance the artist’s reputation and increase the value of his works.”(Landes 4) The insanely high demand for the TV show creates more demand for both the TV show and the books. As more people watch and talk about the show, more people want to watch it. Martin’s book sales increased by a healthy margin after the show premiered, and HBO gets more and more subscribers each year, despite (or because of) the millions of pirates “stealing” their work. They may in fact be “allowing unauthorized copies to circulate as a deliberate distribution strategy” (Wershler et al 17). HBO does send letters informing people that what they are doing is illegal, but there doesn’t seem to be a real effort to enforce their ownership.

The creators and network may also not subscribe to the idea that the pirates are “stealing” their work at all, or that the copying of their work actually damages it. Marcus Boon suggests that (in a Heideggarian point of view) appropriation of a work grants some legitimacy to its “essence”. He writes that “for Heidegger, the process by which thing come to appear to have essences relies on an appropriation … thus, it is appropriation, rather than essence, that is determinative of these things” ( Boon 218). The fact that so many people take and claim this narrative actually gives a legitimacy to the “essence” (or aura) of the story, demonstrating that it has such a universal appeal. If taking, claiming, and appropriating the story gives it its essence, are these “pirates” and consumers fulfilling a type of author function? What is their role in the creation and legitimization of the Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire phenomenon?

George R.R. Martin’s creation has left his control and been adapted both officially and unofficially. Millions of consumers have taken and made copies of the narrative, both officially and unofficially. Thousands more fans have taken the narrative and authored their own versions, mostly unofficially (but with the exception of Weiss and Benioff’s officially sanctioned version). There are a lot of feelings involved when talking about who owns this narrative, and even more questions. Is the narrative larger than the original author? If the “original” begins copying its own adaptation, is it still “the original”? If the authors allow consumers to influence them, and to take and copy their work, are they still really the authors? When fans feel a sense of ownership and entitlement over a work, and the owners respond to this entitlement, are they legitimising this claim of ownership?



 Works Cited:
Assmann, Aleida, and Jan Assmann. “Air From Other Planets Blowing: the Logic of Authenticity and the Prophet of the Aura.” Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and Michael Marrinan, eds. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003. 147-57.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” Second version. The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media. Ed. Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, Thomas Y. Levin. Trans. Edmund Jephcott, Rodney Livingstone, Howard Eiland, and Others. Cambridge/London: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2008. 19-55.

Boon, Marcus. “Appropriation.” In Praise of Copying. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010. 204-37.

Landes, William M. “Copyright, Borrowed Images and Appropriation Art: An Economic Approach.” _U Chicago Law & Economics, Olin Working Paper_ 113 (2000). 

Sims, David, “ The Growing Divide between Game of Thrones and George R.R. Martin.” The Atlantic. 12 May 2016. Online. 4 November 2016. 

Tassi, Paul. “Game of Thrones sets piracy world record – but does HBO care?”  15 April 2014. Online. 3 November 2016.

Wershler, Darren, Kalervo Sinervo, Shannon Tien. ”A Network Archaeology of Unauthorized Comic Book Scans.” Amodern 2 (2013). Online. 1 November 2016.

Windolf, Jim. “The Surprising Connections between Game of Thrones and Monty Python”. Vanity Fair. 24 March 2014. Online. 6 November 2016. 

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