04/22/2015 04:04 EDT | Updated 04/23/2015 07:59 EDT

Canadians Are Leading ‘Game Of Thrones' Pirates, And HBO Is Cracking Down

Nearly one in five Canadians who watched “Game of Thrones” in the first week of the new season did so through piracy, more than twice the rate in the U.S., researchers have found.

The news comes as HBO launches a crackdown on viewers, including Canadians, who watch its programs through less than fully legal means.

According to research from media intelligence firm Tru Optik, published on the Torrentfreak website, Canadians were among the leading pirates of “Game of Thrones,” downloading the show nearly 1.3 million times in the week after the season five premiere.

On a per-capita basis, Australians led the pack, with fully 32 per cent of viewers there pirating the show. In Canada, 19 per cent viewed the show through piracy, more than double the 8 per cent in the U.S.

HBO has in the past taken a lackadaisical attitude towards piracy. Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes once said that “Game of Thrones” being the most pirated show in the world is “better than an Emmy.”

But that era appears to be coming to an end, following the leak of the first four episodes of the new season of “Game of Thrones” online last week, at about the same time the first episode aired on the premium network.

HBO has begun emailing Canadians who it believes downloaded the leaked episodes.

A Bell Canada customer posted online a letter from HBO they got through their internet provider, as per the rules set out under Canada’s copyright rules.

“HBO requests that you immediately take steps to prevent further downloading or uploading of HBO content without authorization,” the letter read in part.

Unlike U.S. viewers, Canadians don’t have access to HBO Now, the premium network’s new Netflix-like streaming service.

Canadians can access streaming HBO content through CraveTV, the streaming service from Bell Media, which owns the rights to HBO’s catalog in Canada. But unlike HBO Now, that service requires a cable or satellite TV subscription with Bell or one of its partners.

Some Canadians have been getting around that through the use of virtual private network (VPN) services that mask a user’s geographical location, in order to access HBO Now.

But HBO has begun sending letters to these people as well. Torrentfreak obtained a copy of one such letter, which informs the customer that their HBO Now account will be deactivated "without further notice to you."

Under Canada’s copyright laws, unauthorized, non-commercial downloading of a TV show is punishable in the civil courts with a maximum $5,000 fine, which is what HBO could extract from downloaders should it choose to go the courts.

However, Canada’s copyright laws will likely change thanks to negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-country trade deal currently under negotiation. Early drafts of the trade deal have indicated that criminal penalties for unauthorized downloading could be included.

And while many Canadians use geo-unblocking services to access streaming services — particularly Netflix, and now HBO Now — a recent legal analysis suggested the practice may actually be illegal in Canada.

Canada’s new copyright law forbids the use of technologies to crack digital locks. Geo-unblocking services could be seen under the law as one of these now-illegal technologies, law firm Fasken Martineau said in a recent analysis.

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