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4 episodes of Game of Thrones' new season have leaked

Four episodes of the fifth season of Game of Thrones hit illegal downloading sites Saturday, April 11.
Four episodes of the fifth season of Game of Thrones hit illegal downloading sites Saturday, April 11.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.
  1. Nearly half of the upcoming Game of Thrones season leaked Saturday, April 11, with four of the 10 episodes from season five showing up on torrent sites, where users can illegally download and share files.
  2. There have been persistent rumors of further leaks, but so far no such thing has happened.
  3. The number of episodes leaked and the presence of a blurred out watermark on pirated copies strongly suggests they were ripped from a DVD sent to members of the press, but there are many other possibilities for where the episodes could have originated.

Episode leaks are a constant fear for TV networks

This isn't the first time episodes of a TV show have leaked in advance of the show airing. Most pilots of new fall TV series leak to torrent sites over the summer. Way back in 2007, the first four episodes of season six of 24 leaked. Leaks of high-profile projects don't happen all of the time, but they're enough of a reality that there are new stories like this one every few months or so.

Of course, those stories rarely involve the most high-profile, most pirated show on TV, and they rarely involve the episodes being leaked on the same day that show's network is launching a standalone subscription service. Today's HBO news was meant to be dominated by the season premiere and the arrival of HBO Now, which users can subscribe to without a traditional cable package. Instead, it's been marked by this.

"Sadly, it seems the leaked four episodes of the upcoming season of Game of Thrones originated from within a group approved by HBO to receive them. We’re actively assessing how this breach occurred," HBO said in a statement.

Episode leaks happen because so many people have access ahead of time

Most speculation on where the Game of Thrones leak originated centers on screeners sent to the media earlier in April. The number of episodes coincides perfectly with the number of episodes sent to critics and reporters, and a blurred-out watermark on some versions of the files is placed similarly to how watermarks are placed on press screeners.

But this also might be confirmation bias — the media is primarily aware of screeners because we get them, so we naturally assume the leak originated with us.

Note that HBO's statement doesn't say "the press," however. It says "a group approved by HBO." And there are lots and lots of groups approved by HBO, including services that translate episodes into other languages and essentially everybody who works in post-production on the show. Especially with a massive show like Game of Thrones, the size of that latter group is significant.

"The cast is looping all over the world, sending files back and forth. Artists are working in special-effects houses all over the world. The files are watermarked, and editors have to confirm in writing that they've deleted them," Greg Spence, the producer in charge of post-production, told the Denver Post in April.

The leak is probably not going to force HBO to release all episodes on day one, like Netflix does

The natural speculation that follows from the leak is that HBO might start having to release all episodes of the show on its premiere day, like Netflix does. But Netflix is also not immune to piracy — torrents of its shows appear online usually within a few hours of their debut. (The streaming service's Daredevil, which launched Friday, April 10, has almost 14,000 people sharing a file of its complete first season as I write this.)

As the most pirated show on TV, then, Game of Thrones would probably be just as illegally downloaded if the full season leaked as in its current release schedule. The problem here isn't having to wait — it's viewers who want to watch HBO content but don't want to pay to subscribe to HBO.

Thus, HBO has little to no incentive to switch to a Netflix-style release strategy. Plus so much of Game of Thrones' appeal involves the conversation around Game of Thrones — something that would decrease significantly if the show were released all at once.

HBO will surely do its best to find and prosecute the leaker and figure out better ways to create stronger security around its programs. But to some degree, this is an inevitable risk of producing TV in the digital age, and it will always cause HBO headaches.

The network can take solace in at least one thing, though. Episode four ends on a heck of a cliffhanger, and those who pirated the episodes will be in the same boat as those of us who received them legally — waiting until May to find out what happens next. Sometimes, the weekly release schedule really is better.

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