When does predicting what might happen on a TV show cross the line into spoiling it for other fans? And can predictions ever cross the line into copyright infringement?
Fans of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead are currently dealing with these very questions, because the series’ respective networks have started attempting to censor some fans’ predictions, lest they ruin the viewing experience for others (or, more cynically, to prevent those predictions from diverting the buzz that typically surrounds big episodes and storylines).
For months, The Walking Dead’s parent network AMC has been using copyright claims to tighten its vigil on spoilers leaked online — regardless of whether the people doing the spoiling claim to have insider information confirming their accuracy. Meanwhile, HBO has also been issuing DMCAs regarding spoilers for Game of Thrones.
The potential for spoiler leaks is always a concern, and much of the networks’ crackdown is understandable — after all, the leaks frequently involve copyrighted material, in the form of either a leaked script or a leaked screener.
But if these networks really want to take on the culture of prediction-based engagement around their massively popular TV shows, they have their work cut out for them: Changing the inherently nosy and inquisitive nature of fandom will be easier said than done.
Viewer response to The Walking Dead’s "Lucille Victim" cliffhanger perfectly illustrates how fan speculation works
The Walking Dead’s sixth season ended with a mighty cliffhanger: Someone or someone got "Lucille’d," a.k.a. bashed in the head (and almost certainly killed) by the character Negan and his barbed wire–wrapped baseball bat named Lucille.
The only problem is that we don't know who suffered that terrible fate, a topic that has inspired intense discussion among The Walking Dead’s most devoted fans. Some are drumming up elaborate fan theories to try to explain what we saw, while others are trying to avoid potential spoilers at all costs — even if they’re currently just unproven predictions.
This dichotomy is common. All TV fans must decide for themselves whether they want to read spoilers for what’s coming up on their favorite show and, if not, how far they’re willing to go to avoid them. For most fans, there’s no harm in simply making predictions about what might happen, even if those predictions turn out to be wrong in the end. Indeed, trading speculation is a huge part of the appeal of fandom for many viewers.
The Spoiling Dead is an online community for The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead fans; its fan forum, Tumblr, and Facebook page are followed by nearly 400,000 people. And as fandom spoiler forums go, it’s extremely typical: For the most part, fans in the community occupy themselves with news postings and theories about what The Walking Dead’s future could hold. One recent thread mulls the possibility of a certain character’s long-expected death. Another asks fans to weigh in on which character is "the Lucille Victim"; though it was created in February, months before the relevant episode aired, fans knew the moment was coming because it’s a huge plot point in the comic series The Walking Dead is based on.
The website’s Facebook channel regularly posts photos from The Walking Dead’s filming locations, rumors and general gossip about the show, and spoilers that have allegedly leaked from people working on the set (most of these spoilers go unconfirmed). The site moderators also maintain ongoing spoiler threads based on leaked set information; they’re available only to registered members of the site, so you can only see them if you’ve actively decided you want to be spoiled.
"Kudos to the whole TWD cast/crew," one such post reads. "They probably hate our nosey guts, but tracking filming has given us so much appreciation for what these hardworking, dedicated people do to make this show so great. We see you. We see what you're doing and we fucking love it!"
The appreciation, however, is anything but mutual.
AMC is trying to police fans’ predictions by claiming they infringe on the network’s copyrighted material
In February, AMC sent a DMCA notice to the Spoiling Dead, ordering the site to remove a spoiler-laden review of an upcoming episode. The review was written based on a screener of the episode that AMC had sent to the website as a courtesy, and posting a recap before the episode aired was a clear violation of the network’s screener policy.
But now the Spoiling Dead’s moderators fear that other "spoilers" — namely, pure speculation by fans — may also come under fire. On June 13, the website announced that it had received a cease and desist order from AMC declaring that if the website released any predictions about the Lucille Victim that turned out to be true, it would be subject to legal action.
"If we post our Lucille Victim prediction and we're right, AMC says they will sue us," the website moderators wrote. "Their stance is that making such a prediction would be considered copyright infringement."
The website moderators believe they are "victims of our own success" and allege that AMC has spent the past two years attempting to intimidate them:
AMC has filed several wrongful DMCA notices against us with full knowledge that we could not file counter-notices, hired investigators to intimidate our members, and threatened our local members with arrest, among other questionable acts. We’re also pretty sure they had something to do with the DOS attack on our site just before the finale last season. They have exhibited every quality of a bully pounding its chest.
They also accused AMC of "harassing us for four days now by contacting our homes, our family members and our employers."
In a copy of the cease and desist order obtained by TorrentFreak, AMC asserts, "The release of plot summaries and particularly the types of crucial plot elements that you have stated you intend to release, have been found to constitute copyright infringement."
TorrentFreak pointed out that copyright law regarding fair use of the spoilers wasn’t nearly as clear as AMC’s legalese made it out to be. But the prospect of expensive legal action and more of what they construed as harassment was all too much for the Spoiling Dead’s moderators: They announced that they would not be leaking any spoilers or speculation about who Negan killed in the months leading up to The Walking Dead’s season seven premiere in October.
AMC isn't alone: HBO is also looking to take down spoiler leaks for good
On YouTube, a Spanish fan who goes by the name of Dr. Jose Senaris frequently posts spoilers and speculation, in Spanish, for the HBO series Game of Thrones. A few months ago, Senaris began posting "predictions" for upcoming Game of Thrones episodes. Though he initially claimed to just be doing guesswork, he clearly had an inside source, as he was "guessing" numerous exact details of full episodes days in advance, details that repeatedly turned out to be true.
In May, Senaris admitted that he received spoilers at random times from an unidentified source via email. Just two days later, HBO issued a DMCA copyright claim against one of Senaris’s prediction videos for an upcoming episode — even though it contained no footage from the show and consisted primarily of Senaris in costume discussing potential spoilers for the third episode of season six.
In a reaction video posted after the takedown, Senaris made it clear that in the video HBO targeted, he hadn’t specified whether his predictions were based on leaked spoilers or not. He also protested the basis of the copyright claim: "They think that me dressed as a Mexican wrestler talking about predictions for chapter 3 in Game of Thrones is their property, is copyrighted material that belongs to me!"
Evidently, HBO ultimately agreed the claim was flimsy; within a few days, Senaris's prediction video, as well as a few other Game of Thrones videos HBO had attempted to DMCA, was restored. Since getting hit with the takedown notice, however, Senaris has insisted that from here on out, he is only using publicly available information.
Meanwhile, Reddit’s spoiler-friendly Game of Thrones community r/freefolk (which hosted an AMA with Senaris a few days before the takedown) has attracted a wave of new readers since Senaris’s troubles garnered media attention. The fans there often refer to two more popular Game of Thrones subreddits, r/asoiaf and r/GameofThrones, as "kneeler" communities — meaning they kneel to authorities — because of their policies prohibiting spoilers and leaks.
And now other redditors bearing spoilers are stepping in to fill Senaris’s place.
In fandom, spoilers are practically a way of life — and legal threats won’t change that
Search the titles of your favorite TV shows on YouTube and you’ll most likely find a teeming hive of predictions based around upcoming episodes or even whole seasons. Massively popular shows like The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and even The Bachelor are primed for this kind of spoiler-driven speculation.
For example, "Reality Steve" has been publishing gossip, much of it accurate, about The Bachelor and other reality series for years; even though he’s been sued many times for leaking his too-accurate information, he’s been able to continue basing his predictions solely on publicly available information (or so he says).
And policing that publicly available information is difficult. Thirteen years ago, fans of Survivor famously pieced together spoilers and correctly predicted the winner of Survivor: Amazon before the season had even aired, based solely on information gleaned from hotel staff on location. Today, fans like those at the Spoiling Dead frequently prove their mettle by bringing back info from filming sites.
Elsewhere, information from the set of the BBC’s few-and-far-between episodes of Sherlock is so coveted by the show’s fandom that there’s an entire hashtag devoted to the practice of sneaking photos and gossip from filming locations: #Setlock. The details coming out of these types of posts, such as which actors are on set which days, often make it easy to suss out major spoilers before they happen, even without having any official plot details.
"Let’s be real here," wrote the Spoiling Dead’s moderators in Monday’s announcement. "It’s unreasonable to think for a moment that the Lucille spoiler won’t come out before the air date. Our 2% [the community’s 400,000 members comprise roughly 2 percent of The Walking Dead’s estimated audience of 21 million] of the viewership knows better."
The group noted they "aren't the only spoiler business in the game" and that "simple observation and deduction can’t be prohibited." They’ve also vowed to continue posting photos and observations from clandestine visits to the set, which should inevitably help other fans to draw conclusions about who lives and who dies in season seven.
Until AMC and HBO figure out how to keep fans away from filming locations altogether, and to prevent set visitors (and sometimes crew members) from sharing what they know, it seems likely that spoilers will remain just as hard to kill as the undead hordes on each of their hit shows.
Update 1: A spokesperson for AMC has alleged in an email to Vox that the Spoiling Dead website claimed to have received an official spoiler leak for the identity of the Lucille Victim prior to AMC's Cease and Desist letter. The spokesperson included the following alleged screengrab of the now-deleted post:
AMC became aware of the now-deleted post shortly before first contacting The Spoiling Dead website on June 7.
Update 2: In an email to Vox, a Spoiling Dead administrator responded to the AMC claim by noting that the Facebook poster shown in the screencap above was an underaged community member who was not affiliated with the website in any official capacity. The administrator claimed to Vox that the user had misinterpreted the forum post referred to in the screencap shown above. The forum post in question refers to "actual confirmation" of the Lucille Victim having been received. The Spoiling Dead administrator told Vox that in the view of the website, "actual confirmation" does not equate to leaked information:
"When we post our spoilers we always state at the end that the information we're posting we believe is accurate at the time it is posted, but that nothing is confirmed until the episode airs. Re-shoots can happen. Editing happens. Changes get made. And yes, some trickery by the show runners happens as well. . . .
Basically, AMC took a post of an excited child who twisted the words of one of our staff members who made a post on our site, posted his interpretation in the visitor's section. Never once did we claim we had 'leaked' information."