The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The ‘Game of Thrones’ episodes were not ‘leaked’

What is happening between Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) and the Hound (Rory McCann) in this picture isn’t tea and biscuits. And the “Game of Thrones” episodes that ended up online weren’t “leaked.” (Helen Sloan/HBO via Associated Press)

We have a funny way of talking about illicitly gained materials when it comes to the Web. For instance, the nude photos of celebrities that flooded the Internet last year were described in terms charitably described as passive: “The photos were leaked.” They just slipped out there, into the ether.

As Alyssa Rosenberg has noted in these digital pages, that’s nonsense:

Cloud storage lockers do not “leak.” Intimate photographs that famous women and men took with their partners in deeply private moments (and in some cases, when they were underage) are not simply dripping out into the Internet and seeping into other people’s storage accounts, like a case of faulty and annoying plumbing.

These photos were not “leaked.” Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton didn’t slip these to friendly media outlets hoping for a bump in Q rating. They weren’t accidentally uploaded to Twitter and quickly deleted. They weren’t trial balloons offered by politicos testing the waters. The subjects of “the Fappening” were victims of a rather appalling crime. We could say they were “hacked.” Even better, we could even say that they were the victims of theft: Their private property was taken, reproduced and disseminated online for the benefit (financial and otherwise) of strangers.

It’s a small thing, perhaps — a silly bit of semantics — but words matter. When we say that something was “leaked,” we disclaim responsibility. Not only the responsibility of the person who stole the images, mind you, but also the responsibility of those of us who chose to enjoy the ill-gotten fruit. One may feel uncomfortable viewing a photo shot by a peeping Tom, but a photo that just appeared on the Internet one day — a video that just slipped out there, that just leaked onto your computer screen — well, no harm, no foul, right?

I bring this up because we saw something similar this weekend when news broke that the first four episodes of the new season of “Game of Thrones” had been illegally uploaded to numerous torrenting sites and shared with abandon. Each episode has been downloaded more than a million times, according to the Guardian.

These episodes were illicitly obtained, apparently via a screener DVD. That the network likely provided the disc the episode came from is immaterial. This was not some canny strategy of HBO’s to drum up business. Instead, the episodes were illegally uploaded to a variety of sites, where they were then illegally downloaded by a variety of people who, for whatever reason, decided that they couldn’t wait to see what happens next in Westeros.

In other words, these episodes were stolen. They were stolen just as surely as the photos of “the Fappening” were stolen.

And, just as with “the Fappening,” the language used to describe this theft has been distressingly passive.

Entertainment Weekly:

New York Post:


I could go on like this for a while, but hopefully you get the point: The general media consensus was that these episodes simply “leaked” onto the Internet. The biggest worry most news outlets had was that you might wind up getting spoiled. As if the worst thing about the theft and illicit dissemination of products that cost roughly $24 million* to produce is that you might find out which second-tier character eats it in episode three.

“The Fappening” presented a stark, if rather clear-cut, moral quandary. But the theft of “Game of Thrones” adds an additional, tangible economic component: “Game of Thrones” is a fantastically expensive artistic endeavor. It’s a product that cannot survive if people aren’t paying for it. HBO has made it easier than ever for people to watch the show legitimately, debuting a new app (HBO NOW) that will allow you to view the channel without purchasing a cable subscription, yet people are still downloading the new episodes as quickly as they can.

It is no use thinking of this theft in lame, passive, modern terms like a “leak.” We need a better, older, more muscular vocabulary. As Elizabeth Wurtzel noted in her paean to copyright and the Constitution, “Creatocracy: How the Constitution Invented Hollywood,” authors have long considered theft of their work a rather striking violation:

It could hardly be surprising then that by 1710, in his plea for an author’s copyright, Daniel Defoe conceived of plagiarism and piracy as a form of kidnapping:
‘A Book is the Author’s Property, ‘tis the Child of his Inventions, the Brat of his Brain; if he sells his Property, it then becomes the Right of the Purchaser; if not, ‘tis as much his own, as his Wife and Children are his own—But behold in this Christian Nation, these Children of our Heads are seiz’d, captivated, spirited away, and carry’d into Captivity, and there is none to redeem them.’

Now that’s language I can get behind! The “Game of Thrones” episodes were not “leaked.” They were “seiz’d”! They were “captivated”! They were “spirited away” to public torrent sites and passed around for any interested passerby to have his way with. As Wurtzel notes in her brief treatise, the reason the United States has become the intellectual property capital of the world — the reason we create the entertainment you love, the populist and critically acclaimed fare that you consume without end — is because a market exists to support it. And if we break that market, we risk losing it all.

I appreciate the problems faced by headline writers. “Leaked” is a handy word. But it’s not an apt one. It’s not a just one. Not to describe something as obviously immoral as theft.

*According to E!, the average cost of an episode of “Game of Thrones” is some $6 million.