Earlier this week, The Walking Dead “fan” site The Spoiling Dead claimed that they had been threatened with legal action if they spoiled the identity of the victim of a villain named Negan in the upcoming seventh season premiere of the series. Under threat of lawsuit, The Spoiling Dead bowed to pressure from the network and agreed to stop speculating on who that victim will be, but not before the site triggered a round of rumors suggesting who Negan had killed.
This is particularly noteworthy in the case of The Spoiling Dead because the site has a lengthy track record of accurately producing future deaths and other plot points. In fact, it was The Spoiling Dead that spoiled much of the Internet to the fact that Glenn had not died in last season’s third episode by posting photos of him on The Walking Dead set filming subsequent episodes.
Some of the information that The Spoiling Dead receives comes from fans lurking around The Walking Dead set taking photos and reporting back their findings. Occasionally, the information they receive seems to come from sources inside production of the series. They also basically provide entire plot synopses of each episode a few days before it airs. I don’t know who provides these spoiler-filled plot synopses, but I have noticed that the website typically posts them on the same day that critics receive screener links. My guess is that a critic or someone else in the industry close to The Walking Dead provides these spoilers. That critic or other insider is not only a jerk, but he or she is violating the agreement they made with AMC when the network provided him or her with screeners.
Regardless of where the spoilers come from, they are often accurate, which is obviously upsetting to AMC. The network spends millions of dollars to produce these episodes and takes great pains to to maintain the surprise for viewers. Consequently, they hit The Spoiling Dead with a cease and desist letter, threatening to sue under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) if the site continued to speculate on who would die.
Fans of the spoiler site were, unsurprisingly, livid. “Their speculation is probably accurate so AMC is just lashing out like an immature child,” one commenter stated on Reddit. “Well if the writers hadn’t been stupid enough to leave on a cliffhanger, they wouldn’t have to stoop this low. This is the writers’ fault for being so stupid,” chimed in another. A TSD reader commented, “This is outrageous!!! F*cking shame on you AMC,” while another added, “I have gone on record stating AMC are asses. This is more proof of their assery. They will resort to whatever means they can to try to get their agendas pushed.”
There are more than 1500 comments that express similar sentiments.
A similar thing happened last year over on HBO, when that network threatened to sue a YouTube user who was posting videos predicting Game of Thrones plot points that were unusually accurate. The YouTube user, who admitted he received his scoops from an anonymous source, ultimately agreed to pull the videos.
The question many might have in these cases is whether AMC or HBO — if they did decide to follow through and bring suit — would actually win, or are they just using the threat of litigation to scare aways people who don’t have the resources to take the battle to court? The answer to that is not entirely straightforward. Plot details would constitute original creative expression and can be protected under the copyright laws (in fact, there are potentially both civil and criminal statutes against revealing plot details). However, there may be some wiggle room where it concerns fair use. Limited details are certainly allowable — short episode descriptions are often provided in advance of air dates, after all — but revealing who died at the hands of Negan is the exact kind of detail that would likely run afoul of those copyright laws.
Where it gets tricky, however, is difference between when spoilers are based on predictions and when spoilers are based on actual knowledge from watching the episodes, reading the scripts, or receiving information from people who have watched the episode or read the script (or worked on the episode).
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with speculating. In fact, that’s what The Walking Dead was encouraging when they decided to end season six on a huge cliffhanger. They wanted viewers to try and guess who would die (and Scott Gimple even suggested there were a few clues in the episode to help). However, there is a difference between reading the clues and speculating (which is essentially my job when it comes to The Walking Dead) and revealing spoilers based on actual knowledge of the script or episode. The former is fun; the latter is a dick move, and potentially illegal.
The Spoiling Dead would claim that they are merely speculating based upon information they have gleaned from lurkers taking photos of the set. That may be true, but their track record also suggests they are receiving some information from an inside source (and where it concerns their ability to provide extensive details for each episode, they are clearly benefiting from someone’s screeners). The access to screeners seems to provide the link AMC needs to mount a successful copyright infringement lawsuit.
Still, until screeners are released, I don’t think that The Spoiling Dead has much information beyond what is provided to them by spies. However, AMC need only link The Spoiling Dead’s speculative information to insider knowledge gained from screeners — via the episode descriptions, for instance — to suggest that The Spoiling Dead is receiving and passing on copyrighted material to their readers. That’s illegal.
In other words, this is not a fight that The Spoiling Dead should pursue. They might not lose, but the lawsuit would bankrupt them even before a judgement is handed down.
However, The Spoiling Dead does plan to continue to provide reports and photographs from the set, which may provide readers enough information to put two and two together to deduce who Negan kills in the seventh season premiere. There’s nothing illegal about that. But is that something they should be doing? What service are they providing beyond ruining the surprise for viewers?
The Spoiling Dead will claim — and they have claimed — that spoilers help their readers better appreciate the episode. That might actually be true, according to science, for some of their readers. After all, they continue to watch and enjoy the episodes despite returning week after week to be spoiled to what’s coming.
However, this is the internet, and spoilers can’t be contained within a website or a Facebook page. They get out, and invariably, a lot of people who don’t want to be spoiled will stumble across these plot details. Other websites, likewise, will pick up and post these spoilers, and those spoilers will quickly spread on social media.
More importantly, why should a website or a Facebook page be able to exploit the creative, original expression of others for their own benefit? AMC and The Walking Dead have the right to reveal plot details and spoilers at their own leisure. If that doesn’t suit the viewers, they don’t have to watch the series. Some guy with a Facebook page and an inside line to an unscrupulous critic or a spiteful production member shouldn’t be afforded the ability to spoil someone else’s work at the potential cost of millions of dollars to a network in order to satisfy a few overanxious, impatient viewers.
It’s one thing to figure out a spoiler, and it’s another to have it be revealed. The Walking Dead should be able to operate on its own terms, as Mad Men and Breaking Bad were able to do. The series should not be penalized because it films on outside locations. This shouldn’t be an issue of copyright infringement. It should be an issue of common sense and respect. It’s as simple as this: Don’t steal other people’s work.