Fans of a spoiler website centered around TV series The Walking Dead were met with shocking news this week via Facebook post.
The website, which crowd-sources eerily accurate predictions for the mega-hit show, would not be posting their latest spoiler due to legal threats by AMC, the show's network.
"Well Buttercups, we have some sad news to share today. After two years, AMC finally reached out to us. But it wasn't a request not to post any info about the Lucille victim or any type of friendly attempt at compromise, it was a cease and desist and a threat of a lawsuit," wrote moderators of the website, called The Spoiling Dead, on the site's Facebook page.
The spoiler in question reveals the true identity of the person killed by character Negan and his barbed bat "Lucille" last season.
AMC's letter informed the fan site that they would press charges if they chose to post the spoiler and it proved to be correct.
The Spoiling Dead started as a Facebook page where fans could get together to share their predictions for upcoming episodes of the show.
Over the last two years, it has grown into a community with around 400,000 Facebook fans and a full-service website where committed fans can talk about the franchise, post fan fiction/art, and even chat about non-zombie related topics.
"Our goal is to provide a place for like-minded, more opinionated fans to gather and discuss these things without their co-workers side-eyeing them at the watercooler," said site co-creator Rachel Campbell.
"As one member put it when she joined, 'I've found my people.'"
But The Spoiling Dead's spot-on predictions about future episodes are the main attraction on the website.
The site moderators mostly rely on analysis, eyewitness reports and photos from the set, and public records that point to filming locations in order to glean accurate spoilers. They also use tips from unidentified sources.
This leaked information is emailed to moderators, who then verify the spoiler via location pictures, analysis or other means. Campbell says it can be a long process to gather enough evidence to confirm a spoiler and that they can't divulge all of their tactics.
"We can't tell you everything about that process because that would be the end of the process," she said.
But it's these insights into the hushed production of the show, where cast and crew sign non-disclosure agreements, that made The Spoiling Dead a target for AMC's legal team.
In a letter sent to the online community last week, lawyer Dennis L. Wilson insisted that the website was infringing on intellectual property and intentionally impairing "the commercial viability of the show."
He cited a 1991 case where the creators of cult TV series Twin Peaks successfully sued an unauthorized book series that re-told the plot of the show after it had already aired on copyright grounds. Wilson argued that AMC could make a similar argument for the fan website.
These aren't the first dealings that The Spoiling Dead have had with the studio's legal team. According to Campbell, AMC submitted multiple takedown requests and tried to subpoena a video they had posted.
She has also heard reports of set location security guards threatening fans with arrest if they didn't leave the area, even when they were observing from public spots.
Campbell also said that the AMC legal team hired a private investigator who directly contacted a few members of the website.
One The Spoiling Dead fan said a private investigator who stated he used to work for the FBI constantly called. "He wanted me to act as a mole and get other information and even said I could be compensated but I said no," said the fan, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of more harassment.
"He said I could possibly go to jail if I kept posting real spoilers. He even called my parents and he contacted me while I was at work." The fan said that the harassment caused anxiety and a near breakdown.
AMC said that no private investigator was hired by the company, and that the firm left voicemails only to confirm that the website had received the takedown notice.
AMC also said the spoiler in question went beyond a standard fan prediction.
"[The website] posted an explicit promise on Facebook to imminently reveal a major 'leaked' plot point for the upcoming season. That goes way beyond speculation or predictions. We feel a responsibility to protect the vast majority of viewers, who simply don't want spoilers to ruin their enjoyment of the series," said AMC spokesman Jim Maiella.
Still, AMC is likely walking on shaky legal grounds, some analysts said. "It's not infringement to make guesses about what will happen in a TV series, even if those guesses turn out to be right," said Mitch Stoltz, a lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
"Copyright doesn't cover facts, or isolated details from a fictional TV show. So revealing which character gets killed, or other spoilers like that, isn't copyright infringement."
In fact, the Lucille victim spoiler singled out by AMC's lawyers is already available to fans through the original comic book series on which the TV show is based.
Nonetheless, Campbell and The Spoiling Dead have decided to acquiesce to AMC's demands and not publish the spoiler. "We do not think any court in the nation would call predicting a fictional show death prior to its airing copyright infringement," said Campbell.
"But it takes money and time to get to that point. I think intimidation was their tactic all along. Whether anyone thinks spoilers are right or wrong isn't the issue here anymore, it's the abuse of legal process and intimidation that is rousing the ire in fans."
Fans have been reacting with anger and a sense of solidarity with The Spoiling Dead on the site's Facebook page.
"We will still find out. Screw AMC for giving us a cliffhanger in the first place," posted one fan. "With everyone still going down there and taking pics and seeing who is on set there's no way they can hide it. I really really hope we can spoil it now just to piss them off."
But what motivates such dedicated fans to work so hard to spoil the show for themselves? Campbell posed the question on The Spoiling Dead's Facebook feed.
One woman posted that she started getting into spoilers when one of her favorite characters on the show was banished. "I wasn't expecting it and I had what I'm guessing was a panic attack. I was so upset and worried that might be the last I saw of my [favourite] character.
"I want to watch live so spoilers allow me to still do that without freaking out. So I guess for me it's a way to deal with the anxiety this show can bring and a way to be prepared," she said. "Or maybe I'm just cray cray."