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From Game of Thrones to Kanye West: Why does everything leak online?

Last month, it was Kanye West and now it’s HBO’s award-winning medieval drama Game of Thrones that must suffer the dreaded online leak. However, these are just two examples from countless others – it seems as though in the digital world online leaks have become the norm.

The Internet, which has vastly improved global communication by enabling ideas to be shared and projects to be collaborated on, has also led to information being leaked with increasing regularity.

Read more: Why HBO’s Game of Thrones leak wasn’t a ‘traditional hack’

With so many individuals working on a programme like Game of Thrones over many months, the opportunities for information to be shared without permission increases. One of the producers of the show, Greg Spence, told the Denver Post last week that leaks were a possibility with a show as vast and complex as Game of Thrones.

"The cast is looping all over the world, sending files back and forth,” he said. "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."

Moreover, this is not the first time that the show has been a victim of online leaks. In January, the trailer for season five was also posted online before its official release.

Aside from being extremely frustrating for content creators and distributors, online leaks also take creative control away from artists, meaning that consumers invariably receive a lower quality product. In the case of the Game of Thrones leak, the five episodes have been made available in 480p rather than the usual HD offering. However, for the music industry the issue of poor quality leaks is often even more severe.

The creation of a song or album occurs over time, evolving with each take or studio session. This means that a number of rough, or demo versions, of songs exist that the artist in question believes should not be released, but online leaks expose these unfinished versions to the world without the artist’s approval.

One recent high-profile example includes the leak of a Kanye West song dedicated to his wife Kim Kardashian, and there are now multiple websites devoted to informing visitors whether or not a track or album has leaked ahead of release.

While the huge amount of online communication means that leaks are virtually impossible to stop, deterrents have been put in place. As Spence noted, visual and audio content will often contain some kind of watermark that can then be used to identify who was behind the leak. If identified, the individual responsible for the leak would likely lose their job and be unable to work in the industry again.

Unfortunately, there are ways to escape identification even if a watermark has been used, meaning that ultimately the only way to prevent future leaks is to cut down on the amount of content shared. HBO is unlikely to be quite so generous with its review copies of Game of Thrones in the future, given that nearly half of the upcoming series has found its way online.

The security breach that often results in these kind of leaks is not a technical one as much as it is a matter of personnel. The demand to see a show like Game of Thrones is so high that someone leaking episodes online ahead of schedule can gain a massive amount of online credibility amongst the piracy community.

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Game of Thrones has been the most pirated show on the Internet for three years running and with the show’s popularity continuing to grow, leaks such as those we’ve seen recently will remain difficult to prevent.