This week a sensational story broke concerning tech and gaming website Trusted Reviews. Having leaked what turned out to be pretty much spot-on info about Red Dead Redemption 2 all the way back in February of this year, Trusted Reviews were approached by Take-Two’s legal heavyweights and reached a £1 million settlement.
Now, there’s a lot to unpack in a story like this. First and foremost, £1 million is a heck of a lot of money. Game Debate would, quite simply, just die there and then if fined $1.3million. A heck of a lot of sites would suffer the same fate, outside of the massive corporate entities.
So what does this really mean to you, and to the gaming media who bring us all information about the stuff we love?
Well, let's just stop and consider what has happened in simple terms. A goliath gaming publisher didn’t like a news site finding out about, and then sharing, secrets obtained from an anonymous source with the world. The publisher strong arms with legal action. The media outlet removes the article and replaces it with an apology to the goliath game publisher.
Practically every bit of news is the world can be divided up into two categories. The first is public information such as press releases, statements and carefully choreographed reports. In the gaming industry, this is often spoon-fed by publishers and developers and boils down to free advertising for game publishers.
The other type of news is essentially the opposite - it’s whatever people or companies don’t want you to hear about, or where they don't have strict control over the details of the information that’s flowing. Without this second type of news, the news is barely news at all but instead a series of press releases. The Red Dead Redemption 2 slots straight into this second category. It’s something nobody knew, was never announced, and what Rockstar and Take-Two didn’t want us to know. Those providing the news don’t and shouldn’t care whether Take-Two wants it in the public or not. If there are no NDAs or agreements signed, all of that information is fair game.
Just to be very clear here though - an independent outlet posting information that was leaked to them is not illegal. It’s a very common thing to happen, both in games and in any industry in the world. The act of stealing the information would be illegal, so whoever provides the leaked information to a site could be in the frame. However, the journalist who is provided the information from a leaker has committed no crime and has no obligation whatsoever to protect a company’s secrets. In fact, protecting a publisher’s secrets rather than disseminating the information to the readership could be viewed as unethical.
In this particular instance with Red Dead Redemption 2, Kotaku’s Keza MacDonald suggests an issue arose because “Trusted Reviews did not do was verify the identity of the leaker or where the information came from.” Without this crucial bit of information, “nobody at Trusted Reviews knew whether this document was stolen or otherwise obtained via illicit means.”
The other big sticking point here would be if a publication had signed an NDA. This seems highly unlikely as no publication actually went hands-on with Red Dead Redemption 2 until a couple of months ago, to the best of our knowledge. If an NDA was signed though, and it was broken, then this leak could be a gross breach of that agreement and potentially open them up to a lawsuit. It’s an unlikely scenario but we can’t completely rule it out.
But, with any leak, the point of illegality is going to be different every time. If, indeed, there’s any illegality whatsoever. It’s fairly clear that a number of leaks happen intentionally. It’s a fairly standard guerrilla marketing strategy for a publisher to leak screenshots of an unannounced game, for example. However, as we’re seeing with Red Dead, not all leaks are orchestrated. A leak could come from a variety of sources, whether that’s an insider at a company who can’t keep quiet, an avoidable accident like someone peeking at your Shadow of the Tomb Raider marketing docs on the train, or even being outright stolen. Theft is a crime and would clearly be illegal, but there are many other methods within the boundaries of the law.
Whatever the case though, provided a gaming website does not obtain the information through a criminal act, there is nothing illegal about posting a leak. If your sources are tight, your info is good, and it wasn’t obtained illegally, you’re good to go. A publisher may not like it but it’s on them if they can’t keep their products locked down. To step in and legally threaten a gaming website for a game leak is a fairly extreme form of censorship. In most cases, the publisher will be too large, and have too much legal muscle, for a gaming website to even stand a chance. It’s either a lengthy legal battle (which would probably be won, eventually), a settlement, or rolling over and dying. It’s no precedent but it’s certainly a warning sign. a slippery slope that we could be about to tumble down.
However the leak was handled, it doesn’t appear as if it’s put a dent in RDR2’s success. Red Dead 2's already had the biggest opening weekend launch in entertainment history, amassing over $725 million in just three days. We also awarded it a 10/10 ‘Outstanding’ in our Red Dead Redemption 2 review, saying "Red Dead 2 isn't just a great game. It's a game that sets an impossibly high new bar for how open-worlds can be handled."
A large chunk of the games industry revolves around leaks. We get basically months of leaks leading up to E3. while a few key sites appear to have the inside loop on just about every upcoming graphics cards. The more control publishers have over this information, the less we’d know.
It would certainly be fascinating to know the truth behind this big ol’ mess but it’s unlikely to be something we’ll ever know for sure. Just don’t hold your breath for a GTA 6 leak anytime soon, as there’s bound to be a chilling effect from this legal scuffle.