Daneary's and Jon Snow along with Drogon and Rhaegal
Daneary's and Jon Snow along with Drogon and Rhaegal | Game of Thrones | Twitter
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There is a line serious “Star Wars” fans repeat to each other, perhaps to prove the depth of their commitment to the franchise. “Han shot first!” they cry, referring to a scene in the original 1977 film that was altered when the film was later digitized and re-released. Nowadays, only fans who happen to possess aging VHS tapes of what has since been renamed “Episode I” are able to see with their own eyes that Han Solo did not kill Greedo in self-defense.

All of which brings us to “Game of Thrones” and the recent tempest in a coffee cup. (Or a tea cup. Theories vary.) Last week, not long after the fourth episode of the final season of HBO’s ratings powerhouse became streamable, social media exploded. The show is set in an imagined medieval reality of blood and fantasy, but eagle-eyed viewers spotted a coffee cup. A modern coffee cup, from our reality, complete with lid and indecipherable logo.

The internet has been having fun with the blooper ever since, but that’s not really the point of the story. The point is that once the error was discovered, HBO changed the scene.

Digitally took out the cup.

One night you’d stream the episode and there sitting on the table in front of the Mother of Dragons would be the wonderfully anachronistic coffee cup. The next night you’d stream the same episode and the cup would be gone.


The mistake the production team made has been unmade. When the final season is released on DVD (for the six people in the world who still buy DVDs), there surely will be no coffee cup.

The only evidence that the error ever happened will be the uncertain vessels of human memory, along with a handful of screenshots floating around cyberspace. In 50 years, the remaining images will be crowded out by noise. A future historian, spelunking through our era to understand what made “Game of Thrones” so popular, may even be unaware that the lapse ever occurred.

To which you might say, “Who cares?”

Well, I do. And not only because accurate history matters. Also because of what the erasure of the cup says about the nature of memory. Used to be, if I bought a book to read or a video to watch, I would own something every bit as solid and touchable as a table. “Tangible” is the term of art. Any typographical errors in the book or stray coffee cups in the video would be mine forever, no different from imperfections in the wood from which the table is built. I could laugh at the errors, be irritated by them, ignore them. Whatever I liked.

But they would always be there, ready to refresh my memory.

True, it’s not uncommon to alter a film between its theatrical and home video release. Disney, after being accused of racism, famously rewrote the lyrics of the opening song of “Aladdin”. Still, if you happened to buy the (altered) version of “Aladdin” on DVD back in the mid-1990s, and Disney later decided to make a further change for future video releases, you’d still be able to watch the one you’d owned all along. Its tangibility created an irrevocable link between today and yesterday.

So much for that.

Nowadays, though, when we buy streaming rights, we’re buying nothing tangible. We’re just buying a license. We enter into a contract with the provider, and we get what we contracted for, on that lengthy form that nobody reads before checking “I agree.” And so, wondering what I might have agreed to about the right of HBO to alter content, I went back and looked.

And you won’t be surprised to learn that the contract is silent. All those legions of highly paid lawyers, and nobody thought about this. The closest reference I found is this line from the “disclaimer of warranties” section: “HBO does not warrant that the functions contained in this service will be available, uninterrupted or error-free.” (Not error-free! The coffee cup!) And there’s one other relevant promise HBO doesn’t make: “that defects will be corrected.”

On the other hand, the fact that HBO explicitly refuses to guarantee that defects will be corrected doesn’t mean it can’t correct them if it so chooses. True, HBO likely had in mind a streaming error, not an error in the streamed content. Still, if some angry viewer in our litigious era wanted to file suit — “I want the version with the coffee cup back!” — not even the most pro-plaintiff judge would have any trouble interpreting the agreement broadly enough to cover an alteration to content.

The coffee cup, in short, is gone forever.

Which brings us back to the business of Han shooting first. Unable to find rare copies of the original VHS, desperate fans have taken to creating their own digital versions, editing the scene to restore what their memories declare to be the truth. I doubt that many “Game of Thrones” fans will ever do the same; and if they do, it won’t be in large numbers. The salience of the two is entirely different. “Han shot first” makes a bold assertion about the personality of a major character. The coffee cup is merely an amusing glitch.

I am a law professor who teaches contracts and who for more than two decades taught intellectual property, and I quite understand both the conceptual and practical changes in our notions of ownership. I’m hardly about to clamor for the way things used to be. Nevertheless, I suspect that in years to come, I shall still find a bit of space to mourn for the rudely vanished coffee cup, a symbol of the passing of the days when we could refresh our memories of what things looked like by pulling them out and looking again.

Also read: Game of Thrones: This is why HBO thinks ‘piracy is better than an Emmy’

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

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