Gamers vs Copyright Law

Gamers aren’t just saving the virtual world, they’re creating it.

Video games have evolved into a fully immersive, customizable experience in which gamers not only play, but also create new content. Players are encouraged to contribute their creativity by designing their own maps, customizing characters, and adding new material to games.

But user-generated content has the potential to infringe upon copyright law, which is casting a shadow on the legality of gamer authorship.

User-generated content for video games has existed for decades, but a gamer’s ability to customize his or her experience has grown as technology has become more sophisticated.

Many developers have created games that are platforms for user creativity. Popular titles like LittleBigPlanet and Minecraft, for example, prioritize user creativity and content designed by the player.

But a problem could arise if users create content derived from copyrighted material.

Rutgers–Camden law professor Greg Lastowka is mapping the intersection of copyright law and user-generated content in video games through research backed by a grant from the National Science Foundation of the US.

“If you allow your users to create any kind of avatar, and someone creates an avatar of Mickey Mouse, Disney might view that as copyright infringement,” Lastowka says. “Video game designers can feel constrained by copyright law in terms of what tools they can provide to users.”

Through his research, Lastowka hopes to provide data on how games enable or constrain player creativity. He says there have been very few empirical studies of interactive media technologies that depend on user-generated content.

This will also allow Lastowka to analyze user-generated content and determine to what degree it complies with copyright law.

Lastowka doubts all user-generated content is either novel or pirated.

The majority likely falls in a gray zone of copyright law, something Lastowka calls a “transformative remix of prior content.”

As video game developers prepare for the next generation of home gaming consoles, beginning with Nintendo’s Wii U later this year, and more games allow for more user creativity, these are important questions to ask.

Copyright law not keeping up

From Napster to iTunes to Pandora, the methods by which the public can obtain and share music have rapidly progressed.

Future groundbreaking innovations may need to wait, though, as the next generation of technology is being stymied by the very copyright laws that seek to protect the industry, says Michael Carrier, a professor of law at Rutgers–Camden.

Attention to copyright and innovation issues increased in early 2012, when thousands of internet sites participated in a “blackout” protest against two controversial anti-piracy laws that would have punished websites that host pirated content.

Due to widespread public protests, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) were ultimately pulled off the table.

Carrier posted his article on this topic to the Social Science Research Network in July, where it became the no. 1 downloaded article and was downloaded 3,000 times in one week.

The article also generated coverage from Billboard magazine, the New York Times blog, and more than 50 music, arts, law, and technology websites around the world.

A Philadelphia resident, Carrier is the author of Innovation for the 21st Century: Harnessing the Power of Intellectual Property and Antitrust Law (Oxford University Press, 2009).

He is a co-director of the Rutgers Institute for Information Policy and Law and teaches courses in intellectual property, antitrust, and property law at the Rutgers School of Law–Camden.

Digital Bill of Rights

A recent proposal for a Digital Bill of Rights.

1. Freedom – digital citizens have a right to a free, uncensored internet
2. Openness – digital citizens have a right to an open, unobstructed internet
3. Equality – all digital citizens are created equal on the internet
4. Participation – digital citizens have a right to peaceably participate where and how they choose on the internet
5. Creativity – digital citizens have a right to create, grow and collaborate on the internet, and be held accountable for what they create
6. Sharing – digital citizens have a right to freely share their ideas, lawful discoveries and opinions on the internet
7. Accessibility – digital citizens have a right to access the internet equally, regardless of who they are or where they are
8. Association – digital citizens have a right to freely associate on the internet
9. Privacy – digital citizens have a right to privacy on the internet
10. Property – digital citizens have a right to benefit from what they create, and be secure in their intellectual property on the internet

You may edit and refine the list on Keep the Web Open.

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