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.

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