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Legal and Organizational Issues in Collaborative User-Created Content

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Introduction In this paper we look into issues that arise when people collaboratively create digital content and want to publicly distribute it. We identify and analyze the issues based on four case studies on amateur content production. In our analysis we discuss the issues both from the amateurs’ point of view, and also, from the game brand owners’ perspective. User-created content (UCC) in games has become popular as demonstrated by game-related skins, mods and extensions, screenshots, gameplay videos, game narratives, walk-throughs, websites, articles, fan art, as well as tools for creating the content. Often UCC is a collaborative activity where people share their expertise and skills, and the organization of groups into larger communities can even more advance the quality and distribution of the created material. Communities of amateur content creators can create an identity and a virtual location around their activity (e.g., a website), which can act as a publicity and distribution channel for the content, as well as a discussion forum, knowledge pool, and a place for socializing. However, as the collaborative work starts to gain popularity and move towards more professional production, legal and organizational issues arise that even amateur content creators should address. These issues include decisions on commercialization of the content creation activity, intellectual property rights within the content creators, the brand image of the content or the group, and managing the liability risks in content production. These issues can be critical for the existence of the content creation community, and are often largely ignored until they manifest themselves with negative consequences. Case Studies Two of the four cases in our study are computer game related: user-created fan websites for Habbo Hotel, and user-created game worlds for Neverwinter Nights. The other two cases are not directly game-related: a micro-movie producer community Blauereiter, and an electronic publication The Melrose Mirror. The last two examples were chosen to illustrate aspects arising from amateur media content production that may become more relevant for game-related UCC in the future. Habbo Hotel is a virtual meeting place on the Internet where the gamers can create their own characters, and a hotel room for their character where other characters can visit. Habbo Hotel is owned and developed by Sulake Inc, and it has 2,3 million users worldwide. Habbo Hotel has a devoted fan community that publishes their own fan web pages that are graphically and thematically similar to the Habbo Hotel. Currently Sulake is strongly controlling the contents of the fan sites by forcing the closing of unwanted fansites because of game brand and IPR issues. Neverwinter Nights is a commercial multi-player adventure game developed by BioWare Inc. The game includes a set of tools for gamers to create their own characters, adventures, and worlds. These user-created worlds are hosted by the creators themselves. For other people to play these worlds they must have the Neverwinter Nights game installed on their PC. BioWare has announced their plan to sell user-created game modules, hence opening questions about the commercialization of UCC. Blauereiter is community for discussing and distributing micromovies. Micromovies are short movies made especially for handheld devices with small screens. The community was established in Finland in 2002 to promote students’ micromovies and to have a knowledge sharing website. The website also has the community rules, where it is stated that the community manages the rights, marketing, and distribution of its members’ movies and potential profits. According to the rules the community makes decisions and changes relating to the rules. However, the rules or the website do not explicitly state what or who are the community, how can members affect the community decision making, or how potential revenues are distributed within the community. The Melrose Mirror is an electronic newspaper collaboratively published by a group of senior citizens in Massachusetts, USA. The community has been active since 1996, and has over the years collaboratively produced several thousands of articles and images about the history and current life in Melrose, as well as personal opinions and stories of the authors. The editorial staff, which consists of a sub-group of all contributors, selects the articles and pictures for publication. However, the group has not decided to formally organize their own activity. The members have decided that the opinions in the publication strictly reflect the views of the individual creators, and the copyrights to the material belong to the individual contributors. The decisions regarding issues such as advertising on the website, usage of computers, and opinions about the website content are debated in the group meetings. Conclusions From the case studies we identified and analyzed the issues these particular examples had in creating and publishing user-created content. Two of the communities had a direct relation to commercial stakeholders and their brands and technology. In the other two communities the media was created independent of direct third party connections. Based on these cases we argue that the main legal issues and concerns in collaborative creation of content are decision making and liability. The decision making issues can be further identified as the distribution of potential revenues, deciding on a licensing policy for the content, and the re-publication of content. The liability issues can be specified as infringement of intellectual property rights (i.e., copyrights, patents, and trademarks), publication of illegal material (i.e., defamatory or racist material, child pornography), and the distribution of technically damaging content (i.e., computer viruses). The liability issues are relevant irrespective whether the act is intentional or not. These issues are especially significant if the created content has commercial value, but the issues must be addressed also in non-profit creation and distribution. Based on the identification and analysis we discuss the solutions that legal systems provide to these issues. Mainly, we look into traditional forms of organization, such as corporation, association, and trust, and discuss how these different legal forms of organizations could be applied to collaborative content creation. We also discuss what further issues arise in applying these legal forms of organization into a novel way of global collaboration using digital technology.
Contact: Risto Sarvas, HIIT, Helsinki University of Technology,
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