I teach intellectual property law at Rutgers. Part of my scholarship over the last ten years has focused on the intersection of copyright law and user-generated content. User-generated content is an ambiguous term, but it is usually defined as popular non-commercial creative production, usually in the context of an online platform. So, for instance, amateur YouTube videos, tweets, fan fiction, photo sharing, and blog posts (like this one) are all described as forms of UGC.
As Gamasutra readers know, UGC is a growing trend in the game industry -- here's a talk from GDC Europe 2012 about UGC by Craig Zinkievich from Cryptic Studios. As Zinkievich points out in his intro, UGC has actually been part of video game design from the early days -- e.g. Pinball Construction Set (and the even earlier days when PC users wrote their own game programs). In the past, I have written about UGC and copyright in the context of virtual worlds and Minecraft, including a feature here on Gamasutra.
However, I have always felt that discussions of UGC and copyright law suffered from a serious flaw. While there are many excellent popular books on the phenomenon of UGC (see, e.g., Larry Lessig's Remix), legal scholarship on UGC so far has lacked one key feature: data. Most accounts of UGC tend to lump together 3-D printing, fan fiction, blogging, photo-sharing, and video games into one vast stew of remix creativity, and arguments about UGC and fair use generally proceed by looking at particular lawsuits (e.g. Marvel's lawsuit against City of Heroes, or J.K. Rowling's lawsuit against the Harry Potter Lexicon). There's nothing wrong with talking about copyright and Girl Talk, but I don't think our legal policies should be based on anecdotes. We need some better (legal) data.
So, with a generous grant from the National Science Foundation, I put together a team of law students and other researchers to analyze the copyright law implications of user-generated content. Our work focused on many aspects of UGC and many types of UGC (we did look at 3-D printing and fan fiction), but one major component of the research involved game-based user-generated content.
The Report weighs in at 160 pages or so, which may be a bit much, so here's a brief summary. The project had three main components:
While I can't possibly summarize all the data in the Report, I can offer a few highlights that might be of interest to game developers.
Here's a taste of some of the data we collected with respect to avatar UGC on various platforms. What you see here is that the most popular ModNation Avatars tend to be highly referential to copyright-protected works, whereas fairly few recently uploaded Spore avatars were recognized as referential. The "Int. Ref." coding indicates that avatars were "internally referential," that is, they were related to the IP of the platform provider. The "Pub." coding means the avatar was recognized as referential to a celebrity. For a fuller interpretation of what the various fields mean, you'll need to consult the methodology section of the Report.
In short, though, here is what we found:
There were a couple things about the surveys that I thought might be particularly interesting to Gamasutra readers.
First, in one of our questions, we asked our 411 player respondents to rate, on a 1-5 scale, how important creative tools were to their enjoyment of a game. We also asked our 46 industry respondents a mirroring question, basically having them predict how the players would respond. Our results are displayed in the chart below. Our industry respondents underestimated how much players valued access to creative tools. (I'm sort of curious as to why this is the case and would be interested in any thoughts you might have.)
Second, the narrative responses on pages 140-149 of the Report were really interesting. There is, apparently, not very much "groupthink" among our industry respondents about questions of IP, fair use, and user-generated content. For almost every question, we seemed to have an equal level of conviction on the pro and con sides of the UGC debate.
To take just one example, we asked respondents the following (optional) question: “As a creator of game content, how would you feel about people using your creative content in other games?” Of those that responded, 18% were unequivocally enthusiastic about the reuse of their work in other games:
However, 18% were a lot less enthusiastic:
On related issues, there seemed to be similar sharp divides among respondents. Practices that were seen as desirable by some respondents were seen as completely unacceptable by others. Given that most of our industry respondents believed that UGC is a growing trend in game development, it seems we may be in for some interesting times ahead.
Other highlights of the survey data:
We'd be happy to receive feedback on the Report if you have it, as well as suggestions for further analytical work that we might do with the data we have gathered. Contact info is available on the last page of the report, or you can comment below.
Again, Report is available here.
p.s. And thanks to all the readers who participated in the surveys!