Rutgers–Camden law professor Greg Lastowka is conducting research on the intersection of copyright law and user-generated content and the legal perils that might be involved. His research is being funded by the National Science Foundation. But as games like LittleBigPlanet and Minecraft expand the levels of creativity that players can partake of, an old problem arises: some users will create content that infringes on copyrights. While fans see this as homage to worlds, characters, and storylines they love, the companies that hold those copyrights see it only as infringement.
"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." The aim of Lastowka's research is to come up with real data on how games can enable or constrain player creativity. In turn this will give Lastowka data to analyze related user-generated content and determine to what degree it complies with copyright law.
"I’m trying to create a descriptive account of this segment of the media landscape and say, 'this is how user-generated content is appearing, this is what it looks like, and these are the ways games enable it to happen,'" Lastowka says.
Lastowka goes on to say that most user-generated content tends to fall in a gray zone of copyright law, or a "transformative remix of prior content."
"User-generated content can make a game very valuable, but developers have a legal obligation to look out for copyright infringement," he says. "I’m interested to hear from developers how concerns about copyright infringement affect the kind of games they create."
At the end of this research project Lastowka hopes that the research will ensure the development of new technologies, contribute to the debate over the appropriate legal rules for the interactive media industry, and aid policymakers in reforming copyright laws to take into account new forms of authorship.
Of course, fans have been making mods, skins, and levels that pay homage to copyrighted works for a very long time. Some user-generated content has been ignored by those who own the copyrights, while other copyright holders are quick to send a salvo of cease and desist letters. The truth is the best kind of copyright reform would include exceptions for fan-made projects as long as those projects provided the proper credits and did not earn any money. It will be interesting to see what data this study comes up with.