Thursday, November 27, 2008

Little Big Planet: UGC vs. IP

I've been meaning to write about this for quite some time, but thought I'd wait to see if the story would initiate a more widespread discussion first. The quirky-cute and much anticipated UGC-focused PS3 game Little Big Planet has now been on the market for about a month (it's currently #13 on VGChartz, which is awesome for a PS3 game), and by all accounts players are busying themselves making their own levels with the game's innovative player-generated-level design feature (you can check out a demo here, or a more detailed walkthrough of the design process here). Of course, it was only a matter of time before questions and conflicts began to arise around the ever sticky issue of IP...What happens when players integrate images and themes taken from other cultural texts into their UGC levels? And, perhaps more importantly, who owns the IP rights over the levels that players create?

In terms of who owns the copyright over players' original UGC creations, the issue was discussed within various forums when the game first came out in October. Although Sony originally indicated that players would be able to sell their creations - implying that players would retain IP ownership over the levels they create - more recent changes in the TOS seem to contradict this. For example, as I Have the Princess points out:
Sony have recently made changes to their PSN terms of use, notably adding terms and conditions for user generated content. No doubt, this is a legal precaution leading up to the release of LittleBigPlanet, obviously there needs to be guidelines to allow Sony to define and take action again inappropriate content.

But what really got my attention were some of the rights Sony have concerning your generated content…

You also authorise us [Sony] and our affiliated companies, without payment to you, to license, sell and otherwise commercially exploit your User Material
The document continues on outlining that Sony may sell subscription services or gain advertising revenue related to your content. Certainly sounds a far cry from what we’ve heard earlier about selected users being able to set a price and sell their levels, but I guess we’ll know soon enough how this will effect entrepreneurial users.

Similar concerns were voiced over at GameCulture blog, which argued: three weeks, we could all be working for Sony, crafting and sharing levels that Sony owns outright. Perhaps some of those levels will end up being packaged as downloadable content, much the same way that fruit of some of LittleBigPlanet's best beta players is being packaged with the official release. [...] The revenue we generate for Sony by building their content for them is just part of the genius of their business model.

But how does the equation change as user-generated content becomes less a matter of remixing existing intellectual property by 'modding' a game and starts to look more like the creation of original work? What happens when the systems game developers build for us are less games than platforms for the creation of new games?

Since these earlier posts, the only real development has been in relation to copyright infringement within player-designed levels, some of which have been deleted/removed by Sony without warning, much to the chagrin of the players (read this post over at Joystiq for some good background and legal discussion). A bit of a controversy (and some hints of resistance) has erupted among players, but it also looks like Sony is still trying to decide how it will approach these issues. For example, as GameIndustry reported:
While one of the biggest draws for the PlayStation 3 game is the ability for users to create their own content, such freedom is providing a headache for the developer faced with moderating submissions for download.

Simply removing the offending content has sparked some complaints from the fan community, but Media Molecule has said that it is working on a solution to better communicate with users as to why levels have been deleted.

"We're reviewing the moderating system currently to provide better feedback on why levels are moderated," said a spokesperson for publisher Sony on the official forums.

"Primarily, any level that is reported using the grief tool will be checked over by a moderator, at which point they'll examine it in line with the EULA (End User Licence Agreement). If a level is found to be in violation of the EULA it will be moderated and you'll receive a message to that effect," explains the post.

"We're moving towards a system where additional information is given, however for the time being if you don't want your level moderating avoid anything unsuitable for users of all ages and copyright content."

Levels featuring content from games and other media including Metal Gear Solid, The Legend of Zelda, Batman and Scrubs have all been removed from the servers – with users complaining that they have spent hours creating content and have no back-up of their work.

Sony has said it hopes to inform users how they can tweak their creations to make them suitable, rather than be forced to delete the entire level.

For a good description of the delicate balancing act that Sony is facing with this, check out Izzy Neis' post from a couple of weeks ago. It would be more than awesome to see Sony adopt a user-centered approach to its TOS and copyright policies, one which better reflects the user participation and importance of UGC in the game's design...Not to mention its business model (see GameIndustry excerpt above). In the meantime, however, the vague threat of corporate copyright appears to be taking precedence, trampling over fair use and players' ability to engage creatively and critically with their culture.

Not that this is surprising, of course - as we've seen in various other games and digital cultural practices (mash-ups, machinima, etc.), a big part of UGC is the appropriation, integration and subversion of popular commercial cultural texts. And the industry as a whole is much more easily swayed by concerns about protecting corporate copyright than it has by individuals/players' potential IP and fair use rights. Then again, although Sony has taken some levels down for fear of copyright infringement, they also seem to be trying to figure out a way to moderate and manage UGC in a way that still fosters user feedback and player creativity. It's a fascinating case study in the problematic position of user-centered design within an impossibly stringent corporate copyright regime. It's also a great example of the social construction of technology, as the company attempts to respond to legal pressures and player demands/criticisms (despite an adequately developed policy on either copyright or player rights) in its shaping and management of a new technological/cultural form.


Shaping Youth said...

Agree with Izzy, this is a fab post, Sara...I'd like to crosspost on S.Y. after we wrap the All Things Girl week which has turned into 'the neverending story' ;-) Any extras in that realm to add? About to finish off this week and don't want to miss any goodies. Best, Amy

Sara M. Grimes said...

Go right ahead Amy - and if I have any additional thoughts/tidbits, I'll send them your way.