Content Generation and the Law

By Eric Goldman

Last week I participated on a panel at the ION Game Conference in Seattle to discuss UGC in virtual worlds and online games. You can see a reasonably faithful transcript of the discussion here. Here’s a recap of the main points I made:

The Interface Between Content Generation and the Law: Game providers should think about how to generate both more UGC and the right kind of UGC. There are three main sources of law governing the UGC content generation choices:

* the site’s EULA. Most EULAs give providers maximum flexibility to manage UGC as they see fit, but if I were researching the issue, I’d start with the EULA to see how the provider may have restricted itself.

* 47 USC 230. Many people operate under the outdated myth that a site must choose to be either a publisher or a passive conduit. Fortunately, the law facilitates heterogeneous approaches to UGC. Per 230, a VW isn’t liable for third party content with limited exceptions. Ownership doesn’t matter; editing doesn’t matter, prescreening/policing doesn’t matter. Most VW providers remain unaware of 230′s power and import. Due to 230, providers have the choice of various UGC generation strategies, all of which have the same legal treatment.

* 17 USC 512. 512 doesn’t go as far as 230 at enabling different content generation approaches, but it still provides some insulation from liability for user-caused copyright infringement.

In addition to these sources, many sites develop their own adjudicatory systems, including ways for users to report problems with other users, expedited takedown procedures (such as VeRO), and customer support representatives (CSRs) as private adjudicators.

How to Increase UGC: Obviously, users can be motivated through incentives/disincentives (carrots and sticks). For example, at Epinions, we used both cash and credit. There is also value in supporting and empowering a site’s meta-community (the offsite interaction of power users).

Working with Power Users. I’m often amazed at just how much work users will do for a site for free if you just ask them/empower them. However, in asking users to do more work, sites should be cognizant of the amorphous boundary between independent contractors and employees. Recall the class action lawsuits against AOL and over their volunteer labor force.

Site Responses to UGC Problems: I talked about the problem of “rule proliferation”: in response to a new test case involving user behavior, a site often promulgates a new restrictive rule. This may happen infrequently, but even if it happens only 1X/week, that adds up to 50+ new rules/year. The collective effect is a burgeoning body of code and common law that eventually becomes unwieldy and unmanageable. To avoid this code creep, sites should promulgate new common law reluctantly.

What Works with UGC/What Doesn’t: Sites should try to address two partially contradictory forces. Most users want to do the right thing, so sites should make it easy for them to do so. At the same time, sites need to build systems that are robust enough to squash the inevitable vandals and bad actors.

If you want a little more on the topic of this panel, I also did an interview for ION’s pre-conference newsletter.