17 October 2012

Copyright and Virtual Fuzzies

As long ago as 1997 Jonathan Zittrain critiqued hype about 'online communities' with the comment that -
... aspirationally, and sometimes accurately, known as "online communities" ... "online community" joins "sysop" in the oversize dustbin of trite or hopelessly esoteric, hence generally meaningless, cyberspace vernacular. Not that "online community" is obscure, like "sysop"; rather,the term’s emptiness results from its abuse. "Online community" is used by Internet companies the way a motivational speaker uses "excellence," an academic uses "new paradigm," or a lawyer uses "justice": it represents something once craved and still invoked (if only as a linguistic placeholder) even as it is believed by all but the most na├»ve to be laughably beyond reach. Since it’s applied to almost anything, it now means vague warm fuzzies and nothing more.
'Copyright, Culture, and Community in Virtual Worlds' by Dan Burk in Eighth International Conference on Cultural Attitudes Toward Technology & Communication (2012) edited by Fay Sudaweeks, Herbert Hrachovec & Charles Ess comments that
Communities that interact on-line through computer games and other virtual worlds are mediated by the audiovisual content of the game interface. Much of this content is subject to copyright law, which confers on the copyright owner the legal right to prevent certain unauthorized uses of the content. Such exclusive rights impose a limiting factor on the development of communities that are situated around the interface content, as the rights, privileges, and exceptions associated with copyright generally tend to disregard the cultural significance of copyrighted content. This limiting effect of copyright is well illustrated by examination of the copying of content by virtual diaspora communities such as that formed around the game Uru: Ages of Myst. Thus, the opportunity for on-line communities to legally access the graphical elements on which those communities are built is fraught with potential legal liability. Reconsideration of current copyright law would be required in order to accommodate the cohesion of on-line communities and related cultural uses of copyrighted content.
Burk notes that
The express purpose of copyright is to foster the development of art, music, literature, movies, and other cultural creations. Successful copyrighted works add to the fund of cultural content and practice, but generally through the mechanism of commodification. Ownership and sale of copyrighted content is intended to provide a monetary reward to spur cultural creation. Indeed, copyright holders frequently target their creative and distributive efforts toward cultural adoption, and profit from the promulgation of their works as part of popular culture. 
Consequently, the copyright system has been criticized with some frequency for failing to make allowances for access and re-interpretation of cultural materials.[Lessig 2004, Vaidhyanathan 2004] Graphical, musical, audiovisual, and literary works constitute key components of shared culture. Full participation in society is impossible without access to such works, but access is controlled by an unsympathetic copyright regime. Some types of participation, such as criticism, commentary, and parody, are privileged under the fair use doctrine. But many, indeed most, types of participatory re-creation of such works are not contemplated within either fair use or other copyright exemptions. 
This failure of the copyright system holds as true for participation in virtual communities as for society generally; indeed, given that virtual communities are largely mediated by copyrighted media, it poses a particular problem for such communities. In this paper I illuminate this problem by means of a case study, following the migration of copyrighted content away from the defunct on-line game Uru: Ages of Myst to Second Life to other venues, as graphics from the Uru game were reproduced by departing players attempting to maintain their distinctive virtual community and culture through shared iconic images. The unauthorized appropriation of content from the Uru game was crucial to maintenance of the virtual community but, as I show here, almost certainly constituted copyright infringement.