To fully understand how future laws may affect virtual worlds, we must also look at how they affect other areas of the word wide web. Mainly, we need to see how the lawmakers and lawyers react to the parts of the web that allows users to manipulate and share content.
Case 1: Karaoke Party
At the moment of writing, popular sing-along website Karaoke Party is in stasis. Very little is known about what actually happened, but most people trying to get on the site gets the message “Sorry, this website is not available in your country/region” followed by the region or nation code of the user. This means you can’t even access the forums, where any potential information would reside. The Facebook page has also been taken down, but the Twitter page is still around. The Twitter account has been posting daily since 2009, but 15th of July 2015, the last tweet went out, proclaiming that the site has now added another song. Then silence.
All I could find was second hand information, but it seems like the problem exists in all countries that has copyright laws, excluding Sweden, the country of the owners. Premium users was sent a message in July, warning them their subscription were about to end but without any mention of the site going down. There weren’t any links to renew the subscription either. On top of that, no users can access the site to remove their profiles, that are still searchable through search engines.
Third party information claims the site went down due to breaking copyright laws, as the site used songs from the top pop lists of several countries. Whatever the cause, the site is still up, but inaccessible. This provides a problem for users, as you were able to record your singing and that was accessible through the website. With the site still being active, but user access denied, that means the recordings are still there. This could be a violation of intellectual property laws, as the creators of the singing, the singers themselves, should be able to decide whether or not their property is available to the public.
I have tried to reach Karaoke Party for a comment, but they have not responded.
Case 2: YouTube
Very few could have missed the video uploading giant YouTube. If you’ve seen a video online in the past 10 years, chances are it was hosted on YouTube. With such wide popularity comes a massive response, and when you’re holding essentially the whole world’s supply of media content, you have to make sure you don’t rub the wrong company the wrong way.
To ensure the happiness of the other world giants, YouTube has implemented a shoot-first strategy when it comes to intellectual property. If anyone is accused by a verified source to have stolen content, that video is immediately flagged. If that happens, the channel owner will receive a warning and one of two things can happen to the video: Either monetization could be moved from the uploader to the copyright claimer or the video could be taken down in one or more countries. It is then up to the user to contest the claim and provide sufficient evidence that they have the rights to the content.
This has been made much harder by the site having to implement automated flagging systems. There are more videos uploaded every day than anyone have the time or resources to go through, so the system is dependent on this automation. But that automation is flawed, at best. There is a lot of wrongfully flagged content due to mismatch from these automated systems. On top of that, there has been a lot of “revenge claims”, where people use the manual flagging system to file strikes against videos they feel have offended them in any way, even if there is no intellectual property issue at hand.
On the other side of the spectrum, companies that has poured millions of dollars into film or music projects have seen their entire work being published on the site. It is hard to get any legal ground on either side of the line if you’re in an English speaking country, almost impossible if you’re not.
The issue has become so widespread that if you search for DMCA, copyright, trademark or anything else that has to do with intellectual property, you will get pages upon pages of results regarding YouTube, even if you actively try to exclude the site in your search terms. In fact, chances are that YouTube issues were your introduction to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).
Case 3: The Pirate Bay
Seen by many as a site to put out illegally gained creative works without permission, the site is, purely technically speaking, a content sharing site, where people can share whatever they want. Under the guise of anonymity, a vast majority of the illegally distributed films, music and software found around the world are shared through the website. The site is the cause for online content theft now being called piracy. Though the term predates the website, it was the website’s controversy that popularized the term.
Although only links are shared on the site, and not the content itself, the site has sparked several legal cases. Most notably, the owners, along with their lawyer, were sentenced to up to one year in prison and several millions of dollars in damage. In the works to create the legal case, a sting operation was made against the server hall, where the Pirate Bay servers were kept, resulting in the site going down. Pirates being pirates, people had already copied the entire servers, and within 3 days, the site was back up. This time it was distributed over several servers around the world, to prevent such takedown again.
Most Western countries sees it as censorship to block websites on a Government level. This is something that is usually reserved for sites displaying severe crimes, such as torture sites and child pornography rings. Several countries, including US and UK, has put The Pirate Bay in this category, despite these things being one of the only things the site actively blocks. Therefore, you cannot access the website through its main URL.
Case 4: Newzbin
Usenet is a bit different from Internet, and thanks to some technical differences, it was popular as a platform to share files for a while. Newzbin was an indexing service, that scanned Usenet for downloadable files and provided a link to it from the website. In 2010, 20th Century Fox filed a lawsuit against the website for having indexed their content, and therefore having enabled people to illegally download it.
The court ruled in favour of the film publisher and claimed that by providing easy access to the files, Newzbin were to be considered as if they had provided the files themselves.
Intellectual Property is a very dicey subject, that is hard to dance around. As a service provider, having intricate knowledge of the laws in all countries on this planet is often not even near enough. There will always be lawyers and lawmakers that find ways to plug loopholes and open new ones. The only real way to save yourself from these lawsuits is to adopt the policies that Google, Amazon, Facebook and the other giants have. A policy where you are guilty until proven innocent, where it is assumed that a claim against any given user is correct.
If they don’t, the service may be taken down by legal issues. YouTube survived while other streaming services were hit hard by several lawsuits. Facebook and Twitter adapted, while other message boards and microblogs got DMCA takedown notices against them.
A red thread going through it all is dodging responsibility. In order to ensure no IP strikes can be made, the service provider must first ensure they have the right to display whatever the user puts up. Then they must comply with every single strike made against them, by taking down the content immediately. It’s not a sufficient defense to say that it’s the user’s content, because you, as a service provider, is hosting the content. This applies to websites as well as virtual worlds, and even to physical locations. There are plenty of lawsuits involving statues, clothes designs, photos and many, many more things.
It is harsh, but if the host or publisher can’t detach themselves from the responsibility of the item in question, they will be the target of the court. This leaves the user vulnerable, unless they can detach themselves as well, which in most cases just won’t happen.