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Video Games and Copyright Issues

by Jason Lightner December 13th, 2013 | Independent Ideas
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dotcomWe’re going to take a slight detour this week, away from the circus of Capitol Hill, so that we might be able to talk through an issue of moderate concern, but great consequence.

Copyright has long been an issue of much controversy. Originally, the purpose of copyright was to give the creator of an original work exclusive rights to its use and distribution for a limited time, with the intention of enabling the creator of that work (e.g. the songwriter of a song or the author of a book) to receive compensation for their work and be able to financially support themselves. The original concept and duration of copyright has been perverted over the years, thanks in no small part to various corporate interests, who have extended the length of copyright protection to an astounding “life of the author plus 70 years.”

I ask simply: How is this benefiting the content creator? The short answer is that it doesn’t. This length of copyright only serves to protect corporations who own the rights to these creative works. As individuals, creators are almost powerless, but corporations have resources, they have lawyers, and they have connections in the legislature.

This isn’t the point of our discussion today, mind you, but I felt like it was necessary to establish some frame of reference for those who may not be up on their copyright basics. Now, on to the main attraction.

There is a phenomenon on the internet called “Let’s Play,” which is a term used for videos made by those who play video games, for those who like to watch people play games. Often these videos will have audio or video commentary, and many of these videos are quite entertaining and informative. Many of these “Let’s Play” creators have become internet celebrities over the years, like the Angry Video Game Nerd, and have made a moderate to decent living from their work via YouTube ad revenue, which in turn allows them the ability to create more of these videos. That seems like a pretty benign and straightforward gig, right?

Unfortunately for many “Let’s Play” creators, the copyright holders of many of these video games don’t see it that way. Recently, many of these video creators have found their videos taken offline, their fans left out in the cold, and their sources of revenue dried up. This is all due to copyright claims by either the game maker, the author of sound effects within the games, or the author of music within the games, which are all automatically matched via an algorithm YouTube uses to identify content that infringes upon copyright. These claims are made on the grounds that their works are being used without proper authorization, yet the “Let’s Play” creators claim fair use. If it sounds confusing that’s because it is. For simplicity’s sake, let’s just discuss the game makers’ role in all of this.

On the one hand, the game makers obviously have a right to their game, however, since the game maker is in the business of selling a video game, and not a video of someone playing said game, how much weight should their claim hold? This is analogous to a recording artist inciting a takedown of a video of someone performing their own rendition of one of the recording artist’s songs — it’s wrong because it’s not the same thing as simply uploading the original work. The “Let’s Play” creator isn’t simply making the game available for those to play, he or she is showing their performance of said game.

When it came to copyright issues on the availability of music, books, and movies, everything was pretty cut-and-dry. Video games, however, are a completely different issue due to their interactivity and the necessity of the player controlling the action. This makes the current situation perhaps the most interesting copyright issue since the Internet’s creation, and the one with the widest implications.

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