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The Pitfalls of User Generated Content

Published on February 24, 2011
Tags: Web Site Law

Over the last decade, the internet has increased its depth and influence to an extent that was hard to predict. It has developed in many ways, with lots of different forms of media reflected in its content. One area that has increased massively over the past few years is user generated content. An increasingly popular means of engagement with the web, what exactly is it and what issues does it raise?

Simply put, user generated content is exactly what it says it is – online content written or created by the users of websites rather than website developers or site owners. This can include everything from forums and blog posts to videos, images and articles, depending on the website. Two of the most obvious examples of websites that thrive because of their user generated content are YouTube and Wikipedia, where users can upload videos and articles to the respective sites. There are also thousands of blog sites, forums on all manner of topics, online image galleries and more, all of which provide an opportunity for web users to engage with the websites through producing their own content. Often this is done in a small way, such as through commenting on blog posts, but others create whole enterprising operations out of their actions.

On the face of it, the growth of user generated content is an extremely positive development. It allows people to be more involved with the happenings of the internet and their favourite websites in particular. This helps to contribute to the free and open nature of the World Wide Web, providing ordinary users with a platform through which they can share their knowledge and interests, interact with other people in the same space and open up new ways of networking. 

One of the most successful web inventions – social media – largely rests on user generated content. Without it, the Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn sites would largely be just shells. They need content to fill them and make them successful. This comes from the website users, who set up accounts and engage with the services. This has led to people networking with others across the world and has also given rise to a new form of protest movement and means of organisation for demonstrators, as well as a whole host of other uses. Other websites such as YouTube are beneficial because they not only allow user generated content to flourish, but they can also be integrated into or linked to from company websites, giving businesses alternative means of advertising and interacting with their customers. 

Despite these positives, user generated content is not without its pitfalls. For example, there is the question of quality. When people write their own content, there are no rules governing standards of accuracy, so even though they might put their all into it, there is no guarantee it will be watertight. Probably the best example of this is Wikipedia, which occasionally finds itself in the press for one sensationalist false article or another. While it may not be such a worrying issue in the case of Wikipedia, review sites such as TripAdvisor have come under fire as users have posted false reviews in order to make businesses appear worse than they are. When user generated content has the potential to damage companies’ reputations, it shows there is something of a problem emerging.

There is also the issue of copyright, which most often emerges in the context of visual content. For example, some users of YouTube and other video streaming sites upload clips of their favourite TV shows for others to view or songs by their favourite artists for people to listen to. This can lead to something of a quandary as the rules of copyright in such cases aren’t always clear. While some industry experts are happy for their products to be viewed on such websites, others aren’t and have been known to take action to have it removed for copyright reasons. Copyright law is complicated in itself, too, so even if a user thinks they are acting perfectly legitimately in uploading content to a website, they may be accidentally in breach of the law because the product is still under some form of copyright or distribution limitation.

When copyright is breached, the course of action is generally to remove the offending content from the site in question. This is what happened when Comedy Central asked YouTube to remove all clips of The Daily Show from the site. Other companies, such as the BBC, try to control the amount of user generated content on the internet by uploading their own official versions. Occasionally, though, infringements can lead to prosecution if a company or individual feels their privacy has been breached or copyright broken. When users largely upload content because they’re interested in a topic or simply want to share opinions with other people, they are often not aware of the laws surrounding such things and can find themselves being prosecuted for any number of activities.

There is clearly a question here of intent: if someone uploads something to a website that deliberately breaks a law – whatever it may be – then there is a case for action. Otherwise, it must surely be something of a legal grey area. If people accidentally make mistakes and are not aware they have broken the law, it is much harder to know how to deal with it. This is especially true when you consider one of the main purposes of user generated content is for entertainment and not done with any enterprising intention. The location of the infringement can also play a part, with copyright law not being harmonious around the globe. For example, the process for prosecution of copyright infringement is completely different to that of the UK.

Overall, then, this is something of a murky issue. On the one hand, copyright, libel and other laws must be upheld in order to protect businesses, artists, individuals and others. On the other hand, people have a right to generate their own content and contribute to the ongoing development of the internet. If nothing else, it’s fairly safe to say that this is an issue that is only going to grow in significance over time and may require a global approach in order to provide clear guidelines and solutions.

By Chelsey Evans

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