Copyright and Culture: Video Games versus the Rest.

Video games represent a departure on copyright practices from most other mediums.

There’s Twitch and YouTube, both which feature non-gaming content, but both of which are home to huge amounts of gaming content. You can watch thousands of games played in their entirety on these websites, and in many cases developers are not just passive in their support, but are engaged and cultivate this. You do see the occasional developer push back at some of the customs and practices of their audiences, but they are the exceptions. Most studios and developers and artists are happy to have people tinker around unless they cross some pretty major lines.

Contrast that with basically every other form of copyrighted commercial content. A clash of realities, as though there were a dimensional rift between games and everything else. While you can screenshot and share parts of an article on social media, or you can post a reaction clip or make a meme from film or television, there are limits to what you can get away with. You can’t watch a feature film with an audience on Twitch, and generally cannot use your favorite music in the background either, sometimes even the music of the game you’re playing. There are even examples of multi-media franchises with books, films, maybe even comics or a video series, all closed down, and then the video game, openly streamed.

Over time, this distinction of how different types of copyright holders respond to public celebration of their work will shift the public’s attitude toward copyright. The public has never had a strong grasp of intellectual property law, which has been a messy and harmful system of laws that always have sought to protect the wealthy over being functional (this is a leitmotif of law).

This becomes even more apparent when considering how long people spend playing games versus engaging with other media. It’s quite easy to spend hundreds of hours over time playing a game, but even if you listen to that three-minute song on repeat 24/7, it will take 2000 listens to get you to 100 hours. Most books and films and television shows are watched once, and even mainstays like Seinfeld, Friends, or The Office only have two to five days of episodes, which are on par with many games.

The fact that games are interactive further departs from other media. Yes, people tap their feet or sing along, or they engage emotionally with the story, but they don’t affect it. They aren’t in control of the camera, they can’t throw in an extra chorus to the song.

Between that interactive engagement and the ability to further engage with new content from streamers, video makers, modders, and multiplayer experiences, games have a lot of hooks to get into the culture of their audience. These experiences add up to the conclusion that gaming will have a major impact on how copyright will develop in the next decade.

There will be a push toward making other forms more interactive, where possible, which will include relaxing some industry attitudes toward sharing of their content. Music can be made interactive. Film can be, too. It’s not clear how long-form text would work, but perhaps. An interactive song might work somewhere between full-on remixes and the static track you listen to on a music site. Remixing film and serial video content might include offering cut-lists up so that people can focus on one character or story arc. With technologies like virtual reality, it might even include being the camera in a space, with different people offering up different takes on a story by shifting the viewpoints.

At the same time, there will be a pushback against current copyright laws. The inability to share some types of culture effectively will frustrate a people who are used to sharing their gaming experiences. Surely some enhancement of fair use makes sense, as does shortening length of copyright. Practically everyone who graduates high school has read some subset of around 100 books, and most of them are still under copyright despite a universal role in education.

In the meantime, games will continue to be more familiar and friendly to many as an art form, as it represents something nearer to open culture.


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