Who owns social content?

Rubik's cube

Creative Commons License photo credit: Mecookie

How quickly the social landscape changes. A year ago, I was working on a digital campaign that featured user generated content at its core – the majority of the content for the site was going to be photo uploads from individual users, mashed up with the clients’ products to create a hybrid UGC/product site. It wasn’t called a “social” campaign because it was being run on a microsite, (rather than social channels) but the issues it faced are symptomatic all user generated content/mashup/crowdsourced [social content] campaigns. The legal issues centred around using other brands’ logos or other brands’ products in association with the campaign brand. The client was very nervous around getting sued by Apple, say, if an iPhone was uploaded by a user. The site is not live anymore, and didn’t get much traction -a combination of death by a thousand lawyers’ cuts and “Flashsturbation”

A year later,  most clients are now active in social media – they are asking for Facebook apps, one of them has even replaced their corporate website with a Facebook Page and many of them are even using Twitter, personally if not for their brands. The legal/creative issues for user generated content have not gone away – the clients lawyers are still saying “no” to many creative, social content campaign ideas.

It goes like this:

  1. Creative team pitch in a cool, engaging user generated/social content,  game/application/tactical campaign
  2. Client loves it
  3. Digital producers spec it out, and it all looks like its all systems go.
  4. Then it gets run past the lawyers
  5. Lawyers say no
  6. Campaign gets killed or its “Back to the drawing board”

Social Media Club Sydney (SMCSYD) event on Monday 19th April 2010 will be exploring this very topical issue, what constitutes “ownership” in the era of the social web. I’m really interested to hear from Professor Brian Fitzgerald – Professor of Intellectual Property and Innovation, Queensland University of Technology. He will be representing Creative Commons Australia (ccAustralia) is the Australian derivative project of the international Creative Commons project. There have been a some notable Australian success stories with Creative Commons, for example the Flickr crowd source tagging project by the Powerhouse Museum.

Representing the lawyers (and IP holders and brands!) will be Stephen von Muenster – principal, vonMuenster solicitors & attorneys, advisor on copyright and content ownership issues to advertising agencies and brands. He’ll be answering the tough questions like “How do you avoid getting sued in another country?”

Of course what’s a fate worse than getting sued in another country? No-one being interested enough in the brand or the user generated competition to be bothered putting in hours of effort for a prize. So instead, the agencies make “fake user generated content” e.g. Doritos e.g. Best Job in the World to start the ball rolling, or in the case of the Toyota Yaris social campaign, put the nails in the coffin. [where Saatchi & Saatchi asked their supplier to create an ad to pump up lacklustre entries, so they could be assured of winning]

Spammers it seems are into this social content piece to artificially boost Google rankings. Ars Technica reported recently that UGC has even become a spamming technique, saying that 95% of user generated content is spam or malware or both.

Given the cavalier attitude to copyright and intellectual property on the web, and the trendiness of mashups and UGC, the era of social content is proving to be a fairly treacherous minefield for the brands or agencies who are naive or  insular.

UPDATE: Read Jye Smith’s summary of the event, which includes the very informative Slideshare presentations