Who Owns Our Shit? User-Generated Content and Online Collaborations

Mixtape by Flickr user bkingSorry about the very direct title. Let me explain what got us there: At Barcamp Berlin earlier today, there were plenty of great session. As Johannes Kleske pointed out recently, Sundays tend to be the more interesting Barcamp days: At that point everybody had time to catch up with each other, and the first-timers feel more comfortable with giving a session by then. (Watch coverage from the Barcamp on Berlinblase.)

Together with Clemens Lerche, I did a session about ownership of user-generated (or collaboratively produced) content. Title: “User-generated content and collaborative efforts: Who owns our shit?” We didn’t give any kind of presentation and instead focused on moderating a discussion about the chances, risks and implications of producing content on the web and putting it on web services. Think videos on YouTube, bookmarks on del.icio.us, messages on Twitter and the like. Also, think facts or additions on Wikipedia, or involvement like in Alternate Reality Games (like the ones Amos of vm-people talked about in his session before).

What we tried to go for is a rough guideline, telling companies what is legitimate and what isn’t, regarding the content the users produce. So far, it’s sadly fairly common for companies to wrap very one-sided deals into their end user license agreements (like the rights to distribute and sell users’ videos); users, on the other hand, tend to click the “accept” button without reading the agreements because these licenses are usually very long legalese texts.

In the end, we did get to three key findings – not only for the companies but also us users:

First, transparency. Companies, give us a simple, brief summary of what your plans are for our content. Just like Creative Commons deeds, developing a set of icons for certain policies or ideas, or even a simple executive summary could work wonders here. How can we trust you if you don’t play with open cards?

Second, quality sites should be rewarded. Sites that encourage sharing content more openly (for example through setting the licensing default to Creative Commons), services that encourage and support open formats, and companies that are transparent both in their user agreements and their plans for the future (including what would happen if the service ceased to exist).

But third, and thanks a lot to Ian Forrester of the BBC for stressing this point, users need to get better about their part of the deal, too: We need to read these agreements, make sure we understand them, and base our judgment on them too. If we see a service that has an unfair user agreement, make sure not to use it. What’s more, as the digerati we are we have the obligation to share our educated judgment with our less techy friends so they can make their educated decisions, too.

Photo by Flickr user bking released under Creative Commons (by-nc-nd).