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Pick your battles – Protecting IP in the UGC age

When it comes to user generated content (UGC), one of the stickiest issues can be summed up in two simple letters - IP. Fans of all ages, including computer-savvy kids, are happily at work manipulating and rearranging video clips and images of their favourite properties, and aren't taking time to get the owner's permission. A simple Google Video search on SpongeBob SquarePants, for example, yields thousands of clips and related websites that repurpose the goofy icon in countless different ways. So what's an IP owner to do?
October 1, 2006

When it comes to user generated content (UGC), one of the stickiest issues can be summed up in two simple letters – IP. Fans of all ages, including computer-savvy kids, are happily at work manipulating and rearranging video clips and images of their favourite properties, and aren’t taking time to get the owner’s permission. A simple Google Video search on SpongeBob SquarePants, for example, yields thousands of clips and related websites that repurpose the goofy icon in countless different ways. So what’s an IP owner to do?

Certainly, it’s natural for creators and companies to go to almost any lengths to protect the exploitation of their IPs. But the new reality of UGC means it’s more difficult than ever to track down illegal usage and, at the risk of sounding heretical, stamping out these copyright violations might not be entirely desirable anymore.

London-based consulting firm Digital Outlook specializes in helping media companies map out digital IP strategies and MD Jens Bachem has simple advice for current IP owners.

‘Kids are going to do it anyway,’ he says. ‘The best way of protecting it is engaging them on it and positively supporting it.’

It’s advice that New York’s Big Tent Entertainment seems to be following for new acquisition Domo, for which it holds worldwide licensing and broadcast rights. The brown, furry rectangular monster began life in 1998 in a series of stop-motion interstitials airing on Japan’s pubcaster NHK. He’s about to cross the Pacific in a half-hour series currently being co-produced by Nickelodeon (see ‘Made in Japan’ p. 93 for details), but the creature with the fixed, open-mouth expression has already captured the imaginations of millions, becoming an emblem of the UGC era. A search of Domo on YouTube.com yields more than 400 user-generated videos, ranging from a documentary on Domo at a dinner party to Domo dancing to pop songs.

Richard Maryyanek, VP of sales and marketing at Big Tent, manages the non-Japan rights to the property. He says there are more than 600 products and hundreds of thousands of websites dedicated to the character – precious few of which have been officially licensed.

‘At Comic-Con there were people selling Domo stuff that wasn’t necessarily licensed and we met them and we embraced them….There is a Domo game out there that that has more than a million downloads. And it probably breaks every copyright rule known to man,’ he notes. ‘But, it’s a very difficult process – just tracking down who made it and how it was replicated would take up a lot of our resources.’

Maryyanek says a litigious approach to protecting the copyright of a specific character would damage the overall brand in the long run. ‘There are two options with all these websites,’ he says. ‘We can embrace them or we can send out Cease and Desist letters. Our market is kitschy and creative, so we embrace it,’ he says. ‘We want people to create Domo content, but we also want them to admit that it is our copyright and our trademark.’

As part of the process, Big Tent is currently in the early stages of creating ‘user friendly agreements’ that will protect the intellectual copyright of Domo.

Admittedly, it is a tough balance to strike. Big Tent uses some manpower to police the plethora of websites to make sure content that runs contrary to the brand (mostly overtly offensive material) is taken off line, but in the end, Domo is subject to marketplace interpretation.

‘The good stuff outweighs the bad,’ Maryyanek says. ‘We want them to be creative, we want to feed that.’

To this end, Big Tent is creating an on-line multi-lingual Domo hub where content can be shared between users across the globe. Details of the site are still underwraps until it’s launch next year, but Maryyanek says the company will provide users with an on-line tool box and digital assets of all shapes and sizes ideal for video manipulation and artistic rendering. (In addition, Big Tent will be rolling out mobile content in the near future.)

On the traditional broadcast side of things, Maryyanek also hinted that a ‘major association’ between Big Tent and a predominant distributor will be announced this fall.

‘If you don’t do it, (the audience) will do it anyway,’ Bachem concludes. ‘If you listen to what kids are doing, you can properly engage with them,’ he says. ‘If you stick your head in the sand, then the quality of the stuff that gets out there will be poor.’ GR

About The Author
Gary Rusak is a freelance writer based in Toronto. He has covered the kids entertainment industry for the last decade with a special interest in licensing, retail and consumer products. You can reach him at garyrusak@gmail.com

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