The Internet, video games, and technology as a whole has created a lot of interesting legal phenomenons. It seems every month there is a new major controversy concerning DMCA, web-based companies changing policies, or companies making questionable decisions that harm consumers. Most of the time even as people complain, others are always quick to point out “well legally they’re allowed to do that” or “well they’re in it to make money after all.” This is an interesting point to make because while it is correct, that isn’t what the complaint really is about. Of course everyone recognizes that typically companies have a legal right to make poor decisions that harm creators and consumers. There are only a few instances where web-based company has actually stepped over their legal bounds to the point of being reprimanded (the Gawker takedown would be the most recent example of this).
That is not what most people are talking about when they get fired up about the most recent legal controversy in tech. When Nintendo went on a spree, taking down the Nintendo Power archive and two fan games, that was within their legal rights of course. They own those properties. When YouTube began strictly enforcing previously overlooked policies and demonetizing several big content creators, their actions were protected because those creators are not employees, and YouTube technically owes them nothing. Most likely games like No Man’s Sky, which made wild promises left and right, or Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, who was called out for their deceptive microtransaction policies, will never face any legal backlash for that, because there are always technicalities to defend them, and of course because who has the time or power to fight something like that. The question is not whether these things are “allowed,” but whether they’re right.
Law is a fickle thing, especially when it comes to concepts as abstract as intellectual property or to very new ideas and technologies we haven’t yet fully figured out how to handle legally. It doesn’t help that people want the best of both worlds, even when they contradict; people want game companies to have a lot of freedom and not be over-regulated, but at the same time don’t like how companies get away with some less than ethical practices. Finding that crucial in-between takes time, and the fact is we likely aren’t there yet. Just because something is law doesn’t mean it’s the right way to do things. Every country that has ever existed has had laws that are unjust, unfair, or poorly considered. Laws regarding technology are no different. In fact, they are more likely to be incomplete or just wrong, considering how new it is relatively and how fast it can change.
When we deal with these companies, whether it is “legally allowed” should only be a question when considering whether there is a recourse to stop them. After that, however, it is a pointless statement, because that isn’t the problem. The problem is that companies do not necessarily have to take advantage of those unspoken protections, or of broad DMCA rules. Or if they do, they can have a course of action to limit backlash. For instance, a company may have to file a DMCA in order to keep the rights to their intellectual property. However, companies can offer to host the fan games themselves, or offer some other workaround. Clearly fans like these games, so to simply take them down without even a comment seems like the worst possible move. “They can’t comment on every DMCA” you might say, but they don’t have to. Projects like AM2R or Pokemon Uranium, that received a lot of deserved attention and required more dedicated work than simply copying, should be given slightly different treatment.
What about companies like YouTube deciding to effectively destroy what to many is their careers by arbitrarily deciding to enforce rules as strictly as possible? Those are their rules of course, and they don’t owe anyone anything legally. They do owe people, though. They owe each and every creator that made their channel worth watching. YouTube could probably make it on music videos and the occasional viral hit. What is the point though? Why make (or in Google’s case buy) a video hosting platform then whittle it down to only have videos you want so that you can just barely get by under this idea that your advertisers “may not like it”? Certainly whatever problems leading to this decision can be fixed in other ways. Demonetizing and destroying certain channels seems like a last resort.
Of course, YouTube offers this tool for free. They have made it clear monetization is a privilege that must be earned and maintained—not just any channel can get it. So they should be able to revoke it too right? They should; however, a massive purge of this nature, which appears to be at least partially automated, is not the way to do it. When it comes to what could be a person’s main paycheck, you should not just rip the carpet out from under people. Say you loan something to a friend to help them with their job. You give them the terms (don’t break it, don’t sell it, etc.) but otherwise don’t give them a deadline and have no history of suddenly demanding it back. One day you decide you want it back—how would you typically do this? You would talk to the person you loaned it to and ask for it back. You do not take it when your friend is not looking and leave them without a means to do their job suddenly and without adequate reason. In this case, the item is obviously yours and not a product you have created and advertised for people to use, so you have even more right to get it back, yet most people still would not think very highly of you if you took it back that way. That is what YouTube has done, though; they have offered their product for others to use to make content which benefits both creator and host but then abruptly “taken it back,” and their only notification is an automated email sent after the fact lacking details.
If YouTube wants to crack down on their policies, they should be doing it as real people. It should not be based on an algorithm, at least not for channels of a certain size. What’s more, if you are going to automate it, the first step should always be a warning. Especially for the majority of reasons channels are being demonetized, it should not just be automatically stripped. If the issue is with content, explain to the creator what the issue is that was reported and have them reply back or change it. If it is a mistake, the creator will reply back explaining that it is a mistake, and then a real person can review it and find that videos about covering acne and suicide prevention likely aren’t offensive to advertisers. You avoid so many issues if you treat people like people and not like machines.
Of course, we may have more insight if there were any transparency. This seems to be the ultimate issue; companies do not have to tell us anything, but shouldn’t they still? There are certain things companies cannot share, obviously. However, when big changes suddenly happen or when things get mixed up in marketing that results in false impressions, a company should be first up to bat to offer an explanation. They may not have to explain every tiny detail, but any explanation might quell a lot of outrage.
A lot of people complain that certain groups, gamers in particular, are “entitled” for wanting more transparency, fewer deceptive practices, and essentially for wanting companies to not take the legal easy road. That is not entitlement though. What is entitlement are companies using the excuse of “legally allowed” to justify back handing their consumers, their content creators, and their dedicated fans.
Entitlement is thinking that just because you legally can do something, you should do something or even have to do something—that every allowance granted to you is also a right. Reality isn’t like that, though. Any regular person knows that we shouldn’t do something just for the sake of it not being against the law. Especially in business: if you intend to stick around for very long, you have to do what is right, not just stop at what is legal.