LittleBigPlanet Early Problems

Let’s start by saying that we love LittleBigPlanet. Really. We stand behind the TSA review which said the game was unmissable and awarded it 10/10. It’s a good game. No, it’s a great game. We love it. Lots.

I want to be very clear about how great this piece of software is because I really don’t want anybody to be under the false impression that this article is designed to put anyone off buying the game. If you don’t already have the game its worth buying it. In fact, you’re missing out if you don’t own it.

This article, however, deals with the problems that some users have had with the game. From the server issues that people have had to the borderline extortion that was the first week DLC and now the furore over “moderated” levels. That’s moderated in inverted comments because Sony seems to think that “moderated” is a synonym for “deleted” or possibly “deleted and prevented from ever being uploaded again”

Firstly I will address the server issues. There is obviously a lot of traffic on the servers and there is obviously a substantial amount of data being transferred when people meet up online to enjoy a user-created level. You have the character and controls from each person and the level data all being transferred so I’m sure that would be quite a load. Unfortunately that just isn’t a good enough excuse (although SCEE and MM have given no excuses, they haven’t even acknowledged that there’s a problem with this). They are selling a product on the principle that it’s fun to do online with other people so they should have the ability to do it online with other people solid before they take your money.  All we can hope for is that SCEE get the servers sorted in time for us to have a few weeks of lag-free fun before they go in to meltdown again on Christmas day.

Now, to the downloadable content. £3.99 for a t-shirt that proves you had the game in its first week seems a lot. Personally I think that asking that much for that item from the people that have supported your project from week one (and in the months leading up to week one) is disrespectful. I think Sony should have given it away as a thank you for those loyal users standing by the project for so long and early-adopting, especially in light of the fact that those early adopters only got half a game because the multiplayer servers are so flaky and the created content so prone to deletion without adequate warning or reason. This brings me to the biggest issue: The “moderated” content.

Tempers are flaring and users are losing patience with the whole moderation process, criticising Sony and Media Molecule everywhere they can find an outlet. SCEE even saw fit to release a statement on Threespeech, which should be noted for two reasons: Firstly Sony don’t respond to their disgruntled users very often and secondly, Threespeech  don’t very often publish anything around the time when it happens, they usually need a three month run-up and a carefully placed trampette to get themselves onto a bandwagon. So this must be an important issue.

Geosautus, the creator of one of the most popular (and really rather good) levels, World of Colour (amongst others) told TheSixthAxis today: “I understand why they need to moderate stuff that is naughty and/or offending, but I don’t understand why they need to moderate levels inspired by other games. It’s no different then fanart. It’s just a tribute to the game. I just don’t see the threat here.

If they aren’t careful with the moderating they might just put a lot of people off making levels, and that’s the last thing they want.”

I agree, Sony have got to handle this carefully for fear of putting people off the game altogether but at the same time they have to be very careful from a legal standpoint too otherwise they risk costly court cases and (more) bad publicity.

Well, I’ve looked into the matter and you’ll all be overjoyed to hear that it’s not as simple as it seems. The primary reason SCEE have given for “moderating” levels is that they either contain offensive material (although that is an impossible term to define as one person’s acceptable is another person’s offensive, where do they draw the line?) or material that is copyrighted. Here’s where it all gets a bit complicated. Some users (myself included) have lost levels that they are sure had nothing offensive and nothing that infringed copyright. The moderating system used in the game gives no feedback as to why your level may have been “moderated” although to their credit SCEE and Media Molecule have admitted that this needs a bit of work and are already looking into ways of improving the feedback they give to “moderated” level creators.

An unfortunate side-effect of having your level deleted is that it removes all evidence that there ever was offensive or copyrighted material in the first place. SCEE can’t prove there was (they don’t have to thanks to their EULA) and the user can’t prove that there wasn’t.  In many ways the question is moot because the process has annoyed people enough that it doesn’t really matter if they were breaching copyright and deserved to be taken down, they are still going to shout about how unfair it is.

In preparation for writing this article I read hundreds of posts on dozens of internet forum pages, I watched numerous videos of levels on YouTube which those forum posters had claimed were deleted unnecessarily. At no point did I find any solid evidence that SCEE or Media Molecule had removed a level that did not breach copyright.

Let me restate that. I can’t find any evidence that LittleBigPlanet levels have been deleted without good reason. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. I myself had a level “moderated” which I believe had no reason to be deleted. Our very own CC_Star had the same thing happen to him and I trust his word, if he says there was no infringement then as far as I’m concerned there was no infringement. My point here is this, the search for evidence was futile because by the very nature of the problem the evidence is deleted. In the very few cases where people had video of their level before it was removed there was always a case of copyright infringement. I believe that levels have been deleted without reason (even though I can’t prove it) and I think Sony should admit this and apologise but I also think that in the vast majority of cases there has been copyright infringement and the level removal was necessary to remove legal liability from Media Molecule and Sony.

All things considered I think there is a bigger problem here which is symptomatic of the world of digital distribution, file-sharing and user-created content. The vast majority of users do not understand what copyright is, means or can be used to protect. For instance, one of the aforementioned disgruntled forum posters simply could not believe that his level may have been removed because it contained an image of a Playstation 3. His logic was that the game was exclusive to that machine, everybody playing on it would have that machine sitting in front of them and therefore know what it looked like and his level was, in a way, a tribute to the console. Legally it doesn’t matter, Sony own the image of the PS3 so we can’t use it. No exceptions, it doesn’t matter what we think is right, the law is clear and Sony/Media Molecule have got to protect themselves against lawsuits or potential misuse of their own intellectual property.

Creators think that because their levels are a “tribute” to other games that they should be ok. According to the law, they’re not (and in UK law neither is the fanart which Geosautus cited as precedent in his comments above). You simply cannot use the likeness of something you didn’t design. Finally, another argument I’ve seen for this copyright infringement to be allowed to pass is the “parody” argument. This is the most interesting. According to the law in the litigious hotbed that is the good ol’ USA you are allowed to use the likeness of a thing in order to parody or mimic it for comedic purposes. So, all those levels that depict 360s with the red ring of death would be fine because they are intended for comedic parody.

The problem with this argument is that UK law does not have an allowance in its copyright legislation for comedic parody. That means that all those 360 levels mentioned above are illegal in the UK.

Now, I was unable to discover where the LittleBigPlanet servers are located (although they seem to be in the UK) so we are using a little conjecture for the sake of a fluid argument here but if they are in the UK then those levels break the law and must be removed. In fact, if those levels are available to the UK then the server, whether located in the UK, US or anywhere in the world, is being used to distribute illegal material in the UK and Sony/Media Molecule must remove the levels to stop themselves being sued in the UK. There really is no choice to be made here, they either remove levels or get sued. Remember the eyes of the gaming world are on LBP, Sony does not need a lawsuit.

I think the levels of complaints are mostly due to the fact that most people don’t understand copyright law. There is a notion that certain things are public domain or that because we’re not making money from them it must be OK to use other people’s intellectual property. I remember about ten years ago I produced an interactive CD-Rom that could be distributed to thousands for a client that was managed by committee. They were a non-profit organisation so the whole project was done on the cheap for them and the final bill was £1,600. When it came time to hand over the master copy and sign off on payment one committee member questioned the payment saying that £1,600 for one CD was unreasonable as she could go to HMV and buy a CD for £15. It took us about an hour to explain that she couldn’t then copy that CD and give it to thousands of other people as that was illegal; she was paying for the right to use our intellectual copyright. This was an intelligent woman who had a hand in running a large organisation. I thought my business partner might throw her out the window at one point.

So, there is really no question, if we stray from copyright law we have got to be moderated (although as mentioned previously the process could be managed more satisfactorily). So why then are there still so many levels, including the most popular ones, still online when they clearly and deliberately break copyright? Is it because those are the best levels so Sony will let them slide for as long as they think they can get away with it so the user experience remains as good as possible? Is it because the sheer number of levels being uploaded means that it takes many man hours to keep the whole thing regulated and respond to all the user grief reports? Is it because in the hundreds of thousands of times these levels have been played nobody has grief reported them and Sony simply don’t know of their existence?

I will let you make your own decision as to which scenario is most plausible but I do have one more thing to add. As an experiment, call it investigative journalism, I grief reported three levels. Each one had been played tens of thousands of times. Each one was on the first three pages of the “cool levels” section. Each one clearly and deliberately broke copyright law and was also clearly unable to use the “Comedic Parody” clause that we’ve already discussed and, I think, proven useless anyway. Each level broke intellectual copyright in a different field, one was gaming, one was movies and one was music. 24 hours later and how many had been moderated? None.
Sources and further reading:

Sony Statement. Posted on ThreeSpeech about the moderation issues.

Kotaku Story. About the moderation issues.

Littlebigworkshop Moderated Levels Thread. An example of the comments floating around cyberspace.

U.S. Copyright Law. So you can see where I got my facts from.

U.K. Copyright Law. So you can see the difference between U.K. and U.S. law.