Warming Up to User-Generated Content

90 Pages Posted: 5 Apr 2008 Last revised: 20 Aug 2012

See all articles by Edward Lee

Edward Lee

Chicago-Kent College of Law - Illinois Institute of Technology


The most significant copyright development of the twenty first century has not arisen through any law enacted by Congress or opinion rendered by the Supreme Court. Instead, it has come from the unorganized, informal practices of various, unrelated users of copyrighted works, many of whom probably know next to nothing about copyright law. In order to comprehend this paradox, one must look at what is popularly known as "Web 2.0," and the growth of user-generated content in blogs, wikis, podcasts, "mashup" videos, and social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace. Although users often create new works of their own, sometimes the works are "remixed" with copyrighted content of others.

The growth of user-generated content challenges the conventional understandings of copyright law under which copyrights are understood largely as static and fixed from the top down. Under this view, copyright holders are at the center of the copyright universe and exercise considerable control over their exclusive rights. Obtaining prior authorization from the copyright holder is typically assumed to be necessary for others legally to re-use the copyrighted work, apart from a fair or other permitted use (which often is not easy to determine in advance).

This Article challenges the conventional account of copyright law, particularly as applied to Web 2.0. The formalist understanding of copyright law ignores reality. The Copyright Act is riddled with gray areas and gaps, many of which persist over time because so few copyright cases are ever filed and the majority of those filed are not resolved through a judgment. My core thesis is that informal copyright practices - i.e., practices that are not authorized by formal copyright licenses, but whose legality falls within a gray area of copyright law - effectively serve as important gap-fillers in our copyright system.

The informal practices related to user-generated content provide a compelling example of this phenomenon. These practices make manifest three significant features of our copyright system that have escaped the attention of legal scholars: (i) our copyright system could not function without informal copyright practices; (ii) collectively, users wield far more power in influencing the shape of copyright law than is commonly perceived; and (iii) uncertainty in formal copyright law can lead to the phenomenon of "warming," in which - unlike chilling - users are emboldened to make unauthorized uses of copyrighted works based on seeing what appears to be an increasingly accepted practice. In the Web 2.0 world, warming may serve as a powerful counterforce to the chilling of speech.

Keywords: user-generated content, copyright, Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, Web 2.0, Obama girl, informal copyright practice, warming, chilling, First Amendment, social networking, Web 3.0

JEL Classification: K10, K12, K19, K20, K41, K42, L82, L86, O30, O34

Suggested Citation

Lee, Edward, Warming Up to User-Generated Content. University of Illinois Law Review, Vol. 2008, No. 5, 2008, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1116671

Edward Lee (Contact Author)

Chicago-Kent College of Law - Illinois Institute of Technology ( email )

565 W. Adams St.
Chicago, IL 60661-3691
United States

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