“User Generated Content” (UGC) is one of the worst misunderstandings of (or substitutes for) Free Culture. It is a description of some the effects of Free Culture as observed by corporate interests and translated into terms comprehensible to them. Like “Open Source” it is a meaningless and counterproductive misdescription.

Under certain conditions, “users” will be able to create “content”. Under certain conditions this enabling can be corporate. And under certain conditions this can be of benefit to either the users, the corporation, or both.

The temptation is to assume that these conditions must be created economically. Once these conditions have been created economically, any failure to directly capture the value created by these conditions is a loss. And anyone who benefits from that loss is stealing value from the corporation.

To prevent this loss, technological and legal restrictions must be part of the economic conditions. Technologically, large “walled garden” internet servers must be set up to ensure that all UGC and thereby all UGC’s value is returned directly to the corporation. Legally, the source materials provided to users must be carefully licensed to prevent redistribution or sale, and the user’s contributions must belong unquestionably to the corporation in order to ensure that all UGC and thereby all UGC’s value is returned directly to the corporation.

The result is happy users, who get to generate content, and a happy corporation, which gets lots of new value while losing none. Nobody loses, and there is no disruption or threat to the corporation’s communications despite their adoption of radical new methods.

This logic is as seductive as it is wrong. This is not the adoption of radical new methods, it is their neutralization.

UGC in fact means that everybody loses. The users lose by being reduced to sharecroppers (to use Lawrence Lessig’s term) who provide their labour for free. The corporation loses by stifling the creation of the very value that the exercise is meant to create.

The second point may seem counterintuitive. How can keeping value reduce value? In two ways. Firstly, the most competent potential producers of “content” are (semi-)professionals and students, who will understand the law well enough not to lose the rights to their own work in return for nothing. Secondly, the value of such “content” is in its spreading and improving of your communications, in its free circulation and derivation on the internet. UGC strategies are a search for value, so restricting the potential search space is self defeating.

To create a scenario in which everybody wins, forget about UGC. Think of how to encourage the individuals who encounter corporate media communications to engage with and be affected by those communications. To encourage people to talk about you requires that you allow them to talk about you. To do this requires not a glossy website but a guarantee of a few basic rights. To maximize the benefit of this requires helping their speech spread and gain further comment. Again this requires not a multi-page restrictive legal covenant but a guarantee of a few basic rights.

Rather than undertaking expensive and restrictive UGC initiatives, open your archives or release your latest advertising under a copyleft license such as the Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike license (BY-SA). Don’t try to restrict usage. Trademark, libel and other laws are unaffected by BY-SA, and it makes no sense to restrict commercial use of something that you don’t charge for. If a competitor uses your materials, the beauty of BY-SA is that you get to use the results in return, and the same goes for any groups critical of your corporation’s activities for whatever reason.

If your communications are engaging they will end up on sites across the internet, saving you bandwidth, finding unexpected niches, and spreading your communications further than if they remain on a single site. They will also see mash-ups, commentaries and parodies, finding new ways of reaching new audiences and keeping established audiences interested.

For corporations, Free Culture is a way of starting cascading conversations. These conversations are a more efective way of communicating than the spelling bee mentality of UGC contests and the tannoy mentality of a mass media that consumers are increasingly ignoring.

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