Mixi IP Fight: Who Owns Social Media Content?

Last Updated Mar 12, 2008 1:59 PM EDT

Over the past week, a battle has been raging inside Mixi, Japan's giant social networking site (SNS), over who controls the intellectual property rights of its user-generated content.

Mixi has over 13 million users who post on everything from shopping tips and relationship advice to political discussions and where to find the best "fast food" outlets.

Last week, Mixi announced it will implement a new Terms of Service on April 1 that critics say will effectively give the SNS control over the content posted by its users.

According to Mixi user and legal analyst May Horimoto, the company is claiming that it "can freely modify (user) content against the author's wishes, or omit author's names and in the worst case, claim the user-generated content as their own work, because Mixi forces the users to not assert their Moral Rights.

"Moral Rights in the Japanese Copyright Law consists of the right of publication, the right of claiming authorship (which includes the right to remain anonymous), and the right of preserving integrity," she explains.

Thus, the proposed changes mean that "Mixi can basically do anything it wants with the user-generated content."

Critics point out that the timing of Mixi's announcement is suspicious, since Morgan Stanley downgraded the stock last week, citing two major factors:

  1. The growth rate of unique users and page views has peaked at Mixi, and there is no favorable scenario that would allow the company to continue growing these numbers; and
  2. A rapid shift in users from computers to mobile phones would lower the page view cost, as well as "other negative effects. "
Mixi's stock price fell sharply as a result.

So, what is a big SNS like Mixi to do when its market growth slows and its traditional revenue source (advertising) is falling as well?

What about exploiting its massive archive of user-generated content?

After all, there is a precedent in Japan.

It's the legendary Densha Otoko (Train_ Man), an obscure tale that originated at 2channel but has since spawned a series of lucrative projects, including a series of blockbusters, including a book, movie, a television series, manga, and other media products.

In 2004, an anonymous user posted to 2channel that he had been sitting next to a young woman on the train when a drunken man entered the car and began to harass her. The poster told the man to stop bothering the woman. The two struggled for a short time while the other passengers summoned the conductor.

The young woman thanked him and requested his address. The poster, upon returning home, shared his experience with others on 2channel and was eventually nicknamed "Densha Otoko" (Train_Man).

A few days later, Train_Man received an expensive gift from the woman, and he turned to his online community for advice. Of course, they told him to contact her.

But Train_Man had never even been on a date before, he continued posting updates on his situation, asking for advice on everything from restaurant choices to what clothing to wear.

By now, you can probably guess how this turned out: Love bloomed, followed by a mass online celebration. Plus a lot of money for everyone involved, including Train_Man.

Mixi's management may be seeking a similar happy ending to its woes, but first it will have to quell its user rebellion.

  • David Weir

    David Weir is a veteran journalist who has worked at Rolling Stone, California, Mother Jones, Business 2.0, SunDance, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, MyWire, 7x7, and the Center for Investigative Reporting, which he cofounded in 1977. He’s also been a content executive at KQED, Wired Digital, Salon.com, and Excite@Home. David has published hundreds of articles and three books,including "Raising Hell: How the Center for Investigative Reporting Gets Its Story," and has been teaching journalism for more than 20 years at U.C. Berkeley, San Francisco State University, and Stanford.