If you've been keeping up with news in the gaming and streaming world, chances are you've heard about the controversy surrounding the Child Online Protection Act (COPPA). But what is COPPA really, and why should streamers care? To bring this topic to light, Pipeline interviewed Ryan Morrison, perhaps better known online as Video Game Attorney. Morrison is a lawyer specializing in the digital entertainment, intellectual property, and brand protection industries - especially pertaining to streaming. He is a co-founder of the law firm Morrison-Rothman, LLC, the CEO of Evolved Talent Agency (for esports players and content creators), and the Vice President of the Esports Bar Association. He is also a Pipeline community member, and contributes regularly to the legal channel in Pipeline's Discord.
Describe your role in the video game community and at Pipeline. How did you get drawn into this world as an attorney?
I run a law firm focused on digital entertainment, which means everything from esports to game development, to streamers. Years ago, King, the developer of Candy Crush, tried to trademark the word “Candy.” The internet was enraged, and I offered a lot of help and guidance to various communities on Reddit and elsewhere. They started referring to me as Video Game Attorney, and here we are. I now run a firm with many attorneys specializing in the live streaming space and, more importantly, in privacy and COPPA compliance.
Are there any misconceptions about lawyers that you’ve noticed within the gaming community?
The primary issue most people in digital entertainment face when dealing with attorneys, is that they don’t deal with attorneys. They think they are too expensive or intimidating to call, and even though so many firms offer free consultations, most people on Twitch never attempted one. The internet has a lot of bad legal advice out there, so I really can’t recommend enough reaching out to a firm that understands your business.
What is the Child Online Protection Act (COPPA)?
COPPA is a 1998 U.S. law that restricts operators of websites and online services from collecting the personal information of under-13 users without parental permission. Its original goal was to prevent kids from giving out online their names, addresses, phone numbers, and other data that could put them in danger from online predators.
Why has it been in the news? What is the recent controversy behind it?
In 2013, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) amended COPPA, broadening the scope to (1) expand the definition of “operators” to include creators who publish on ad-assisted platforms like YouTube, and to (2) expand the definition of “personal information” to include persistent identifiers (such as web cookies), which advertisers rely on to run ads matched to an appropriate audience (colloquially known as “targeted ads” or “personalized ads”). For six years, this amendment was never enforced against YouTube creators; however, as part of a massive settlement with YouTube, the FTC has stated that they intend to start enforcing the regulations on individual creators (including streamers), starting January 1, 2020.
What does COPPA mean for streamers?
This means that, potentially, you can individually be fined or punished for breaching COPPA. Normally the website would bear the brunt of the risk and the issues here, but that now directly skips them and can target you. As a result, you should run to a law firm you trust in this space and go over your content with them to see if you are at risk of being deemed targeted to children by the FTC.If calling a lawyer isn’t something you’re up for, I would read this article, by Jonathan Katz, for a deeper understanding of the issues, even if it holds more info about YouTube than Twitch.
What should streamers do to ensure compliance?
The FTC is now asking the public for comments about its enforcement of COPPA, including the 2013 changes, before the Jan. 1 enforcement begins. This is a rare opportunity for the creator community and its fans to raise their voices and be heard. The FTC wants to hear from creators about the impact this will have on their businesses, and from parents about the impact this will have on them and their children.The Katz article above has more info (including a comment template), but these are the most important steps to follow:
- Share and tweet this article to your fellow creators to spread the word about what is happening.
- Sign this Change.org petition.
- Most important of all, take three minutes to make a comment on the FTC’s proposed rule, and encourage your peers and fans to do the same.
Any other advice for new streamers?
It’s important to remember that streaming is a business. Call it a hobby if you’d like, but the law treats you the same - as if you were a top streamer, even if you have one viewer. As such, you should take care of the matters startups face with the legal system as quickly as possible. Here’s a list of the major steps:
- Create a company, whether an LLC or corporation, and thus create a liability shield between your personal belongings and your business.
- Trademark your brand, which means both your name and your logo if you have one, and start protecting all your hard work, time spent, and resources.
- Contractor Agreements are a must if paying someone for artwork or anything else. Without a proper agreement, they retain ownership of what they created (even if you pay). That’s a dangerous game to play with your business.
- Remember that defamation exists, which is strangely something most creators seem to forget. If you’re going to have insulting opinions about someone, make sure they are clearly opinions. And if you’re trying to throw out some hot takes, it again never hurts to chat with a lawyer about them
Hope this helps, and I am always happy to answer any questions you have in the legal channel of Pipeline’s Discord, or through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.