Sunday, October 31, 2010

Digital Sweatshops: A New Global Labor Law Challenge

In his Digital Domain column in the October 31, 2010 Business Section of the New York Times, Silicon Valley author and business professor Randall Stross writes about the growing business of widely distributed repetitive task work in the online universe. Pioneered in 2005 by’s Mechanical Turk service, the business involves software apps which, per Stross, “carve a given task into microscopically small pieces, like transcribing a hand-written four-digit number in a tiny rectangle on a form”, a task which Stross points out presents a problem for text-recognition software, and thus is more efficient if performed by hand.

Such work is referred to as “microtasking”, and businesses pay a few cents per completed task, such as 2 cents for finding the contract information for 7500 hotels, or 3 cents for each answer regarding an inventory of about 9,400 toys. CloudCrowd in San Francisco offers work for “garble hunters” who find translation errors and are paid 20-25 cents per word.

Law professor Miriam A. Cherry has written of this practice, and has a new article forthcoming in the Georgia Law Review, entitled A Taxonomy of Virtual Work, in which she raises concerns about this kind of “virtual work”, and how it will raise new issues, and renew old issues, for labor unions and employers. In an earlier article on this subject she notes that Chinese “gold farmers” who are hired to play online games for long hours to earn “gold”, forms of virtual currency that allow gamers to move up levels, are paid low wages for the effort, and for whom the “game” is anything but fun.

This is once again an example of how developments in the online universe continue to present, in new contexts, legal issues that require the IP legal community to analyze their contexts, to see if existing law can address the issues, or if sui generis approaches are needed. Stay tuned…we are just touching the surface of this issue.

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