Content Theft and Second Life

If you play Second Life or remotely follow content theft issues on the Web, you are probably well aware that there has been a flood of talk regarding content theft issues in the virtual world.

Over the course of the past few months, there has been a lot of attention paid to the issue by residents of the virtual world and several attempts have been made to educate residents and get the attention of Linden Lab, the operator of the service.

Some of the attempts have included a virtual nude protest, an impassioned video from one of the best-known designers, the creation of protest skins, several shops closing and a flurry of blog posts.

However, the excitement has had little, if any, impact on the running of the service. All responses from Linden Lab encouraged users to follow the existing DMCA procedures, without any reference to the demands and requests of the community.

The controversy, which has remained very heated over the past month, does not seem to be dying down and could have a drastic impact, not just on Second Life, but the Web at large.

What is Going On

The controversy in the second life community is with a program known as CopyBot and an improved version of it.

What these programs do is allow users to copy models and designs from others of the Second Life universe. However, typically these creations are sold in virtual shops and are not designed to be copied. In fact, Second Life has a permissions system that, theoretically, is supposed to prevent such unauthorized copying.

However, these bots manage to exploit flaws or loopholes in the permissions system and allow their operators to copy any items, including those marked as not for copying or resell.

Worse still, the bots can strip out all permissions, eliminating any and all restrictions placed on the product by the creator. This makes it available for resell, often at a drastically reduced price, and furthers the propagation of the copying.

Linden Lab, for their part, has made it clear that using such programs are a violation of their terms of service and have, historically at least, banned users for running them. However, the pace of enforcement has been far outstripped by the growth in popularity of these bots and the dissemination of copied goods.

In recent weeks and months, the issue has come to a head as shops have begun to close and the issue of content theft has been high on the agenda for many residents of Second Life.

Unfortunately, it does not appear that this issue is going away any time soon and it could spell disaster for the virtual world.

A Noble Experiment

The content theft issues in Second Life are interesting because, fundamentally, Second Life is an entire universe made up solely of intellectual property. Everything in the universe, from the clothes to the furniture, are protected by copyright and not traditional property rights.

Linden Lab, for its part, has much of its business model centered around the sale of that intellectual property. They make their money off of exchanging real currency into Linden Dollars, the currency of Second Life.

With an entire economy and entire world based solely upon intellectual property, Second Life becomes something of a microcosm for the rest of the world. Any intellectual property issues will be felt more acutely and more quickly in Second Life than in the rest of the Web.

With that in mind, the results of widespread copying and lackluster enforcement has been drastic. Shops have closed, designers have stopped producing new works and fewer people are creating for the service. Some have even hypothesized that the rampant content theft is partly to blame for the decline in membership over recent months.

Second life is possibly in danger of becoming a ghost town, a house built by intellectual property, torn down by rampant copying.

What Can Linden Do

Linden Lab is in an unusual position. They are not merely administrators of servers, but they are practically Gods of a virtual world. They have enforcement opportunities and powers that copyright holders in the real world can only dream about.

However, Linden Lab has been hesitant to actually use those powers. Instead they’ve relied on more traditional laws, namely the DMCA to handle such matters.

This has frustrated the residents of Second Life by throwing up what they see as unnecessary roadblocks to resolution in the face of a growing crisis.

So what could Linden do? Here are my thoughts.

  • Fix the Permissions: Linden Lab has said that it is impossible to stop the use of something like CopyBot. But while DRM fails in the real world due to the realities it faces, if the RIAA and MPAA could control the laws of physics, they could probably concoct and effective DRM. However, even if it only stopped the current bots, it would be seen as an improvement. Complete prevention is not the measure of success in these situations.
  • Streamline Abuse Reporting: The DMCA process at Linden Lab works, but it is a headache. Much like Google, they require a mailed or faxed notice, which adds both extra hassle and extra time to the process. They could streamline the process overnight by accepting emailed notices and electronic signatures, as per the ESIGN Act, and in the long run could offer even more streamlining by providing an in-game method for reporting infringement.
  • Better Detection and Banning: Users of the software need to be certain that they are going to be banned. Even if they can not close the loopholes, they can likely detect the misuse and notify the copyright holders. This would reduce the need for community enforcement of copyright matters and, when combined with more prompt banning, would discourage the misuse.

In short, Linden Lab has chosen not just to avoid wielding the power that they could have, but to throw up unnecessary roadblocks given the current laws. It is clear that enforcement of intellectual property within the system is not a high priority for them, even though it is a cornerstone of their business.

If Linden Lab were a traditional host and graded on my DMCA Seven system, they would receive a “D-” and would be easily one of the worst hosts I have ever studied or worked with.

The simple fact is that, while their infringement enforcement system might work well enough for “outside-in” infringements where real world copyrighted works are infringed in the virtual one, it is far too slow and unwieldily to deal with the explosion of in-world infringement.

Unfortunately, it seems to be designed exactly that way.

Lessons For the Real World

For those of us who primarily create and distribute content on the Internet at large and not in second life, there are still several important lessons we can clean from the events in Second Life.

  1. Reliance on DRM Fails: If DRM fails to protect works in a virtual world, it will fail at least as badly in the real one.
  2. Community Action is Limited: Though the Second Life community has been very united in this fight, they have not been able to push for drastic change. Since this problem has not likely yet impacted Linden Lab bottom line, the company has little motivation to act.
  3. Community Action Can Work: However other actions targeted at the sellers of copied merchandise have had stronger, if temporary results. The efforts, however, are unsustainable and have drawn a mixed reaction.
  4. An Underground Market Will Exist: An underground market that trades both in copied works and in the software to create them flourishes in Second Life, the same as in the real world. As long as there is money to be made, it will exist, somewhere. It is just a matter of how large and brazen it is.
  5. Companies Will Not Take Action: The approach of Linden Lab in this situation is the same as almost any large ISP. Though they throw up artificial roadblocks, much like Google, they are going to do what they think the law requires them to do and nothing else. Enforcement is expensive and does not pay for itself, even when the entire business model is threatened.

The bottom line is that the problems in Second Life have direct parallels to ones on the Internet at large. While we may not feel the difficulties and frustrations as acutely as creators in Second Life, the problems are largely the same.

Unfortunately, looking at what is going on in Second Life, the news does not bode well for content creators, no matter what world they work in.

Conclusions

Linden Lab is not likely to take any drastic action on this issue until the copying begins to noticeable affect their bottom line. Unfortunately, by the time that happens, it will likely be too late. A sharp slide in quality combined with competition from other virtual worlds could easily lead to a mass exodus of Second Life’s best users.

In fact, some say that has already started.

If you’re a designer in Second Life, it may be time to start thinking about diversifying or even leaving the service. Though all such worlds will have an issue with content theft once they reach a certain size, there are steps that companies can take to mitigate against and reduce the impact that copies have on the virtual economy.

These are steps that Linden ha failed to take or even seriously consider and that practically guarantees, regardless of community efforts, that the issues with copying will only grow.

If there is any broader lesson that can be learned from this situation, it is that cooperation between hosts, service providers and copyright holders is critical in bringing about change.

Though it is impossible to prevent or stop all copyright infringement, with an atmosphere of cooperation, it can be kept to a minimum.

Unfortunately, that does not seem to exist in Second Life, at least not at this time.

Notes: Linden Lab was not contacted for this article. Answers to the questions were located in other interviews with them as well as their official responses. Those items have been linked in this article. Also, I do not play Second Life and I apologize for any misunderstandings about the game itself. Once again, information was gleaned from the Second Life site and other players.

Photo Credits:

“Party Photo” is from Pathfinder Linden and is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
“Panel Photo” is from Pathfinder Linden and is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Photo of Ziggy Quirk is from her YouTube Video.

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