What Second Life Can Teach Us About Content Theft

second-life.jpgSecond Life has it very difficult when it comes to content theft and copyright issues.

The SL universe is made up of nothing but intellectual property. Everything from the ground you walk on to the people you meet all fall, in one way or another, under the jurisdiction of copyright.

However, the digital nature of this world makes it incredibly easy to copy and rip off other people’s work. Even though there is a permissions system that is designed to prevent that from happening, the fact is that the system is hopelessly broken and even casual users are able to copy “protected” items almost at will.

To make matters even worse, Linden Lab, the creator and maintainer of the “grid” has proven to be almost completely ineffective at copyright enforcement. Though they accept and act on DMCA notices, they require them to be sent via fax and postal mail and only remove in-world items, not those in inventories or other copies of them.

This results in delays and limitations that destroy the process and create a complete inability to actually remove infringing works from the grid completely.

Yet, despite this, SL has a thriving economy with many people earning money and even a living from selling works on the service. This seems to run counter to much of the logic present on the Web.

So what can second life teach Webmasters about copyright infringement, I see a lot of potential lessons.

A Protection-Free Environment

Falls Noel is Here
Creative Commons License photo credit: Ravenelle

For all practical purposes, SL residents are forced to assume that they have no protection of their works and that they can and will be copied regularly. Worse still, there seems to be very little in the way of means for getting them removed after the infringement took place, especially if they are held in inventories.

This has put Second Life creators in a strange position. How do you sell works at a retail price when illegal copies are available for either free or pennies on the dollar? With so little in the way of traditional enforcement to deter people from just copying and running, creators need to find other ways to reach customers.

However, for the most part, they have been successful. Though copying is still rampant and some designers left the service due to these issues, most have stuck around and continue to sell goods, with at least some success.

So how can Webmasters, bloggers and artists working on the Web take advantage of these lessons, I think there are five points to be gleaned.

Lessons Learned

When looking at the relationship between content theft and Second life, the following elements leap out.

  1. DRM Fails: It is as simple as this, DRM does not work. Protecting your content with DRM will only frustrate legitimate users and will not prevent copying. Reliance on DRM is the path to madness.
  2. Community Enforcement Works: The SL community has banded together and protested content theft as well as in reporting and ostracizing people who copy without permission. Since SL is a social site, this has proved as effective, if not more so, than DMCA enforcement.
  3. Most People Are Good: Despite the abundance of free or low-cost illegal goods, most people who buy products in SL still try to buy from legitimate stores. The bigger problem comes when the copycats are able to fool others into thinking that they are the authentic source.
  4. New Works Trump Old Copies: The longer a work has been on the shelf, the more illegal copies of it that will be distributed. Thus, the best designers are constantly turning out new items to ensure that people come to them, not the shady dealers.
  5. Name Recognition is Everything: If people know who you are and trust you, they will come to you. Well-known designers in SL are among the most copied, but continue to receive business because people know to go to them first. In short, advertising and word of mouth mitigate against plagiarism.

While I am almost certain that designers would prefer that the DRM in SL was more effective or that, at the very least, Linden would be quicker and more thorough with its response, they have done reasonably well for themselves despite the rampant copying that exists on the service.

Not All Roses

This isn’t to say that things are great for SL designers. Times are actually very tough on the service right now and have been increasingly difficult for some time.

However, most of the problem stems from factors outside of the service itself including a slowing economy, a decline in the paid user base and new competitors to the service.

Clearly, making a living or even a second income in SL is not as easy as it was during the hype-filled months several years ago, before the desertion of many of the corporate partners, but it is still possible.

If Linden and the citizens of SL can recruit new users and grow the population, not just the hours spent, SL could still rebound and the artists currently established would have an upper hand in the revitalized economy.


Though SL is not perfectly analogous to the Web, there are many similarities and the fact many copyright holders there have been able to make a living despite rampant copying has a great deal to teach everyone.

Though the future of SL is uncertain, as a world based solely upon copyrighted material, it may have far greater impact as an experiment on the nature of how people treat non-material creations.

In short, if the creators of Second Life can survive and thrive, then there is definitely hope for rest of us on the Web. It just may require a change in the way we think.

Related Links

  • Avenue Models: An interesting infringement case in the SL modeling community and a rather humorous way of getting caught.
  • Fresh Baked Goods: A case where a DMCA notice was, according to the article, filed against an original creator instead of an infringer. Excellent look at the Linden DMCA process.
  • Gwyn’s Home: A great discussion about switching to a service economy in SL.

Further Discussion

  • What other lessons are there for Webmasters in SL?
  • What more can SL users do to protect their work and grow their businesses?
  • Is a virtual economy ever going to be free of this element?

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