Why DRM Alone Can Not Save Second Life


A post yesterday on the Second Life blog Shopping Cart Disco pointed me to a new vendor system that hope to be able to stop a large part of the content theft and copyright infringement in its tracks.

The new system, entitled ReachWorks SecureVend, changes the way people buy goods in game and makes it more difficult to simply copy goods out of stores rather than purchasing them.

The idea is actually pretty ingenious and very simple. Rather than putting the objects in the stores, they are instead stored in a secure location with limited access. The store only contains a series of scripts to handle the transaction and delivery the goods. Without this physical access to the work, one can not copy it until after they purchase it, no matter how broken Second Life’s copy protection is.

A real world comparison would be what a lot of video game retailers do, putting displays out in the public but keeping the actual disks in the back. The only difference is that, rather than waiting for a human to deliver the merchandise, the process is automated, not requiring any human interaction at all.

But while it is a great idea that will help many shopkeepers out, especially considering that it is currently being offered for free to all legitimate sellers right now, it isn’t the end game but, as the post on Shopping Cart Disco said, a step in the right direction.

Before relying on DRM and technological means it is important to take a few lessons from the physical world and understand that, while technology can help with content theft issues, it is only part of the solution.

Technology is an Answer, Not the Answer

Though SecureVend is not DRM in the traditional sense, meaning it doesn’t restrict what people can do with content they own (though there are features built into SL that do that), its helpful to think of it as such because it has a very similar function, the prevention of unauthorized copying.

DRM systems in the physical world have been plagued with two problems.

  1. Restricting Legitimate Use of Content
  2. Being Easily Defeated and Only Punishing Legitimate Users

This is not to say that SecureVend has any of these issues, without having used it I can not say, but they are the issues that have dogged DRM on other digital goods until, in most cases, they’ve been dropped. The classic example being Apple’s move away from DRM-encoded files.

The problem is straightforward. DRM, usually, is easily cracked and broken, making it so that the only people that have to deal with the limitations of DRM are the legitimate customers. This causes an outcry from those who obey the law and does nothing to stop piracy, possibly even encouraging it.

Though some DRM systems have been accepted, such as Valve’s Steam, it’s because the DRM actually improves the customer’s experience by offering better prices, easier access to content, adding achievements, etc.

However, Steam has not stopped piracy of PC games nor slowed it down. People continue to illegally download games online and the numbers continue to rise. Even though it has been a boon for the industry, it hasn’t solved all of its problems.

Similarly, it is unsure what effect SecureVend will have on second life content theft, even if it is widely adopted.

Going Beyond DRM

There are two truths about SecureVend that must be realized.

  1. The System Will Be Hacked: Though it makes it more difficult to obtain free stuff, it is only a matter of time before the scripts are hacked somehow, someway. Even the best DRM schemes fall eventually and deteriorate into a game of cat and mouse. If there is enough motivation to break it, it will be broken.
  2. It Doesn’t Protect Outside the Shop: Perhaps more dangerous is that the service can not protect outside of the shop. Once someone has purchased an item, it can be copied easily in the outside world. Most games, CDs and other copyright goods aren’t shoplifted before being pirated, they are bought first by someone who then makes the work available to others. So, even if the system does work, it will likely only push the copying to a different location.

If the system works reliably and doesn’t inconvenience customers, meaning no one would prefer a store without this system to one that has it, then it likely should be used. If it encourages legitimate sales, it can be a good thing. However, it is not a magic bullet and it should not be undertaken lightly.

After all, the greatest way to encourage piracy is to put up roadblocks to legitimate customers, something the music and movie studios are just now figuring out. If this system frustrates legitimate customers, content creators in Second Life could find themselves in an even worse position than before.

Bottom Line

The goal of this isn’t to say that content creators shouldn’t celebrate or use this new system, but that it should be approached with caution and as part of a larger initiative. Business models will have to come out to fight piracy and encourage buyers as well as a greater push from Linden Lab on the front. Technology, law (in this case both real world law and Linden Lab) and business models need to be a part of the solution as none alone can solve the problem.

SecureVend appears to be a great tool but great tools only achieve great things when paired with strong ideas and hard work. Now is not simply a time to celebrate, but a time to plan and build.

If Second Life is going to thrive as a market for content creators, the content creators have to be ready to take risks, experiment and serve customers well while also trying to tackle piracy in productive ways.

SecureVent can be another step, but just that, a single step.

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