Double Buffered

A Programmer’s View of Game Design, Development, and Culture

Archive for November, 2006

Copyright in the Virtual World

Posted by Ben Zeigler on November 16, 2006

Over the last week or so, the world of Second Life. Wagner James Au has a good summary of the entire thing up at his blog, which is worth a read. The gist is that some programmers at the open-source libSecondLife project have been working on creating a client library for second life (with official Linden Labs blessing). A few days ago, they released the first proof of concept program for their library, a C# bot that was capable of running around in SL. One of the things it could do was temporarily copy the appearance of another player, with their permission. If you’ve got any hacker spirit, you can probably guess what happened next.

The developers had developed a less restricted version of this code, called CopyBot, and accidentally put it in their public source repository. Someone took the code, modified it to remove the permission asking and add permanent storage, and started selling it inside Second Life. Before long, hundreds of copied avatars began running around the virtual world. Not being all that familiar with the intricacies of Second Life culture, this sounded like a harmless and amusing hack, not something that would cause player rebellion.

The problem is tailors. Second Life players can create clothing for their avatar, and can sell that clothing to other players for money. This is a very common and lucrative business enterprise in the world, and CopyBot threatened to destroy it. Why buy clothing when you can just copy it from a friend? There are people who work full time creating Second Life clothing, and their livelihood was threatened. So, over the last few days many of the most popular clothing stores have been closed in protest. There has been picketing and the equivalent of in game riots. Eventually, the developers wrote a blog post that tried to answer some of the concerns, and things started to die down. None of the issues are resolved yet, though.

Linden Labs takes an approach to copyright that is entirely unique among online games/worlds. Essentially every other company requires you to grant them the rights to anything you create within a game (go read the license on your favorite game if you don’t believe me). This is how companies justify shutting down of loot eBay auctions and the like: you’re selling the companies property, not your own. There’s no copyright problems if someone steals your outfit, because you never owned it to begin with. Linden Labs takes the exact opposite approach. All players own whatever they produce in-engine, and Second Life itself has nothing to do with any copyright issues between it’s players. Basically, in this case Second Life was acting like Napster, and players didn’t like this.

Logically, breaking copyright to copy a song is the same as copying a virtual outfit (the libSecondLife guys strongly believe both are fine), but the community dynamics are much different. I’d be willing to bet that pretty much all of the virtual clothing designers who wanted string copyright enforcement in this case have stolen their fair share of songs from the record companies. This development was inevitable, and I’m curious to see how this will unfold. For everyone’s sake, I hope a better solution is arrived at then draconian content restrictions and an army of lawyers. One thing that is a lot better about individuals than large corporations, is that community dynamics actually have a chance of resolving problems. If the community process doesn’t work out, expect to see a new profession pop up in Second Life: Intellectual Property Lawyer.

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