Friday, December 01, 2006

Second Life (Part IV)

This is the fourth in a five-part series on social networking sites. To examine some of the issues confronting these sites, we've concentrated our attention on Second Life, the virtual reality world created by Linden Lab of San Francisco. In this post, we'll examine some hot button topics that are drawing the attention of non-gamers in the real world.

I'd like to pick up where we left off last: talking about problems being caused in the virtual world by con artists, scammers and hackers. The November 21st issue of BusinessWeek Online discussed this in an article titled "The Dark Side of Second Life." It said:

It would seem the virtual world is facing a very real-world problem: crime. As more people have joined the global virtual community . . . residents are grappling with how to secure property ownership and ensure public well-being. The difficulty of that task was underscored Nov. 19 when a worm attack called "grey goo" forced Second Life to close down for a short time. The worm installed spinning objects in the virtual world that slowed the servers as users tried to interact with them.

Many are now demanding an official system of law and order. "People are clamoring for a solution, they want a solution now," says Josh Eikenberry, a virtual architect who designs homes and buildings for avatars under the name Lordfly Digeridoo. "But what is the solution? . . ."

Every society struggles with how best to protect property. It's especially tricky in a place such as Second Life, where goods are defined by lines of software code. Many citizens make a real-life living selling goods such as clothes and homes for avatars . . .

Philip Rosedale, founder and CEO of Second Life, has been very reluctant to aggressively police his virtual world. That reluctance combined with Second Life's affinity for open source software recently created the biggest crisis SL has faced to date.

From its inception in 2003, Second Life embraced the concept of open source software. As a reminder of what open source is, let's turn to a quote from my December 4, 2005 blog:

Adam L. Penenberg, an assistant professor at New York University . . . explains: "The philosophy behind open-source software is simple. Instead of zealously protecting source code--the blood and guts of any computer program--open source encourages any programmer to tear apart the code and build it back up again. The theory is that this collaborative process encourages innovation and decreases bugs by increasing the number of people with a stake in the project."

To this end, Second Life sanctioned the efforts of a group of residents to reverse engineer the system's software in order to identify vulnerabilities that could be exploited by hackers. The group called themselves libsecondlife. As a part of their efforts, they developed a debugging tool that they called Copybot. The tool was created in order to permit the import/export of files or the backup of material.

Now, remember, Second Life is dedicated to the concept of open source--meaning they make their software code available to programmers in order to further creativity and constant improvements. Copybot was available to programmers to review. Someone outside of the libsecondlife group took the program and made alterations to it to permit people to copy objects within Second Life.

On November 15, Yahoo News described what happened next:

Copybot first surfaced in Second Life on Tuesday in a store owned by someone whose first name was Prim . . . The shopkeeper was selling the tool, which is downloaded and used within the Second Life client, and then started offering it for free.

Once the tool was discovered, and word got out, hundreds of residents started forming discussion groups and headed to Prim's store . . . One resident told Prim, "If this was real life, I'd walk over to you and poke you in your eye."

SL's economy--like most others based on supply and demand--depends heavily on scarcity value. Scarcity value means that an object's price increases according to its relative scarcity. In other words, a low supply increases both the demand and the price.

Suddenly, all over Second Life, copies were being made of proprietary objects, items which were copyrighted the moment the maker put them in a fixed form.

Designers and shopkeepers throughout SL were outraged. They demanded that SL, which had put this train on the track, derail it before the entire economy failed.

True to his hands off philosophy, Philip Rosedale was reluctant to play the role of deus ex machina, solving the problem for Second Life. An official SL blog was released on 11/13/06, saying:

Copying does not always mean theft. There can be legitimate uses for copying, just as there are on the web . . . Merely copying something doesn’t mean that a copyright violation has occurred. The law discusses ‘fair use’, for example, as one type of copying that is not a violation. If you DO think someone has copied something you made and is violating your copyright by profiting from the copying then you do have the option of using the DMCA [Digital Millennium Copyright Act] process to file a complaint. It’s a difficult process, but it is one that we’re willing to help enable because we agree that copying is a disincentive to creation.

I think the SL post was both touchingly naive and inaccurate (it referred to being able to copyright an idea. Readers of this blog know that ideas cannot be copyrighted). Moreover, residents with large investments in Second Life were not mollified by the suggestion that they take their claims into the real world to sue for copyright infringement. The SL post did little to calm their outrage. Yahoo News reported:

Scores of Second Life shop owners on Wednesday closed their stores in protest against Linden Lab, and threatened the creator of the online fantasy world with a class-action suit, saying the company was responsible for the release of an in-world tool that could be used to copy their virtual wares.

Second Life's execs realized that their laissez-faire approach was not going to work. On November 14th, they released a statement that included the following:

Second Life needs features to provide more information about assets and the results of copying them. Unfortunately, these are not yet in place. Until they are, the use of CopyBot or any other external application to make unauthorized duplicates within Second Life will be treated as a violation of Section 4.2 of the Second Life Terms of Service and may result in your account(s) being banned from Second Life. If you feel that someone has used CopyBot to make an infringing copy of your content, please file an abuse report. Note that this is completely separate from any copyright infringement claim you may wish to pursue via the DMCA.

A week later, on November 22, a SL journalist reported in New World Notes:

And though my reader poll overwhelmingly criticizes Linden Lab's handling of the CopyBot crisis (nearly 50% call it "Poor", while just under 13% describe it as "Good") it seems the company's ultimate response--explicitly making misuse of CopyBot a violation of Second Life's Terms of Service--has mitigated most of the outrage.

In our conclusion to this series, we'll talk more about these virtual world issues impacting the real world. The U.S. Congress is talking about studying Second Life and its counterparts.

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