Business in Virtual Worlds, Second Life

Digital Entitlement: Our Right to Copy in Virtual Worlds

The right to copy, back-up and move virtual goods from one platform to another is a philosophy that, well, confounds me, and I can’t help wondering whether the expression of virtual goods somehow has us believing that these really ARE a pair of jeans, or a house, or a car or whatever, that somehow we feel entitled because of the sense of reality we get from virtual goods, but then I remember that many people have a similar sense of entitlement to ANY content that can be digitized, it’s people who CREATE content who just don’t ‘get it’, their rights as individuals need to be subsumed to some kind of, well, collective.

Botgirl is the latest to articulate the “we have rights” school of thought as it applies to Second Life, and urges us all to back-up our inventory and ship it elsewhere, or to keep it, at the very least, on our hard drives, safe from the ravages of time or the impending collapse of Linden Lab. (Although if Linden Lab collapses, I’d propose we’ll have long moved on and will be swapping holographic mesh houses on Microsoft’s Windows 12.0 or wherever). Her argument echoes the argument of many who came before, and will come again:

- We have a rationale. The rationale is that we don’t want to lose stuff. You wouldn’t want us to lose stuff would you?
- The content creators won’t mind – they sold it to ME after all, and I can do what I want with it.
- And don’t give me any arguments about platforms and Linden Lab or whatever – that’s like defending the MUSIC industry for gawd’s sake! That’s like defending, I dunno, Communism or something! Didn’t you know how inherently EVIL it was for an industry to facilitate the commercialization of music for all those decades to the delighted enjoyment of millions???
- And don’t argue LAW with me. The law is vague or undecided. And besides, didn’t I tell you I bought it and so it’s MINE and I should have a right to protect what’s MINE?

OK, so sure, there are far more intelligent ways of articulating the above. But the basic argument is this: that we as consumers are ENTITLED. The consumer is the one with the rights. Not the platform owner. Or the content creator. Or even the courts, now that I think about it, because look at how DUMB they have been in trying to protect those monolithic record companies – someone elect Lawrence Lessig to the Supreme Court and FAST!

But I’m willing to listen to all kinds of arguments. I’m willing to think about fair use, and whether the legal regime for copyright makes sense. I’m even willing to consider whether copyright itself should be abolished. Thankfully, however, most of the “if it can be copied it SHOULD be” advocates don’t also argue for the abolishing of copyright, otherwise they’d simply truly BE communists, it’s all about a lack of private property and everything being in the service of the collective good if you take the argument to the logical extension. (Oh my, I’m probably sounding like Prok, but bear with me LOL)

But what I can’t help puzzling over are the larger contradictions in the argument. Or the larger silence around issues NOT related to virtual world goods. Or maybe I’m reading the wrong blogs.

Games and Worlds
So, let’s say I buy a suit of armor in Warcraft, or I get my wings in Aion, or a new car in Grand Theft Auto.

Now, the rules of the game will say that this property is now the property of my avatar. The rules of the game may also place restrictions around the monetization of game content, but the ‘idea’ of property is still inherent to the game. And most game objects DO have a dollar value – they’re traded mostly quite openly, either on exchanges endorsed by the platform owners or on exchanges that are ignored, which is nearly the same as approval.

Now, let’s say I’m worried that Blizzard is about to go out of business. Not this year, but in 5 years maybe.

Do I have a right to back up my Warcraft inventory in case Blizzard goes out of business? If so, then do I have the right to back-up, I don’t know, the Goldshire region? I PAID for Goldshire, after all, with my monthly subscription, and I’m only backing it up so that I can protect my right to enjoyment of this virtual ‘property’ I’ve invested in.

If you say yes to all of this, then see above, because what you’re advocating is to abolish the notion of intellectual property.

But if you say no, then what is it about Warcraft that causes you to say no? Is one type of content creator different than another? Just because it’s a large corporation, does that give them lesser rights to their intellectual property than the person making shoes in Second Life?

Maybe the lack of monetization somehow makes the exchange less of a purchase? But isn’t time exchanged for goods a transaction? The lawyers would say that it is – if I spend 20 hours painting your house and you give me a chicken, we’ve conducted a transaction which has fair value, just as grinding for 20 hours to get enough herbs to make a potion also gives fair value.

Or maybe you’ll say it’s the Terms of Service, which are clear about this issue about who owns what. But in Second Life the TOS is clear, but in SL’s case you are fine with ignoring it, and on Warcraft you’re not?

Or maybe it’s because with Warcraft you can’t actually USE that content somewhere else. In which case you’re not actually talking about intellectual property, you’re talking about your desire for interoperability. About which more later.

But first, tell me the difference, because I don’t get it: why is a game like Warcraft different from Second Life? If I’m allowed to back up my inventory in one world why shouldn’t I be allowed to do the same in another?

A Web of Content and Walled Gardens
Find me the back-up button on Facebook. Find me the way to not just copy and paste my endless wall posts and right click and save all the photos of me on Spring Break, but to copy the connections I have to other people, their profiles, their connections, their posts back to me.

Or find me the place on Google where I can click the button that says “download my saved search history and profile” – you know, that database that Google keeps on you of every link you can click and every e-mail you’ve sent.

Show me on youTube where I can back up the video that someone ELSE made. Oh – sure, I can get burners and rip the videos off, but do you approve? Should I be able to go and download a BotGirl video from youTube and embed it on my own private site for my own enjoyment? Will Botgirl be upset or will she say, yeah, that’s fair use? Or did she believe that in posting it on YouTube she had some control over how the video was displayed and be able to take advantage of the statistics attached to that platform or, maybe, even be able to monetize it one day with some AdWords or something.

The Web is filled with walled gardens. Places where we make stuff and share it but do so with at least a moderate understanding of how those particular walled gardens work. We don’t expect the owners of Facebook to copy our personal information over to MySpace. We don’t expect the ability to back-up our social networks and take them somewhere else. We understand that the platform itself functions because the platform owner has built tools to KEEP us there, to make it DIFFICULT for us to just migrate all of our content to the next hot widget that comes along, and we participate in those platforms willingly, for now anyways.

Now, we may wail in frustration when we realize that most of our photos are on Picassa and not our hard drive, or on Facebook instead of a DVD, but we don’t blame the platform owner, we blame ourselves for not backing up our own stuff. And for our own stuff – the stuff that we uploaded and shared and which was native to us in the first place this is fine. But we UNDERSTAND that we don’t have a right to a copy of our social network graph in Facebook – we can take our photos with us, but we can’t click “export” and carry our networks somewhere else.

Botgirl makes a common argument: “But restricting fair use through DRM and TOS policies is an institutional wrong that undermines the rights of every single Second Life resident. The legitimate way to deter content theft is to go after those who steal, not to treat every consumer like a latent thief.”

And yet the restriction of fair use over our OWN stuff is what the vast landscape of social media is greatly BASED ON. The natural extension of the Botgirl argument is that no site should be developed which doesn’t allow easy portability of all of “our” content, even if the connections and cross-tabulations of that content was facilitated by the platform owner – the platform owner has no right, in other words, to create a system which has a few hooks in it to keep you there, or to create one where the intellectual property developed within it is difficult (or illegal by the TOS) to transfer.

But here’s the thing: let’s say you disagree with the above. Let’s say you think that you SHOULD be able to take your social networks with you when you go. Well, you sign up for Ning not Facebook. You post Torrents instead of youTube videos. But you KNOW when you join – “this is a walled garden, and I gain something from it but there are rules in play here and I’ll make the sacrifice”. Just because you don’t like it later doesn’t somehow retroactively give you the right to change your mind or to impose your new desires on the platform owners or your fellow community members.

The rules were posted, the norms were fairly clear, (or you figured them out soon enough) and your not liking it doesn’t confer an entitlement to it being changed.

Is Virtual World Content DIFFERENT
Linden lab developed a proprietary format for virtual content. They made this format accessible through the open source viewer. But the portability of that format did not imply a RIGHT to portability. There’s nothing in the TOS or, even, the law which confers that right.

One of the other common arguments made is that although the law doesn’t explicitly allow copying of content, it SHOULD. As Botgirl says:

“It took the unrelenting efforts of renegade software developers, actively dissenting consumers and organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) to release digital music from DRM. The fight to free video content is still underway. The battle to liberate virtual property has barely begun.”

Now, I don’t follow the music industry. But as far as I know, the release of music from DRM didn’t suddenly wipe out the rights of content creators (namely musicians). However, it’s an ineffective argument because WISHING that the laws were different doesn’t MAKE them different. As of today, there is no legal precedent by which a TOS has been over-ruled by a court. Wishing that the courts judged the concept of the TOS to be non-binding doesn’t mean that they have – and unless you’re willing to BE the precedent and fight this through the courts, you’re still doing something which right now is illegal.

Platform-specific virtual world content is therefore subject to the TOS. And I would argue that even if it was fought in court, it would STILL be subject to the TOS, because in spite Botgirl’s claim that Linden Lab IMPLIES in its advertising that virtual goods are GOODS, they do no such thing. They simply claim that virtual goods are goods IN SECOND LIFE.

Show me the ad by Linden Lab which says something like: “Make money selling virtual content in Second Life AND OpenSim.”

It doesn’t say that. In fact, the promise that the Lab makes is that they will provide a platform, an economy, and various (attempts at) protection which will allow you to create, share and sell goods in Second Life.

Not the metaverse. Or the Web. Or at the corner store. In Second Life.

If you want a ‘universal marketplace’ go and sell and buy stuff on TurboSquid. Quit complaining that Second Life content can’t be used across the metaverse. It wasn’t made that way, it wasn’t promised, and there will be lots of other platforms (and mesh imports) that will deal with your dream.

The Rights of Content Creators
But more than anything, what I find to be an affront is the idea that the content creator has no rights. That their understanding of how Second Life was set-up should be over-ridden by, well, by someone’s desire to bring copies of content to OpenSim or to back it up because the Lab might fail.

The mob has more rights than the craftsperson entertaining that mob. The collective over-rules the content creator. Your rights to consume, and to consume anywhere at any time and in whatever way you see fit is paramount. In fact, I can’t help wondering whether, in their passionate defense of consumers, these are the same people that decry global warming as a hoax, worried that their right to burn fossil fuel will be infringed upon by some boring old TOS about carbon emissions.

Having said that, content creators DO lack certain rights – to have other expressions of the licenses they grant to their content, for example. But the lack of those rights (or, actually, they HAVE those rights they just don’t have easy ways to confer them) doesn’t give a consumer the right to impose those rights FOR them, to decide that “Copy/Mod/Transfer” MEANT copy it to whatever Grid you please….and frankly, if you want to impose those rights on content creators, in my books that’s a far greater tyranny than the one imposed by those who would deem to protect you.


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