SL Intellectual Property – Next stop: Paranoia Central

Last time, in an anger-fueled post I decided to touch on a very sensitive and drama-inducing subject: the paranoia that is eating through the minds of many content creators in Second Life. It was quite a few RL years ago (late 2006, in fact; this sort of time interval in Second Life terms amounts to about a century) that the drama around Copybot started to unfold. For a quick and dirty summary, I will point you all to the coverage from CNET, because it is a serious resource, far more serious than the rants of many people on the forums, blogs and discussion boards. According to the content creators protesting against Copybot, it harmed them no end and put their livelihoods at risk, because it would allow everyone to copy their work and resell it.

In my previous post, I mentioned how the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the (conservative) Cato Institute and journalist institutions like Ars Technica and TechDirt  pointed out how the RL content industry presents bogus data to the authorities and the governments in its lobbying attempts (which are more often than not accompanied by melodramatic TV adverts about struggling artists who will become destitute by piracy) to pass pro-censorship “anti-piracy” laws (see HADOPI, SOPA, PIPA, ACTA and CETA). Yes, bogus data. And the U.S. GAO even protested about the content industry not giving them all the data and the methodology they used to come up with these make-believe results and conclusions. Once again, you can have a look at Cato Institute’s article “How Copyright Industries Con Congress” and, of course, the other sources I mentioned in my previous post on this matter.

Well, at least the content industry in RL bothered to come up with data, even if it is entirely bogus and fabricated. The various “ZOMG EVREYONE IS COPYIN MAH STUFFZ AN I CANT MAKE MY LIVIN IN SL ANYMOER, SHAME ON U LL” content creators’ collectives that were quickly gathered with their virtual torches and pitchforks did not. So far, I have not seen a single study documenting the real impact of Copybot on content creators’ sales. Not a single survey. Burden of proof, anyone?

Of course, it is true that many people’s work was indeed copied and resold through the use of Copybot. The other day, I was speaking with a friend of mine who explained to me that a certain user in Second Life copybotted the latex catsuits she makes and started selling their textures under her own brand. To this, of course, I replied that she should file a DMCA with Linden Lab and get a process started to have the infringing user and the infringing material removed from SL and even consider legal action. In reality, of course, I don’t know how many sales this has cost my friend; neither does she, I suppose. What she does know is that the offending user sells (or used to sell) stuff obviously copied from her.

How exactly are we to know how much damage is done to SL content creators by the use of Copybot and its derivatives? I can think of one way. The content creator whose intellectual rights have been infringed upon could demand access to Linden Lab’s transaction records regarding specific products that are copies of his own products. For instance, my friend whose product range includes latex catsuits could order LL to give her precise information about the number of sales, and the amount of L$, made by the copycat. That way, she could know how much damage was done to her and proceed with litigation.

But still, the general SL public does not know how much damage is really done. All we know is conjecture, rumours and hearsay.

How Linden Lab’s inactivity fuels paranoia

Here is where we also get into the area of holding Linden Lab accountable for this lack of reliable information on the true economic impact of Copybot (in fact, I am not aware of LL providing any such information):

If Linden Lab provided afflicted content creators and the general SL public with the exact summary transaction records (including information on the L$ made) and made public the total amount of L$ made by users of Copybot (and its derivatives), as verified by DMCAs filed, content creators and the rest of the virtual society would know exactly what is true and what is false.

Lack of real, reliable, publicly available data leads to rumours, fear and paranoia. It’s something we’ve seen many times before in the history of mankind and, since our avatars are run by us human beings, the virtual society and economy of Second Life is only going to respond to the same stimuli in the the same manner RL humans do. Of course, LL (and the content creators whose IP has been infringed upon) could very well play – and I see no reason why they wouldn’t do so – the privacy card and say “we can’t publish such data because it would be a breach of privacy and confidence of our content creators etc.”

Fair enough.

But it is this secrecy or inactivity, which only serves to spread fear and paranoia among content creators, that leaves a gaping hole open for vigilantism and con artists who claim to “protect” content creators from the Copybot and its users. So, there you have it: the bugbear of content theft has become the beast under our beds, in our closets, in our heads. It is “the Enemy”. Like I said, we have no data whatsoever on the true damage done to the SL economy by the Copybot and its use. We only have the content creators’ “common wisdom” (or, to be more precise, common myth) that every SL user out there is a potential thief. Hmmmm… Presumption of innocence, anyone? Nah! When paranoia settles in one’s mind, everyone is presumed guilty.

Therefore, content creators argue, pro-active measures must be taken to prevent copyright infringement. These pro-active measures include usage of security exploits (which can easily become a form of cybercrime), breaches of users’ privacy etc. All in the name of “protecting content creators from copyright infringement”.

Yeah right. The truth is that users of these “intellectual property protection systems” only show us that they believe that every visitor to their stores is a potential copybotter. If they didn’t hold this belief, they wouldn’t be using these systems in the first place. No, they wouldn’t even consider buying these systems at all and fraudsters like zFire Xue (Michael Prime) would never have had a chance at making an easy buck out of content creators’ paranoia and fear of others copying their stuff.

“Content creators are the ones that drive SL’s economy, so LL must protect them at all costs”

Oh, if only I had a L$ for every time I’ve heard this line, I would now have more money in my RL bank account than Anshe Chung. I may not be a content creator right now, however I do give LL real cash by purchasing L$ for (a) paying my land’s tier and (b) purchasing various products from content creators. Yes, I, the virtual consumer contribute to SL’s economy because I actually give money direct to LL. In fact, LL makes money from me, as I am not withdrawing any currency; I am not converting L$ to USD (or other RL currency) – I buy LL’s virtual currency with real money. This means I lose money, albeit willingly, to purchase virtual goods and enjoy my time in the virtual world.

On the other hand, many content creators I’ve seen spend less on SL than they get out of it; they might pay for a whole sim, yes, but they may be withdrawing double or triple that money. So, these content creators are actually making LL lose money, because the money I give LL to buy the L$ that enables me to purchase their virtual goods is most likely withdrawn to their RL bank accounts.

In all fairness, though, if it wasn’t for the content creators, I wouldn’t really bother with SL. I’d be spending my money elsewhere. Or nowhere – I might just as well keep that money to myself; what with the current Eurozone crisis, it would probably be a lot more prudent for me to hold on to my euros.

And this is where content creators, and LL, are missing the point completely. Content creators go nuts over the fact that their products may or may not be copied by someone and resold (I’m going to get to the “copying” issue later on). LL, bullied by the most vocal content creators, makes provisions against activities that could be perfectly legitimate (for instance, backing up of your inventory – of items, that is, that you actually paid for). It also fails (see the RedZone scandal – and I will point you to Inara Pey’s excellent coverage of it) to act quickly against privacy-breaching systems deployed by certain content creators (the ones that have allowed paranoia to poison their minds) and just looks the other way when potentially malicious (not to mention vindictive) user data mining is carried out on a large scale.

And this is where LL loses consumers – and so do the content creators, because neither LL nor content creators understand the importance of privacy in a virtual world where users come to live out their fantasies and be what they want to be but can’t be in RL. Not to mention that treating a potential customer as a potential thief is downright insulting and anyone with any decency would boycott merchants who have this mentality.

Who do you trust?

Yes, who do you trust?

Do you, the SL consumer, trust a content creator that believes – no, is convinced that you are there not to buy his/her virtual goods, but to steal his intellectual work and deploys systems that violate your privacy?

Do you, the SL content creator, trust persons who were involved in one of the most awkward controversies for Linden Lab (the Emerald Viewer spyware and DdoS controversy) and were part of a team of copybotters with the protection of your intellectual property?

Do you, the SL consumer, trust a company that fails to enforce a zero-tolerance policy against spyware, scamware or malware in its virtual world?

These are the three hard, painful questions that the SL community must ask itself, reflect upon, and answer.


While this heading sounds ridiculous, the mentality of all the spyware-using content creators boils down to just that. Let’s face it: if your product is using only “classic” prims and has copy/modify permissions, I can rez a copy, take it apart and, using only the inworld build tools, recreate it and give it to a friend. Or sell it. Besides, let’s face it: there are only so many ways in which you can torture a prim. So, for instance, an armchair modeled after the Eames lounge chair will always look like, well, its namesake. This means that two such armchairs made by different content creators will look similar, if not identical. Who’s copied who, in this case? And furthermore, both content creators in this case have copied an existing RL design. In the Marketplace, I see many winter boots that are basically copies of UGG’s RL design. Are these copies licensed by UGG in any way? I think not.

This leads me to an amusing scenario:

Suppose we have a content creator named “X”. X makes a pair of boots that look exactly like UGG’s winter boots (let’s say they copied the “Bailey Button” model) and starts selling it inworld. Then comes “Y”, a copybotter. This fellow comes in and copies X’s UGG knock-offs, plasters his or her brand on them and starts selling them. Who’s infringed on whose intellectual property? If you don’t like this example, let’s say that X makes virtual copies of the Gibson Les Paul, a guitar design which Gibson goes to great lengths to “protect” – I know they had sued Paul Reed Smith Guitars over their “Singlecut” model, which is of a similar layout to Gibson’s archaic (yet iconic) Les Paul. The Supreme Court eventually kicked Gibson to the curb, forcing it to concede that only “an idiot” could confuse a PRS Singlecut for a Gibson Les Paul (not to mention that nowadays PRS is more revered in many guitarists’ mind than Gibson, therefore no one would buy a PRS as a substitute for a Gibson) and throwing out that ridiculous case. OK, back to the case at hand: X makes an (unlicensed) inworld knock-off of the Gibson Les Paul. Y, a copybotter, comes into X’s inworld store and copies X’s bootleg Gibson Les Paul. Who infringed upon whose intellectual property?

And then comes another question: What  can Copybot really do?

From what I’ve gathered from various resources, it can copy textures and prims from objects with “modify” permissions, but it can’t copy scripts and it can’t copy “no mod” objects. Two observations must be made here:

  1. “Classic” prim-only objects with “modify” permissions can be copied just with SL’s in-world build tools, with a varying degree of difficulty, depending on their complexity. You don’t need Copybot to make a full-perm copy of a classic prim-based shoe that doesn’t use sculpties or mesh and has “modify” permissions; all you need is to rez it, observe the parameters of its prims and start making your own copy. And perhaps you’ll make it better than the original, who knows?
  2. The only way to stop Copybot’s various incarnations once and for all would be to lock down SL all the way to the operating system level; for instance, LL could perhaps demand that SL be used only on machines running Windows Vista with DRM enabled. Or something like that. Or it could go Blizzard’s way and include spyware in the source code (perhaps even as a binary blob) and demand that TPVs include this spyware as well or be banned.

And #2 leads us again to the subject of privacy. Could LL afford to face a mass exodus of disgruntled users over the inclusion of spyware code, even if it added this spyware to appease angry content creators? And, more importantly, could these content creators afford to lose their customers overnight? Because a mass exodus of SL users (who are, well, consumers) would immediately starve ALL content creators in SL of any income and it would cause them far greater harm than even an army of determined copybotters could ever dream of.

Of course, all this doesn’t stop a paranoid from being paranoid. And paranoids, even if they can be brilliant in certain areas, are also tremendously stupid, because they consistently fail to grasp basic facts – and a fool and his money are soon parted. This is how so many people were scammed into buying prims that spammed chat with “!quit” when the Copybot scandal first surfaced. This is how so many people were scammed by the fraudster zFire Xue (Michael Prime IRL). This is how so many people are goaded into believing that there’s a “silver bullet” that will stop copybotters. Even worse, this is how so many content  creators in SL go and buy “intellectual protection systems” made by SL users with very, very shady histories.

Wrapping it up

Let’s wrap it up, shall we? First of all, content creators must ditch their RIAA-like mentality. NOW. If your stuff is any good, someone will copy it. And the only good mentality here is “winners innovate, losers litigate”. In SL terms, it would be “winners continuously improve their products, losers whine about others copying their stuff that no one really ever wanted to buy”. Content creators must realise that no, even if a product of yours is copied via Copybot, there is no guarantee that the whole virtual world will be filled with copybotted versions of your product, which will eclipse the original. Also, content creators need to understand that, before they speak about something, they must know very well what it does, what it can and what it can’t do. Content creators (and LL) need to come to terms with the notion that they must speak with facts. Enough with the conjecture, the paranoia, the drama and the urban legends! Content creators (and LL) need to understand that, if SL’s consumers feel they are treated with contempt, suspicion and disrespect by content creators, they’ll turn their backs on them – and if they feel that their privacy is at risk, they’ll leave SL in a heartbeat, never to return. Finally, content creators will have to learn that someone with a shady past will never offer them any real kind of protection. Instead, shady characters will always seek to exploit others.



2 thoughts on “SL Intellectual Property – Next stop: Paranoia Central

  1. Hi.

    One correction: Modern copybot viewers can copy items regardless of the permissions (in fact, circumventing the permission DRM is one of the main reason they’re used). They can copy prims, primsets, textures, avatar layers, shapes, meshes, sculpts, animations and particles. (I’m not sure on sounds and gestures as I’ve never tried those, but they might work as well.) They still can’t copy scripts, as these are server-side code. (Particle effects, even though they’re script results, are reverse-guessed by the copybot, as they’re pretty straightforward to make.)

    Also, you seem to be somewhat inconsequential. Even though you (rightly) point out the lack of evidence and data on the true effects and scope of copying, you at the same time say “Of course, it is true that many people’s work was indeed copied and resold through the use of Copybot.” I doubt that. I actually believe it’s pretty hard to sell *anything* on SL, and it certainly takes time and patience to create a sustainable business. Between ripping someone’s items, putting them into a shop and the inevitable shitstorm that will follow 2 days later there’s probably not much time to make lots of bucks from it. However, again, we don’t have any data to support either claim, so I’d actually just assume people are innocent until proven guilty or, as you say, “When you make a claim, the burden of proof is on you.”

    Finally, I’d like to point out I actually once did an attempt at making some (very small) statistical research into the copybot community and it turns out (as other, much better researched studies into filesharing do as well) that most people copybot stuff for personal use, and, especially after they bought it.


    1. Thank you for the information you’ve brought. As for the sale of copybotted items, someone seems to be selling shapes he’s copybotted off SL residents that are considered to be famous as we speak. Pardon my snark, but I fail to grasp the notion of being a “celebrity” in a world as fickle as Second Life – not to mention that (a) I can’t be bothered to buy a ready-made shape as I can make one for myself in less than twenty minutes, (b) most of these shapes aren’t stuff worth buying at all. On the other hand, I know that the business run by a friend of mine was seriously harmed when someone copybotted her latex catsuits and started giving them away to her cheapskate, waste-of-flesh friends who then started distributing them wildly. OK, that was not resale of copybotted items, but it shows how people’s work can be harmed.

      Regarding filesharing now, I’m a proponent of it.


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