Intellectual Property in virtual worlds (and assorted issues): A discussion with Will Burns

Will Burns (SL username: Aeonix Aeon)

Will Burns (SL username: Aeonix Aeon)

Both in SL and in RL, I’m quite lucky in being honoured with the friendship of knowledgeable people who rise above the typical level of discourse and speak in a down-to-earth, matter-of-fact, manner, with arguments based on facts, logic, and knowledge, rather than fear and “common wisdom” – which, more often than not, is actually common myth. One of these people who have bestowed on me the honour of their friendship is William G. Burns III (SL username: Aeonix Aeon, SL display name: Will Burns), a published academic, and former Vice Chair of the IEEE’s Virtual World Standards Group. A published and respected researcher and professional in the field of virtual reality and virtual worlds in his own right, Will understands the potential – creative, cultural, and commercial – of virtual worlds that very few commentators in Second Life can rival, and he is not one to mince his words. His criticism of Linden Lab CEOs past has always been very severe and, although back then it might have seemed too harsh, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight I can now see he was just calling things the way they were.

Now, Second Life is, as we all know, in slow decline. Many of its old users are gone, either because they no longer care, or because the ongoing global financial woes have priced them out of what is essentially a costly pastime for people with disposable income and time (two things few members of what was once known as the middle class still have), or because they died away. New user retention is, as has always been the case, disappointing, and more and more private regions sink into oblivion like the lost continents of myth and legend. However, SL still has a vibrant economy, which is based on the creation and sale of various virtual goods – from hairdos to cars and from clothing to furniture. And this economy supports a rather expansive ecosystem of merchants, regardless of whether their products are entirely their creation, or based on resources purchased from other markets like CGtrader.

SL’s merchants apply all sorts of different business models, but there is a common denominator: They are extraordinarily precious about their creations, even if they are nothing but very crude retextures of full-perm templates – sometimes even less than that. One look at most content creators’ dire, straight outta Bible, “fire and brimstone”, DMCA warnings is more than enough. In the past, many in-world shops had employed CS- and ToS-violating devices that promised (without delivering, but that’s another story) to “detect” potential copybotters. In other cases, store owners ejected and / or banned store visitors for idling, because they genuinely believed that, if you’re AFK in a store, then you are by definition a copybotter. Almost four years ago, a rather botched amendment to LL’s ToS got numerous content creators up in arms, claiming – of all things – that LL itself was “trying to steal their content”; much hilarity ensued, with several creators even ragequitting SL. It is, thus, an unfortunate fact of Second Life that it is very hard to have a calm, reasonable, and rational discussion on merchants’ intellectual property, on the implied and express licences they need to provide to LL so that the virtual goods can be displayed and sold to the customers, and – eventually – consumer rights. Unfortunately, much of the blame must be put on Philip Rosedale, who, regardless of whatever innovative ideas he may have had, has always been a bit of a demagogue. The promises given in 2003 have essentially been haunting SL ever since, often putting customers and merchants on a collision course, with very little – if any – room being given to the rights of the consumer. Naturally, things were further exacerbated, with the stance of many merchants going to full-on prokanoia with the Great Copybot Scare of 2006, which has never quite gone away.

In more recent times, the suspicion with which SL merchants have traditionally viewed customers has taken new forms: Mesh body creators demand that apparel, jewellery, shoes, etc. created for their bodies be non-modifiable, “to prevent copybotting”, even though permissions have exactly zero impact on a Copybot viewer’s ability to intercept and extract an object. We have the infamous “anti-rez” scripts, which are another form of “anti-copybot” snake oil. And so on, and so on. So, to have an honest, open, no-nonsense discussion on this risky topic, I needed to talk to someone who actually knows what he’s talking about and doesn’t mouth off based on false assumptions and blatant misunderstandings of web-based platforms like Second Life. Inspired by the licensing suggestions he made in this post on his blog, I invited him over to my always work-in-progress café, and we had a lengthy, but most enjoyable and productive, discussion.

Mona Eberhardt: Tonight, we’re going to get into dangerous territory, Will.

Will Burns: Yays! Isn’t it always dangerous?

Mona: Well, not “Greek protected witness in the Novartis scandal” dangerous, but dangerous nonetheless.

Will: Nothing ever changes through complacency and “business as usual”. Sometimes you need a little push back to demonstrate things.

Mona: Indeed.

Will: I’m sure the Wright Brothers didn’t install seat belts on their first flight.

Mona: So, tonight we’re gonna talk about intellectual property in Second Life and similar virtual worlds, and there are several aspects of it that I need to discuss with you.

Will: Absolutely. I think we’ll have to install airbags on the conversation just in case. It’s a touchy subject indeed.

Mona: A great deal is made of intellectual property protection in Second Life. Ever since the Great Copybot Scare of Second Life’s ancient history, any discussion of intellectual property in Second Life has become a rather dangerous territory, with the accusation of being “pro-theft” or a “copybotter sympathiser” being ready to be flung at commenters. Do you think things have calmed down at all?

Will: Probably not. I absolutely understand the need to protect intellectual property. I mean, I’ve published a book and research, but at the same time I also know to look at the context of interaction before I make rash decisions. When I published both times, I knew somebody had to have put it on Bittorrent, but then I looked at the context: Students who can’t afford the ridiculous asking price, but are forced to use it as curriculum. So context won with me and I give out the PDF versions to students who ask, because I feel as though education is more important than profit margins – and that publishing places make their money back anyway and then some.

Mona: What sort of price are we talking about?

Will: Let me check. OK… So when it first came out, the textbook was about 200-300 US dollars.

Mona: Holy shit.

Will: It’s now down to USD 172 for the hardcover and digital version combo, which I still think is obscene, but some students can afford it while others simply cannot.

Mona: Oh, I agree. It’s an obscene price.

Will: And for those that cannot afford it, should they be penalized and deprived an education as a result? For me that answer is a resounding NO. Being the author does have advantages though. So, when it comes to IP, people would say-

Mona: I’m sorry to interrupt, but, as far as I know, unauthorised copying of books, records, etc. is treated as a felony in most jurisdictions and you can find yourself paying ridiculous amounts of money in damages to IP holders. Besides going to jail, of course.

Will: “But people are sharing your materials on BitTorrent! Aren’t you going to do something about it?”, and my answer was (and remains) “Well, yeah… I’ll download it myself”. Because I look at context. I ask the important question of “why is this happening? Does it serve an altruistic purpose?” In the case of my own materials, I realize the only people who are going to “steal” (for lack of better terms) the book, are the kids who are specifically looking for it, and need it, but cannot afford it, and so, I (personally) wouldn’t go after them.

Mona: Let’s focus on the “theft” term a bit.

Will: Right.

Mona: Is copying theft?

Will: To me… that’s tricky. I believe theft is the removal of something, whereby it is no longer available to be sold, traded, etc. But with digital media items, it’s copying; you never lost the original. You can make infinite copies, it costs nothing to do it, so it’s not like a factory somewhere needs to fire up to make up for the lost product. So, we’re looking at “perceptual losses”.

Mona: Such as loss of sales?

Will: Where we merely imagine the lost money we could have had for the thing that was copied, and that’s all subjective. The RIAA once cited they had lost something like a trillion dollars or more from piracy because it was perceptual sales, which is absurd. I could say I’ve lost a gazillion mountains of diamonds from piracy of my own materials. It would be just as legitimate.

Mona: So far, have you ever been presented with concrete data as to sales losses due to IP infringement? I mean real data, not hypothetical.

Will: To me, yes… I’ve seen it here and there, but not as knee-jerk as people think. I think maybe that’s why the gaming industry is leaning toward SaaS now (System as a Service). It’s one of many solutions to theoretical losses from piracy, but it’s never as cut and dry as we want it to be.

Mona: The EU Commission had paid some $400K for a study on the impact of piracy, but, when they found out its findings didn’t agree with what the copyright maximalist lobby said, they buried it

Will: Yep. I saw that as well. The data just isn’t there to support the piracy fears. We saw it with the sale of cassette tapes… “Piracy is killing music”. And yet… here we are still, still making massive profits. So the question has always been less about piracy and killing it and more about how does one evolve a business model to take it into account, and even leverage it to our advantage? Also, Strawberry (Singh, the well-known SL blogger / Youtuber, hit by the #berrycopyright incident, which was quickly mitigated and prevented from evolving into a major PR fiasco for Linden Lab) is a good example there, where the LL IP team were straight laced looking at it as “letter of the law” and not “spirit”, or context of usage.

Mona: In Ms. Singh’s case, I remember that LL’s IP expert decided to even make claims that have no legal standing, as in “under no circumstances are you allowed to use LL’s and SL’s logo etc.”

Will: Yes… Which makes me seriously question the intellectual capacity of an IP department whereby they make claims that are patently false about IP. It’s one of those – You should really have known better.

Mona: Yes, the “you had one job” thing.

Will: And more importantly… If it were me in charge, that person would have been promptly fired. The inability to comprehend the difference between letter of the law and spirit of the law is a major issue with companies – and in media situations like Linden Lab… They really ought to have somebody in there with more common sense and innovative thinking about how to handle it instead of a bunch of “letter of the law” straight-laced IP lawyers. But that may also delve into another issue I see at Linden Lab.

Mona: Absolutely. And I think LL’s ToS w.r.t. content creators’ IP is quite… old-fashioned. I don’t see much in the way of providing any fair use protections for SL users.

Will: They have the leadership now… but what began with Philip Rosedale was a combination of Leader and Visionary. Linden Lab has had a crisis of Vision for some years now, despite well-qualified leadership. The innovation front I don’t think is there… That out-of-the-box thinking which made SL what it is. So it all has devolved into bureaucratic red tape and straight-laced thinking. Less “Let’s look at this in a new way and innovate… let us leverage and really push things” and more “business as usual”.

Mona: Yes. And this brings me to LL’s ToS. When it comes to content creators’ IP, I don’t see any fair use protections for the end buyer, such as the analogue equivalent “right to fix” – although there is the “copy-modify” provision, it’s half-assed. For instance, let’s say you’ve purchased a jukebox. It looks really good, but it’s a sodding lagmonster, because it’s got like twenty 1024×1024 textures in it, in the name of “quality”, thus taking some 30MB out of your texture RAM just by rezzing it on a completely empty sim.

Will: That makes kittens cry right there.

Mona: Asking the creator nicely to give you a version with lower-res textures, or to give you these textures so you can resize them yourself won’t work. So, what do you do?

Will: That’s not entirely true. In most cases it won’t work.

Mona: Yep. In most cases, it won’t. So, what options is the buyer – the legitimate, real buyer who honoured the creator by paying him for a legitimate, legal copy of the product in question – left with?

Will: But let’s say you came to me and said “Hey Will, is there a way you could lower the textures on the arcade machine and swap them with me?”, I’d likely say – “Yeah sure… What can I do to help?”, which boils down to less about ToS and more just really lazy fucking content creators who don’t want to support their stuff or do customer service.

Mona: Yes, but you’re talking about your own attitude, which is a very rare exception. Far too many content creators would throw a hissy fit and say “what? Are you implying I don’t know how to do my job?”

Will: Right – Less ToS issue there and more about bad attitude content creators.

Mona: So, a “go-getter” buyer would end up saying “sod it” and proceed to extract those textures, fire up Photoshop, Paint Shop Pro, or GIMP up, resize them, re-upload them, and re-apply them. But this is expressly prohibited by the ToS. 

Will: Right. Because the product didn’t expressly give them the permission to do so. More like voiding warranty there.

Mona: Actually, LL’s ToS prohibit extraction and re-upload.

Will: a lot of content in SL and elsewhere is treated like a black box.

Mona: Yup. No “right to repair” or “right to personalise”. Let’s say you want to extract a wall texture to apply some graffiti on it and re-apply it on the building it came from, and which you have purchased legally. As per LL’s ToS, you are not allowed to do this. You’d either have to use a prim with a dreaded alpha-blended texture, with all the associated lag and rendering issues, or violate the ToS, and it doesn’t matter that you own the damned building legally, and so you should be allowed, as you would in RL, to do whatever the hell you please with it. The mere act of extracting the wall texture makes you a “criminal”.

Will: Which I think is absurd, but then again I see the corporate side as well. It’s to save their own ass, which they need to do, otherwise they open up to a tsunami of possible litigation. I think when you purchase something in SL or a virtual world, if you wanted full permission, then you should pay the premium for that permission. If you went to, say, TurboSquid or whatever, those models and textures aren’t cheap. You pay something like $50.00 – $100 or more, but that isn’t feasible in SL; people barely wanna spend L$99.

Mona: Yes, but full perm is for when you want to make something to sell to others. Copy/mod/no trans is for when you need to decorate your sim. Also, nowadays, with the prevalence of mesh builds, textures are pretty much product-specific. While extracting them, customising, and re-uploading them is illegal under LL’s ToS, the reality is that you can’t use these textures in any other build save for the one they came from – unless, of course, that build is actually derived from a mesh template that numerous SL merchants also use as the basis for their own products.

Will: Right. But then, there are things about mod which can’t be secured – scripts, for instance.

Mona: Which is why we see copy / mod mesh, sculpt, or prim parts, but with no-mod scripts. 

Will: I think the ToS is more to make a safe stance for a company, but the real issue is content creators not doing customer support reasonably to help out the people who buy their stuff. It’s mostly treated like a giant automaton where they make it once and forget it – to let it sell infinite copies into perpetuity. Again… Customer service here is king / queen.

At my café with Will Burns.

At my café with Will Burns. Click on the picture for the full-size version (opens in a new window).

Mona: Indeed. For example, I’d really have appreciated prefab homes whose creators also provide – either as part of the product or at an extra price – AO maps, maybe even UV maps. So, if I want to use different textures for the skirtboards, floors, ceilings, if I want to get rid of the dreadful pre-baked shadows, if I want to turn a stucco building into a brick one, I’ll be able to do it, to make it fit my own personal vision. Or the textures themselves, like plane and boat creators do, enabling buyers to flaunt their unique, custom paint jobs. Sadly, many creators will never consider this.

Will: I’d support that. It’s a reasonable approach. Just make the AO maps a separate product for a price, like an add-on for people who need to modify the other thing they bought. Most people will just buy the thing and use it – others who need more control will buy the extras. Or hell, just give them out when people ask. For instance, I don’t get a lot of requests to modify the arcade machines or anything but I’m more than happy to help if I can – oftentimes on location. If it’s in my ability to do so, and I have the time, I’ll be on it, no problem. Because I look at it all like this: You bought something from me, and my goal is to ensure that you are happy with your purchase within reason. I support those things indefinitely (as best I can). And more importantly, I value customer feedback… because some of the things they ask for in modification or addition end up inspiring me to update it with those things for everyone. The AES system is a great example. I got enough feedback about the way the audio was handled on the old ones… So, I rewrote it all and lengthened the ability. Which brings us to the bigger point – Content creation, in something like Second Life or elsewhere, exists in an ecosystem. You are part of it, and the entirety is a collaborative process. We are not separate from the process or ecosystem. Lessons Learned from Lucasfilm’s Habitat – “Work within the system”

Mona: Yes, but in SL, things don’t seem to be viewed that way. Do you remember the Great Copybot Scare?

Will: Yep. Absolutely.

Mona: The one that led us to such shenanigans as the RedZone?

Will: Indeed.

Mona: And the prokanoia that made “copybot prevention” systems of questionable ToS and CS compliance popular?

Will: I remember quite well.

Mona: Now, we have a new epidemic. Actually… Two. One is the “no-mod” epidemic. More and more things are becoming black boxes. Especially clothes. I’ve noticed that everything, absolutely everything, produced for certain mesh bodies is no-mod. It would look as if it’s a contractual requirement.

Will: I do have a thought about that.

Mona: The other is the “anti-rez” scripts for garments. You can’t rez certain pairs of shoes out of your inventory – so, you can’t possibly use them as decor in your boudoir or in a photoshoot. Why do you think we have these new trends?

Will: I can’t speak to the second anti-rez thing. I’m uninformed about it, but I’d say it seems quite dumb. If people want to rez their stuff out, they should be able to. As for the “no-mod” epidemic, I think I can speak to that one, and this is more a statement to content creators in SL. If you make no-mod items in Second Life and sell them, then you as a content creator should be willing to take the responsibility of modifying said items on request – or with a nominal fee for your time at worst. Not taking the responsibility for your content while simultaneously taking the ability out of the buyer’s hands is just self-defeating. That being said, this goes back to what I had said earlier about the arcade machines. The reason I made mine no-mod was for a few reasons – 1. I support them fully. Lifetime warranty and mod requests (within reason). 2. The items themselves have reached a level of complexity whereby allowing modification would likely break it. That would increase customer service requests for replacing things. 3. I specifically have them Transfer only. But also, because I include full service and take responsibility for them at the same time. That last one is vitally important. So, in the bigger picture, if you don’t want to take responsibility for being the only person able to modify your products, then you should allow your customers to modify the items. It’s simple, really.

Mona: I’d like to give you two explanations I’ve been offered. One (which I’ve been told by more knowledgeable people than me is silly): No-mod will protect the items from copybotting.

Will: That is absurd. Anything rendered through the GPU is fair game to a copybotter. Your no-mod setting has no effect on it.

Mona: Two: “I got tired of customer requests from people who performed botched mods”.

Will: Again – absurd. I get it, though.

Mona: This one was offered to me by a well-known mesh body creator.

Will: But that is more of a consequence of bad customer service. They give people the ability to modify, and [they] botch it. OK, I get that. Same reason here why I don’t allow mod, but the follow-up question is “Do they support modifying the item upon request via their own knowledgeable hands?” That’s the crux to it all.

Mona: Nope. They don’t. For instance, I know for a fact that the one that gave me the second explanation doesn’t.

Will: If the customer can get what they need within reason, it doesn’t really matter if they did it themselves or the creator did it for them on request. As long as it gets done. So if they make it no-mod, that is reasonable (and so is the explanation for why) – so long as they take responsibility for being the sole modifier of said items. If they do not, then I wouldn’t support no-mod settings, for exactly the sort of reasons you suggested earlier. Customer service in SL is severely lacking in most places. I know places like Bax Coen boots, while I’m not exactly a fan of their designs, they have (or at least had) outstanding customer service. You’d go to the store, hit a button and a representative would show up, schedule you and help fit the boots and everything on location with you. Then you go to these other places and it’s like an empty store full of vending machines. No real customer service at all – aside from sending a NC and praying [for a response].

Mona: Well, in all fairness, fitmesh has made individual fitting less of an issue, provided the creator has bothered to conform to that particular body’s alpha cuts.

Will: Sadly, in SL, everyone can wear a CEO tag or something, and everyone wants to run a business, but few know much about how to do that. Marketing, SWOT analysis, customer service, HR, management etc.

Mona: Don’t get me started on the “I’m an entrepreneur” thing. I’ve had my own run-ins with the start-up mob myself in RL, where everybody and his dog is a CEO, CFO, COO, CTO etc, throwing around buzzwords like Agile and Scrum, even though they’re just two morons running a shell company in Bulgaria (to dodge taxes) out of their bedroom in Athens, with a portfolio that’s essentially two slightly-customised WordPress websites for local businesses, and a run-of-the-mill Lotto-playing app for iOS and Android.

Will: So you see these brands get huge sometimes and the poor people behind them are swamped and overwhelmed, because they just can’t handle it. No delegation or management, and others just make stuff, and release it into the wild with no customer service or support. If it breaks, bursts into flames, whatever – not their problem. I think the secret is probably closer to the middle: You create it – then support it; if things break, fix them with a smile. Because business isn’t about one-night stands. It’s about establishing long-term customer relationships and brand loyalty.

Mona: We mentioned Copybot viewers earlier. I get the impression that there are many misconceptions as to what they can do and what they can’t do. As someone who knows and understands how a virtual world system transmits and displays its content through the viewer, do you have any knowledge to share?

Will: To the best of my knowledge, if it went through the pipeline of the GPU, it [a Copybot viewer] could pull it – to an extent. That’s just how things work. You can pull textures, mesh – whatever. It’s all down to how involved you wanna get to get it. It does tend to get pretty involved.

Mona: I don’t think, however, that a copybotted mesh item, when it’s re-uploaded, can be anywhere near as optimised w.r.t. LI and LOD as the original – provided the original’s creator had bothered to do those things, of course, because many creators are notoriously lazy when it comes to optimising their content.

Will: Right. You’d have to open that sucker up and re-tweak it, make new models for the various LODs etc.

Mona: And then you might as well have bothered to learn Blender or SketchUp and acquired the skills that’d allow you create your own item from scratch, rather than copybot an existing one.

Will: Right. Though, for all that work they could just as well go to SketchUp Warehouse and just download a model to use in SL. I’ve definitely seen that a lot in here… Won’t name names. But if you know what a SketchUp model looks like, it’ll be obvious in-world when “content creators” yank them and try to use them.

Mona: Oh yes.

Will: And to that I say – The solution there is just offer something better than their half-assed attempts, make them irrelevant instead of rewarding them. I won’t say I’ve never used SketchUp Warehouse myself. But not for an actual product; I mainly use it as reference points while building my own from scratch, to see how others might have done it and why. To be honest, I wouldn’t have a problem with a product based on a SketchUp model.

Mona: Or from whatever other source.

Will: Right. Reference point. Like any tool though – each has a purpose and strength / weakness. You use them in context. Everyone is on about mesh only… But Prims have a use if done right. And so on.

Mona: But I do think that copybotters are acting a bit ideologically and out of spite. The “I’ll show you” mentality.

Will: I would have to agree. It’s a case of security theater really, and copybotters are more acting on the “it doesn’t actually work like that” mentality and just being spiteful to show people it doesn’t mean a thing to have all these “security” features. In a way that’s a Metaphor Shear, and it understandably makes people angry, scared, upset, etc., because that level of comfort in the way they thought the world worked has been suddenly shattered. Well, legitimate customers who want to personalise and optimise their builds get caught in the crossfire, yes. Again… Context is king / queen. The whole idea of why somebody is doing it is just as important.

Mona: Ah yes. Regarding the trust and comfort thing… I do believe most SL users in the early days (I made my first account in 2006) were naive – perhaps goaded by Rosedale.

Will: Back in those days though I still had the same mentality, aside from the obvious critical eye on operations and decisions.

Mona: Yeah, even back then, when I was only 20 years old and not a seasoned IT pro (in fact, I’m not an IT professional at all, and I come from a different background), I thought too many of his statements back then were bullshit.

Will: It’s all security theater though. Always has been. And yes, a lot of the statements were and are bullshit.

Mona: “Security theater” – I think this sums up very well the JLU and griefers cat-and-mouse thing.

Will: Right. Security Theater is a term used to describe the theater of security in a manner which makes people feel safe from a threat through complexity but actually doesn’t. Because sometimes you don’t actually have to make it “safe”, just make the people think it’s safer to belay concerns. Plus, there’s the obvious investment of resources already put into such a thing whereby you can’t just outright say it’s bullshit. From a company standpoint you just can’t do that; you have to play along and polish a turd, so to speak.

Mona: Honestly, I knew a great deal of the statements were bullshit, but I was having fun in SL, so I said “sod it” and just did my thing.

Will: Right. I’d put things like Sansar in the turd-polishing category. If I recall, it was Rodvik (Rod Humble, LL’s CEO from January 2010 to 24 January 2014) who initiated the projects, along with things like Patterns and what have you (n.b.: He’s correct; inside information on a next-generation virtual world platform, then referred to by the community as “SL 2.0”, had leaked as far back as June 2014, when Rod Humble was still LL’s CEO).

Mona: Does this Patterns thing still exist?

Will: But see, he came from EA (Electronic Arts) and had a video game mindset. So he treated LL like a video game company.

Mona: I remember that.

Will: The very fact that you ask if Patterns still exists proves the point. Sansar is likely the costliest project of that group, and likely couldn’t be abandoned outright at a loss. So they had to make it whatever it could be.

Mona: I wasn’t, and am not, against the idea of LL diversifying its portfolio, but I think Rodvik did it without actually understanding what LL could do right.

Will: I absolutely agree. He didn’t actually understand what Linden Lab was.

Mona: I often wonder if he actually wanted to.

Will: When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. So the biggest thing about it all is this – Second Life isn’t a video game. It’s a living, breathing ecosystem of [a] persistent virtual world, where the end users create everything and the end users define how the media platform is used.

Mona: I’d have thought this should have been well-established and understood by now.

Will: Second Life is more akin to a virtual world wide web mentality, wherein we don’t point to the Internet and say it’s one thing or used for one specific use case. It’s well established that it is used for an inconceivable amount of use cases simultaneously.

Mona: (laughs) Oh, come ON! Everybody knows SL is all about porn!

Will: (laughs) So is the internet. (sings) “The Internet is for porn… So grab your dick and double-click for porn, porn, porn!”

Will: Therein is the misconception, or the lack of understanding: If we’re talking about IP protection, as we began this journey, the big picture here is a number of things. First of all, Linden Lab does a piss-poor job of leveraging this amazing base of content creation. When I say leverage, I look at it like this – In a user-generated world, people will make what is familiar. This includes brands. It’s a by-product of those brands proliferating in our lives. So, we sit down and say: “A.We can look at the letter of the law and enforce it, or B. Wait up… hold the phone. There’s a massive incentive to leverage this mentality and ability that we’re missing here.” In the latter, you end up with something like the realization that in about a month from now (Editor’s note: the interview was taken in late February 2018), Ready Player One will be hitting theaters. Hundreds of millions of people will suddenly see OASIS on the big screen. And also countless IP per second in a pop culture-infused clustefuck orgy. Now… In movie form, it’s because Stephen Spielberg has the clout to get those licences, and so does the studio. But the reality is, the real OASIS is the same mentality as SL. So, all that IP still exists in the “real” OASIS, Stephen Spielberg isn’t the big guns getting licences for those end users, and the end users don’t sodding care. So, this is where you analyse the situation better. You step back and figure out the whiteboard a bit. The best course of action would be that somebody needs to be Stephen Spielberg in the “real” OASIS preemptively licensing model. In this case – Linden Lab.

Mona: So, you’re saying the corporation should empower the end users and leverage their potential?

Will: Set up best practices guidelines for using the IP, preemptively get those real world brands on board with it, and then… charge the end-user a licensing fee on sales. But let them run loose, because then the brand IP owners are getting everything in a virtual world they want without lifting so much as a finger or spending any money, by awarding “Brand Ambassador” status to end-users in a virtual world, letting them be your biggest fans, and doing the labour of love thing, and spreading the gospel of Coca-Cola, or whatever may have you. Usually, end users don’t have the ability to negotiate with the big IP holders. Linden Lab absolutely does ,and should have opted for this brand ambassador protocol a very long time ago.

Mona: Would the bean counters in the RL corporations understand and accept your concept, though? They’re not exactly known for their perceptual capabilities…

Will: Depends on how you frame it. If you go in and say “If your goal is to protect IP in a virtual world, you’re failing miserably. We all are. All we are doing is playing cat and mouse. Invoking Streisand Effect. Cutting a head off of a Hydra. It’s having the opposite effect than intended. So let’s look at it like this – When in Rome. Let’s figure out how to harness this creative tsunami and explosion of talent without interfering with it. Instead of looking at IP Infringement (in most cases), let’s shift it to – this is marketing, and a golden goose at that. It’s viral in a virtual world. The end-user gladly does the work as your brand ambassador. Sales, design, marketing, you name it. IP Owner does nothing other than sign off on it. If a percentage is tacked on for sales to cover a prosumer licensing, then this is marketing that not only costs the company nothing, but pays them instead. A far cry from the days where marketing places were charging a fortune to build a narcissistic island for Coca-Cola. This is marketing that works in a user-generated media age, so leverage the marketing engine and massive potential.

Mona: When it comes to end-user empowerment does LL’s policy, as expressed by its ToS, empower the end users?

Will: Not as of this moment. It’s a crapshoot I think. There’s always room to improve and evolve; that’s why nothing in a living ecosystem is ever set in stone. It always changers, evolves, becomes better, or becomes extinct. And therein is a sticking point: That concept, if we were to look at things like my arcade machines, I make no bones about it. 1. They are IP-infringing; 2. Context is king, and then go into the entire reason behind it – it’s a demonstration of how to properly manage and protect IP in a virtual world by providing the best version that does the brand justice, and by letting an end user do it for you, making the other crap irrelevant and go extinct. By the letter of law, infringing, yes, [but by the] spirit of it – it’s a fucking revolution of thought for how to solve the greatest clusterfuck in intellectual property history. By using the system to solve itself for great benefit and reward to all, by approaching it in an innovative manner by which you leverage the ecosystem without violating it in order to make all people happy in this manner.

Mona: The thing is, the suits, and the people who’ve bought into their rhetoric, will simply start telling you things like “it’s a zero-sum game”, “you’re pro-theft” etc.

Will: Let’s say I’m Linden Lab for a second. 1. I get to work with marketing agencies who are trying to figure out how to get their clients into VR in a meaningful manner. 2. I acknowledge that I’d rather make money than flush it down the toilet trying to stop it and failing. 3. the sum of perceived loss for a brand in a virtual world – for bigger names like Coca-Cola, etc. – is absolutely negligible. 4. I’m not pro-theft. I’m pro-acknowledging reality. You cut the head off and twenty more pop up. You get rid of AM2R with a C&D from Nintendo and a hundred thousand people mirror it on BitTorrent and servers. You tell somebody to remove a picture of Barbara Streisand’s house from online and suddenly everyone in the world has that picture and it’s all over the news.

Mona: But what about small businesses like SL content creators?

Will: Small businesses like SL content creators… 5. Content creators in SL – You have to up your game. You can’t rest on laurels, ignore customers, or produce bad quality. I absolutely believe in DMCA etc. when required. But I also believe in having other options that aren’t so militant or negative if possible. If somebody copybotted your stuff, go get ’em tiger. Don’t expect it to necessarily stop… But mitigate when possible. How one mitigates or leverages all that is the key, and it’s all down to context, and understanding that context, before dropping hammers.

Mona: How would you implement a Fair Use/Right to Fix/Right to Personalise clause in the relationship between SL end buyer and SL content creator?

Will: I think I touched on that before, but it’s worth repeating.

Mona: I guess it’s because it’s 2:18 AM where I am, sorry.

Will: If you want to sell no-modify stuff, go ahead. Just own up and take responsibility as the content creator to be the only person who is allowed to modify it, and honor requests from customers (when reasonable) to do so. You put them there in that situation where they cannot do it themselves, so don’t screw them over. Or sell your stuff with a license on it for personal use and offer the items for download – or more likely, upon request.

Mona: Would you put this stuff in the ToS?

Will: I don’t think it’s feasible. But then, I wouldn’t expressly forbid it either. I believe that is a much deeper discussion and would take far more than me to rectify it. I’m for fair use clauses, but then superseding the content creators’ wishes is also a concern. So, I would probably make the ToS agnostic and defer to the content creators for fair use or not. Instead of making it a specific Linden Lab decree, just side on fair use unless expressly excluded by the content creators in the terms they set for their creations

Mona: Fair use, however, does need a meaningful definition by a proper authority to prevent drama.

Will: Exactly. If it were me, I’d just choose a sane diplomatic middle ground. Something like “personal use modification is fine unless expressly disallowed by the content creator.” I would support the content creator’s wishes on that, but at the same time, the ball isn’t necessarily about LL and ToS; it’s more on the side of content creators setting the precedent into motion by supporting things and either doing the changes themselves as a service or whatnot, customer service… or allowing the users to make modifications but add a stipulation saying they void any warranty they might have had if they do so.

Mona: Of course, if someone had made their items copy/mod, then they wouldn’t have a case against someone who modified their items’ textures for the personal modification you mentioned.

Will: Right. Setting things in the item is intentional by the creator. It conveys their wishes. They’d have a case against the resale of said items maybe, but therein is the interesting use-case. the Antique Roadshow of Second Life (laughs).

Mona: As for warranties, copy permissions and a functional redelivery terminal usually take care of that. You break it, here’s a new, unmodified copy for you to try again – or you can decide you don’t know what you’re doing and settle with what you’ve got.

Will: Right. I don’t have redelivery terminals, but then that’s because my items are usually transfer only, and redelivery usually means a method to spit out endless copies, but I still do trade-up and fixes. They just have to contact me themselves. In a world of automation (gone crazy) it’s a chore to IM somebody (laughs). I think with that, it’s about time to wrap up.

Mona: It’s been a great pleasure talking to you. I think that’s all, really.

Will: I’m sure I’ll piss somebody off with my views (laughs). Or maybe make them happy. Whatever.

Mona: Well, you know what they say. You can’t please everybody. I hope you enjoyed our conversation as much as I did.

Will: True enough. One final statement, though, if you don’t mind.

Mona: Oh yes, go ahead!

Will: The point of all this is that there isn’t a “one size fits all” solution. It’s about understanding the context of interaction more than anything. Identifying if such actions help or harm the brand involved. If the intention is to preserve and protect IP or to abuse it. We as content creators understand these contexts, and must apply them. Linden Lab most definitely should look to leverage the user-base as a massive marketing engine through “Brand Ambassador” by converting those IP Infringing creators into those ambassadors and using their love of the brands to everyone’s advantage – including the IP holders. We weed out the bad, but keep the best. Not everyone is Dastardly, and in fact are doing far more good than bad. The trick is figuring out when letter of the law makes sense and when spirit and leveraging makes more sense. The fastest way for Linden Lab to understand how this is done is to look at their own premium account offerings. When they understand that most of it collides with end-users and pre-existing things from the community, and are able to correct that for a real value added proposition, they’ll not only fix Premium stagnation but also understand how to leverage the rest of the chaos for “Brand Ambassador” and VIPER mentality. Remember – the entire point of VIPER is that it is an acronym for – Virtual Intellectual Property Engagement and Recourse. Engagement is the key word there. Positive Engagement for Recourse. Not negative. And with that, I fluff your pillows and head out. It’s been a blast!

Mona: Thank you so much, Will. It’s been a great discussion!




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