copybot

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.

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About two weeks ago (on the 14th of August), Inara Pey reported that Singularity 1.8.1 had improved its content import/export capabilities. Gwyneth Llewelyn welcomed this development and, about a week ago, Inara also reported that Kokua 3.6.2 had adopted Singularity’s object export functionality as well.

This functionality allows people to export the objects they created as COLLADA .DAE and Wavefront .OBJ files, which gives them the ability to process them with external applications and re-import them to Second Life and other mesh-capable virtual worlds, taking advantage of the reduced LI that mesh can provideif done right.

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Last November, Slate ran a piece on why Second Life failed; according to Dan and Chip Heath’s article, which compares Second Life to the Segway, SL is “like a job candidate with a fascinating résumé—fluent in Finnish, with stints in spelunking and trapeze—but no actual labor skills.” In my opinion, the Heaths, besides ignoring the fact that SL is still a profitable project, make the same mistake that many have made regarding SL – among them even Linden Lab: they don’t grasp what SL really is all about – it’s not a game, but an entire virtual reality platform with the potential for developing a strong social element, which could, under the right conditions (I’ll get to that later), provide excellent opportunities for everyone to take advantage of its abilities for various purposes. Such purposes are:

  • The creation of immersive worlds for various entertainment and educational uses.
  • The reinvention and reimagining of one’s own personality, which would enable them to express aspects of their own psyche with considerably reduced fear of stigma (thanks to a general anonymity and the fact that segregation of RL from SL is the accepted norm within the userbase of SL).
  • Creation and sale of virtual goods.
  • Creation of immersive 3D environments to showcase products, builds etc.

As for the social element of SL, I respect it much more than I would ever respect the brainchild of Mark Zuckerberg: very good to excellent privacy, no obnoxious ads littering my screen, and SL, unlike Facebook, doesn’t surrender activists and dissidents to the authorities of totalitarian regimes.

SL is an extremely promising and powerful platform, yet it has not fulfilled its potential; instead, it loses thousands of private regions annually (as documented by Tyche Shepherd) and seeing even large companies leave it, unable to justify the monthly $295 tier for a whole region, even though their top executives are paid several thousand times this money per month. And many regions in SL are usually emptier than gun-crazy crap-rocker Ted Nugent’s skull. OK, so what has gone wrong?

Contrary to what far too many people claim, I do not attribute LL’s failure solely to the (admittedly high) cost of tier. This is a cost that cannot be easily lowered, because of the high running costs of SL and its massive infrastructure. Instead, I’m going to look at a number of other reasons that make SL less attractive than it could (and deserves to) be.

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Continuing from where I left off in my previous post on the subject, I am coming back, this time with the opinion of an internet security expert. You see, in RL I happen to work for a software company and this obviously gives me acquaintances with people who are in the IT business. Therefore, it is only natural that they can offer me some concise, accurate information on many issues where my knowledge isn’t enough. Deciding not to be “The Scotty Who Knew Too Much“, I handed all the information I gathered during my investigation of the whole Gemini CDS Ban Relay to a friend who is an internet security expert and a participant in the local chapter of the OWASP (Open Web Application Security Project). So, I asked him for his educated opinion. Here’s what he has to say on the matter:

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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.

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