This is an approach driven by two very strong groups. The first group — by far the largest and the most reputable — comes from the academic research network. In almost all cases, universities and research labs are underfunded, so the more free content there is, the happier they are with a particular technology. This was something that was not clear to me until very recently — I have to admit being quite naive sometimes. At a recent conference that I attended about virtual worlds, one speaker was showing a quite interesting 3D engine based on Flash (or was it Java? I forget…), and one of the key features of it was the ability to upload standard .OBJ files. The speaker deliberately showed how “his” platform was totally different from Second Life because it allowed any .OBJ to be easily uploaded (he didn’t realise that meshes are around the corner for SL, too), and this was great news for academic researchers, since it meant they would have access to a ton of content very easily.

I was a bit baffled about those comments. I argued that SL had 2.3 billion items, and 250,000 new ones were added every day; surely that was plenty to chose from? Also, gluing prims in SL might not be easy for an absolute beginner, but certainly it was way easier than learning Maya or Blender?

The speaker patiently explained that this might be right, but not all those items are free content. Whereas all over the net you can find free 3D content in standard formats, ready to be uploaded. 3D modelers are constantly dumping their meshes on Google Warehouse and similar sites, with millions and millions of objects, where you pretty much can choose whatever you need. Thus, you don’t really need to “model” anything: just browse the web and upload your meshes. Simple and cheap!

Now I was not baffled any longer; I was utterly flabbergasted! What this person was saying is that the Web is full of cheap content, most of it pirated (yes, I’ve checked some of those “3D model repositories”!), and that a “great” virtual world would be one allowing these meshes to simply be grabbed and uploaded. Researchers, he claimed, have no time to learn complex tools (true) and have to rely on public domain content for their work. Well… I understood the argument, and was at a loss to discuss it. What can beat free content, specially if you don’t have any qualms about the origin of that content? Those repositories are so huge that it’s impossible to file DMCA claims against them, even if you managed to find one of your meshes uploaded there “by accident”. Also, people like Stroker Serpentine were bold enough to file lawsuits against Linden Lab — but would they do the same against the Google giant? I guess not…

So, for a moment, I was scared. These people, with decades of experience in their field of studies, were actually telling me that “meshes are good because they’re free”. And suddenly the whole drama of “prims vs. meshes” was turned into a discussion about “paid content vs. free content”, which totally caught me unprepared!

The second group are ideologists, often programmers born with a Richard Stallman poster by their crib. They strongly believe that information should be free, and since content is nothing more than information, it should be free as well. In a world where everything is for free, everybody is happily sharing, and there is no “need” to bother with paying for anything. This group is smaller than the first, but they’re deeply interconnected; many universities, due to lack of funding, encourage their students to grab whatever free technologies are available to cut the costs (one day I should address this common fallacy; universities are effectively trading licensing costs for labour costs, which is cheap and readily available on the campus; but I’ll leave that for another day :) ). This shapes their mindset to “believe” that “all good things out there are free (or ought to be free)”. While to a certain degree this is actually not far from the truth — I’m using one of the best blogging software in the world, which is free, running on one of the best database engines, also free, on top of one of the best operating systems, definitely free — it’s too easy to overlook that all these “best things” are available for “free” (in the sense of “not paying for a license”) because the companies behind it actually make money from services, not from licenses. A typical example is tech support calls or maintenance agreements, which cost orders of magnitudes more than a “software license” :) Alas, this is too often overlooked by the ideologists…

Then there is the other extreme. Some companies actually understand the problem (legal and otherwise) of allowing anyone to grab pirated meshes out of a repository and upload it to their virtual world, so the alternative is screening content. This is what There.com (and IMVU) do, and Blue Mars is going the same route. The idea is that you just trust a limited number of designers and carefully analyse what they’re actually uploading. Now what this means is that there is a manual, human-based process involved in the content creation: you have to submit to censorship, and although the concept is encouraging for the ones worried about content theft, it also means a lot of hassle.

But we’ve seen what the first model lead to: Metaplace, relying on “free unrestricted mesh uploads” (you could upload directly from Google Warehouse!), and no solid business model, ceased to exist. I hope that there is a lesson to be learned from that.

Second Life, of course, lies in the middle of both extremes. There is no “hassle” in uploading content; content is actually built in-world using the permission system, and even though we all know the risks of illegitimate content copy, the truth is that intellectual propriety rights are preserved to a degree — and a new innovation by Linden Lab will soon allow a step further. So while the concept has known flaws, the spirit behind the intellectual property protection in SL is actually correct. Protected content leads to a content economy — something that possibly only Lessig might have foreseen in 2003, but few people still understand how vital that is. And Second Life’s model doesn’t require a priori “screening” of content.

It is said that the best kind of business is the one where both parties feel they have made a good deal. My best example is, of course, eBay. Ebayers are happy customers of the service, because it allows them to make money, too. They’re happy if eBay is making cartloads of money — because they’re making money too. The happier eBayers are, the more they will buy and sell, and the more commissions will eBay charge. That model is fundamentally solid, because eBayers will continue to come back to eBay to make business.