The Linden Vision – Weak Copyrights in the Metaverse

It’s still fresh in my mind, so I guess it’s time to write some thoughts on it, and then I’m going to see if Lordfly Digaridoo’s SL Economy Analysis Blog” already has some insight on the Town Hall meeting yesterday with Cory Linden. I like his economic insights very much, and as one of the leading “economical geniuses” of SL (the other one being Jacqueline Richelieu, of course), I wonder what he’ll say on this subject…

So Linden Lab? now wants to set up an example on digital copyrights. Actually I currently think that their vision is so overwhelming, I’m almost afraid that this will miss completely the point with the totality of the residents – past, present and definitely future. People are really “not ready” for it yet 🙂

In layman’s terms, the proposed change on the permissions’ system (read all about it on Cory’s blog) is technically quite simple. The current system protects the creator, but not the owner. This means that the owner can’t “disassemble” something he just bought to understand how it works.

LL thinks this is actually a “bad thing”. In real life, you can dismantle a toaster you just bought and take a look on what’s inside. Of course, you can also take some parts out and build a better toaster. Eventually, this will lead to a spread of knowledge, enabling people to build better toasters (and why not, make a profit from it).

The argument is slightly skewed because in the real world you mostly have “strong copyrights” and patents. So you can break an item apart, but you can’t create your own, using the same bits, and sell it as your own, at least in theory.

But LL wants to implement this “breaking apart” idea. You should read Cory’s blog for more input, but, very briefly, in the summer of 2005 or so, objects will have a “wrapper” or a “seal”. If you break that seal, you can see the contents, but you won’t be able to transfer the object to someone else – thus enabling you to understand how it works, but not to resell it “as your own”. LL thinks that people will be able to acquire more knowledge faster, and improve on existing designs, thus creating better and better content.

“Weak copyrights” are in place when you allow people to use your work by forfeiting several of your “rights”. To get a much more complete view on this fascinating subject, take a look at Creative Commons. According to what I’ve read, there have been many talks between LL and Creative Commons, a non-profit organization which is trying to bring new licensing models to the authoring world. You can see them as the Free Software Foundation for non-software authored content – music, images, video, text/hypertext. So things like the GPL or BSD licensing (which are widespread among the software community) are “converted” with appropriate legal wording to other “copyrighted” material.
LL seems to really believe that this is “the way to go” and is starting to pave the road for it to become a reality inside Second Life®.

A simple example. I write these silly articles on my blog. I’m interested that people read them for free and even copy my text and use it on their own blogs (that has actually happened a few times 🙂 ). They can even put the text into commercial magazines and sell it if they want. But I want to make sure that at least I’m credited for what I write. Now current copyright laws are simply to restrictive – I either place the whole site in the public domain, or reserve all rights to myself, and people will have always to ask permission to copy things and ideas from it.

In our fast-paced digital economy this may not make much sense. After all, my “audience” are just 5000 or so page views per month, and I don’t really “benefit” from “reserving all rights” on my work. I would benefit much more if people simply copy & pasted text here, not needing to ask me anything about it (that means, I’m actively encouraging people to do it!). I just want the credit. Even if tomorrow’s New York Times opens its headlines on “Visions on the Metaverse” and someone wins the Pulitzer Prize with that text 🙂 … well, Gwyn will have some credit 🙂 That’s what matters!

The same applies to all content created inside Second Life®. As you know, for several months now LL has allowed digital content creators to retain their own copyrights on objects/items created inworld. However, enforcement on those copyrights have been a very hard task. The current system is not sufficiently flexible to allow for “partial” or “weak copyrights”, and that’s why we have the proposed changes.

Are they so important at all? Well, LL’s directors and visionaries seem to answer that with a strong “yes”. They really believe that “weak copyrights” is what the digital world needs to exchange information quickly and bring better products to consumers. This applies not only to your fabulous 15-prim vehicle or 40-prim house you just built in SL – but LL advocates this view for all digital content, as a matter of principle.

So LL is entering the bandwagon of GPL/BSD licensing advocates, and getting closer to the open source community. Yes, Cory talked again about this. There is no question on releasing SL’s source code to the community in the future – just the timeline is not fixed yet, and LL has to see what their priorities are right now. They understand thar open sourcing it will allow them to get much more features/bug fixes in a short time, but may also scare off some residents – or RL merchants setting shops in SL – because of eventual chaos on “non-LL-managed” sims. This will all have to be approached very carefully.

Still, the message was clear – LL wants to have a “model society” on SL, where innovation, knowledge and information are exchanged freely, to the benefit of everybody. This reflects a little what goes on in the Internet – where people started to download “free” MP3 from Kazaa and then Steve Jobs made that idea into a solid business venture. But, like the Internet (which was coined as “an anarchits’s paradise” not so many years ago), Second Life® is NOT Utopia, and thanks goodness for that, or it wouldn’t be so challenging and addictive!

About Gwyneth Llewelyn

I'm just a virtual girl in a virtual world...