Some proposals for making the new permission system work

Wow, this is really a “bomb” that LL has planted among the community… it’s going haywire right now, but the cool thing is, we have a very long fuse, and lots of time to disarm it. Thanks to Cory for warning us in advance! 🙂

I have very mixed feelings about the current proposal, and that’s why I don’t want to discuss the ideas yet on the “official place” – Cory’s own blog. Unlike many people (and I’m proud of saying that in public), I like to analyse things from several perspectives, both emotionally and logically, and have changed my mind often about “things written on stone tablets”. So I’m quite prepared to revert my position in about 6 months or so 🙂

First, I think that we should not view Cory’s proposal as Linden Lab’s “final word” on it. It’s just that – a proposal. A way to let people think about it, discuss it, argue it over, and come up with good ideas that can actually be implemented. That is what I feel right now.

Both the forums, blogs, and several informal meetings that happened inworld since the “announcement” reached the same preliminary conclusions: creators are not happy with weak copyrights, period. Consumers can’t care less. They currently make their choices based on what they want and what they’re willing to pay. There is a large variety of choices here. I can buy fantastic clothes from Torrid and I know the quality I’ll get – but they won’t be unique items. I can order custom-made dresses from Von, and pay premium for that, because I don’t want anybody else to have the same “unique” dress (and I establish a trust relationship with those merchants “informally” – I know that Torrid won’t sell me a below-quality product, or that Von will charge me premium for one “unique” item but sell 100 copies afterwards…). In some cases, for new merchants that I haven’t worked with, I can appeal to resident-created trade assotiations to protect my rights as a consumer – like RATE, for instance. And finally, for everyday use, well, as everybody else, I have hundreds of freebie articles (sometimes from Torrid or Mistress Midnigt!) and change them to fit me. All this mirrors somewhat what goes on in the real world. All this happens with the current permission system very well.

“Reverse engineering” is a fact of life (1st and 2nd) – we usually think about it on the industrial scale, or on the software/computer industry, but it’s not so. I grab pictures from web sites and ask talented designers to build me a copy for it inworld. I look at a cool device inworld and see if I can replicate its scripting. I see someone inworld with a “limited monopoly” on some sort of item, and I fry my brains overnight trying to think “how did he do it?”. If I can’t figure it out, I can always ask an expert to take a look at it and replicate it for me. Again, this happens, despite our current permission systems.

And finally scamming. Of course, I don’t really expect the scammers to actively participate in forums, blogs or meetings. But just because they don’t discuss it, we can’t ignore them. Inworld, my only action against them (with the current permission system or otherwise) is to warn them that they’re doing something immoral, and scare off their customers. This normally means I’m a target for negative ratings *shrugs* but morality is more important to me than the ratings anyway. Most unsuspecting customers usually thank me. Still, some had a problem in understanding why I should pay for a skin when it was so easy to copy it. Once more, scamming *already* exists in SL, despite current permissions.

What I’m not sure of is, economically speaking, what will happen to SL’s rather stable economy when the new system is deployed (and remember, nobody knows what the “new system” is and how it will be implemented – Cory just presented a few key ideas on what it could be). More than fearing that a batch of creators will go away forever and take their items with them, I fear unstability due to the need to adapt to the “new rules”. Creativity can go down the drain and no new objects appear; or new objects will be much higher priced since the creators will know that their creations have a very limited time of existence before being copied and resold by scammers. This would mean a stagnation – currently items inworld are given for free, or sold in the L$20-200 range (very special items are much higher than that, of course, but they are also a tiny fraction of the total offerings, even if they represent a large fraction of the economy’s turnaround). Actually, pricing new content higher will very likely give the scammers an incentive to make more and more copies! If Windows was available for free, what would be the incentive of making “illegal” copies of it?

So. I guess most of you can agree with the above paragraphs. Now to concrete suggestions to solve those problems – and taking into account that we (Lindens and residents) don’t know how things will work out – here it goes:

  1. Traceability of Intellectual Property

    Anything which is created should be flagged with the creator name, and a timestamp. That’s all you need to trace it. If you can somehow use clever scripts to duplicate an object perfectly (my, people are ingenious these days!), if you can make sure that the creator name is never lost, at the very least you will able to trace your IP back to you, and the timestamp will prove to anyone that you have created it first. So the copied version won’t have either your creator name or timestamp – and thus can be identified as a “forgery” (even if it just looks the same and works the same way).

    Co-creation should also be allowed (see my question on the Town Hall transcript). These days, many builders will work together with scripters, and the final item/device is usually a “joint effort”.

    Now this point will not prevent scamming – ie. scripts can be copied & pasted, or you can reassemble prims by just copying the data from the tabs and replicate them, etc. This is just to establish your IP!

    RL example: Creative Common’s own registry.

  2. Scam detection

    It came to a surprise to me that Cory didn’t mention the so-very-simple “tracking mechanism” – when the wrapper is broken, you get an IM (or similar information). Actually, when Tiger Crossing and I suggested that, Cory explained that they had already discussed this with James Grimmelmann of LawMeme. So either you’ll get an event to detect for the wrapper being broken, or in some “magic” way you’ll be informed that this happens.

    Why is this so important? Well, again, for tracking purposes. If suddenly everybody breaks the wrappers on your objects, you’ll know where the potential scammers are going to be. Since after breaking the wrapper you can’t “show” the object to anyone else, it means that any scam much come from the person that broke it (even if you copy & paste a script and give it to your friend, the Master Scammer, to have him replicate it… you’re nevertheless accessory to the offense!).

    And since you’ll have established creationship with a timestamp on the ORIGINAL item, it will be easy to “prove” that you are the original copyright owner. I only wished that in RL it would be so easy to immediatly get a list of your “prime suspects”…

    So, we have a way to register IP, and to track copies of it. Next point!

  3. Scam reporting

    What happens with scamming nowadays? Uh, nothing. Nobody controls scam, there is nobody to report to, and there is nothing you really can do about it except fret (or waste your precious time, which would be much better employed in creating stuff, by going around and see who is taking advantage of your IP right now…). In SL, we have no police and no courts to appeal – just the Lindens. And since is hard to know when there is “abuse” (if I buy a chair from you, and resell it to a friend for a higher price, is that really a “scam”? Or am I just an “unlicensed retailer”? Or just doing a friend the favour of sparing her the time to search for the item herself – and in this case I’m a “value-added retailer”?), you can’t really report it.

    This is something which has to be changed now – and it means changing the TOS. Since due to the previous two points you’ll have a way to establish IP uniquevocally, and a way of tracing it, you can “legally” act upon that. Since there is no other way, this means presenting the Lindens with “evidence”, and forcing them to abide by a revised TOS – expelling that user (and its alts) from SL and all its copied items from the world.
    Eventually the person buying illegal copies could be subject to the same threats (more on that below).

  4. Scam prevention

    Ok, but it’s a shame to do things “afterwards” – in the mean time, customers get angry, since they have payed for an item they wanted, and they didn’t know it was a scam.

    Again, let’s see how the RL deals with this. It’s simple – trade associations and “seals of approval”. We’ve got RATE, but we could have a few more. And again this is simple to implement. Allow any SL item to have a special branded “tag”. You can have as many tags as you want (and create your own tags if you wish), similar to the concept of SSL certificates for web servers, or DigiMark for digital images. But here is the trick: you can only sell/transfer items with a tag you own (or issued by a group that you belong to).

    This allows for self-regulation. So you can develop your own tag, and only you will be able to sell your own objects. If someone breaks the wrapper, the tag is still there – meaning that if the scammer copies your items and replicates them, they will not get your tag, but his own. Established creators will be able to inform the public that they should only buy items with their own tags. More than that: if you have several shops, or your own retailers, give them your tag – so they become “licensed, official retailers”. You may revoke tags on them if suddenly you’ve lost confidence on them.

    What about small, unknown merchants? That’s easy, that’s why you get “trade associations”. Use RATE (or a similar association) to give “credibility” to your own name. This is the same thing as having VeriSign signing off your SSL certificate, or DigiMark’s “stamp” on digital images. So, by using a RATE tag, your objects for sale will show the customer that you are legitimate – since RATE could revoke your right to use their tag at any time if you don’t abide by their rules.

    Vouching for third parties is how trust relationships are done in the real, digital world. The good thing is, we don’t really need a mechanism like There has (company-only approved sales…), but we can work it out for ourselves inworld, assuming we have simple extra tools!

    (Allegedly this could currently be done just by setting an appropriate group on the object, but also see the next point.)

    (A problem with this system is how to implement GIFTS! One alternative would be allowing you to give stuff away that you’ve bought, but the recipient would get a Dialog Box telling “XXX is giving you an unlicensed object YYY. This may be a scam. Do you wish to accept it?”, and the creator would also get an IM/similar thing telling her that an “unlicensed transfer was in progress”. If it happens just once in a while, that’s ok. If it’s systematic, you caught a scammer!)

  5. Information/education

    Last but not least, I find that the current information levels provided to new users are appallingly low. If “newbies” never read the TOS, the forums, or never go to Mentor events, or don’t talk to anyone inworld – how can they know about stuff? They need more and better information. I’m currently on the process of writing something like a “newbie guide” – not from the perspective of the marketing department of LL, but from the resident’s point of view. It’s no use to have a clever ownership tracking system and tags to certify your products if newbies never heard about those stuff. If I make an illegal copy of Microsoft’s product CDs inside prettily printed packages, and give them away, people will only know it’s a scam if they know that all Microsoft products have a seal with a hologram on it. But if I haven’t heard about that, how can I know I’m not being offered a genuine item? So information is one of the key issues to prevent scamming.

    This means warning newbies that items without a proper, conforming tag are probably scams, and by buying them off scammers, both the scammer and the person buying the object are liable to be reported for abuse and expelled. Now that will make people think twice about buying stuff from “unlicensed” retailers!

As you can see, I’m not really “against” either the current permission system, or against any other system that will replace it. Emotionally, I both understand LL’s idea of a “weakly copyrighted world” to promote more creativity, as well as creator’s concerns about the scamming market growing exponentially and without control. However, there are ways to deal with both issues at the same time. I think that we should concentrate on them instead of just “throwing off” the proposed new permission system. Linden Lab has never hidden the fact that they want to do several social experiments with Second Life. That’s quite ok, I think, provided we have mechanisms to mantain our society and economy stable – and this means a constant influx of creativity and somewhat stable prices for products, as well as a genereal willingness from customers to pay a “fair price” for creative content.

CC BY 4.0 Some proposals for making the new permission system work by Gwyneth Llewelyn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

About Gwyneth Llewelyn

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