Learning the lesson about copyrights

Gwyn Cloned

1.4 million users learned recently the lesson about what “copyright” really means. Or rather, they finally understood what it means for content creators who live from the royalties honestly earned through their hard labour on their own copyrighted work to see others profiting from those work — through piracy.

The “hot bomb” was dropped this week — a technology appropriately called “copybot” was suddenly seen for sale on several places (in-world and on the e-commerce sites for SL). It’s a pretty simple device that can basically replicate avatars (their shapes, clothes, skins…), objects, and even whole islands. With that technology you can basically copy anything and call it your own. I’m not sure how much the device costed, but the technology is not “rocket science” — it’s something any programmer can do, using something called libSecondLife, a set of libraries that are able to “talk” the “SL Protocol” defined by Linden Lab, allowing any programme written by any user to talk to the LL servers and basically get everything that’s on their servers.

Looking at the above paragraph, it sounds like a major catastrophe. This is the power of the media — turning something uninteresting and uneventful into “news”. But how dramatic can be the impact!

Shortly after this was “revealed”, people started to complain. Massively. They rallied towards the malls where this device was for sale, and tried to block access to it, with huge signs saying “shame”. They commented like crazy on the LL blogs. They arranged meetings and discussed it. It was seen on major blogs and even Reuters and C|Net ran stories on it. Google already shows 10,000 hits on “copybot”. So, yes, this became “major news”.

Then it became an inflamed war against Linden Lab, when they first started to explain that there is nothing they can do to prevent people ripping off each other’s creation, with this tool or any other. And finally LL announced that the use of any tool to duplicate copyrighted work in SL would be the reason for immediate suspension.

Now the witch-hunting began in earnest.

Anyone remotely associated with this tool was tracked down, meticulously investigated by the crowd, always so wise in defending their passionate views, and reported to Linden Lab for suspension. The circle widened. Now people who sold vendors to third parties who sold this device were given a warning. One can only wonder who comes next. Probably even the mischievous Gwyneth Llewelyn, who, although never using libSecondlife directly, which is written in C# and requires a lot of expertise she doesn’t know, certainly dabbled with the Second Life Protocol — using plain old PHP — to log in directly to LL’s servers. A long time ago. With a crude tool used only by 3 alts. But certainly the logs on LL’s servers are there (for the technically challenged, any application that talks to SL’s servers is deemed to be a “client”. All clients can send a cute string to identify themselves, and I made sure my own PHP “client” left my signature on LL’s logs). So I’ll probably be the next on the list 🙂 Oh, and I think I’ve also posted a mail or two to the libSL mailing list, so I’m certainly part of the Cabal to Destroy Second Life.

Let’s make a slow pause to digest all the above.

A technology is developed that allows people to make copies of digital content. This technology is misused by some that have made illegitimate copies of copyright content. All hell breaks lose. Or does it really?

Everybody knows that Microsoft’s Windows Media Player or Apple’s iTunes easily rip off CDs to MP3 with a single mouse click. Yes, that’s all it takes. Both Microsoft and Apple are the world’s largest manufacturers of tools that allow piracy of copyrighted content. I dare anyone reading these paragraphs to claim that they haven’t one single pirated MP3 on their hard disks. Very likely, even the Pope or the Dalai Lama have a few pirated MP3s on their hard disks. Oh, they will claim that they have gotten those by email from a friend and that they really didn’t intend to listen to pirated music anyway. Sure. But that is not the point. MP3 piracy is ubiquitous. It’s done all over the world. Even if you buy your MP3s from the iTunes Shop, you’re very likely going to send a copy of one or two to your best friends — thus becoming part of the piracy network.

Still, it’s not likely that you’ll get arrested for having a few scattered MP3s somewhere in your hard disk, iPod, or USB disk. At a small scale, nobody will notice anyway. Right? 🙂

Think again. Imagine that a musician gets around 1 dollar for each CD sold in the world. A CD holds 10-20 songs on average — not much. I could guess that most people in the world have, on average, 10-20 MP3s on their hard disks somewhere (on average — since many have now terabytes of ripped-off MP3s on their disks, with thousands of hours of music, which will offset the number that just have a couple of them around). There are a billion users on the Internet. This means that artists and song-writers are losing a billion US$ (the RIAA claims US$ 4.2 billion yearly). It’s not a “tiny sum”. It’s rather an impressive one!

And who is to blame? Microsoft and Apple, since they have made those tools easily available with their OSes. A click away, available to any user who does not have the faintest clue on how a CD really works (some would be surprised to understand how incredibly high-tech a CD reader actually is — true science fiction, engraving a special polymer with a laser on a microscopic scale).

So Microsoft and Apple have, so to speak, placed the nuclear bomb for music piracy in the hand of clueless newbies. Is the FBI on them?

Of course not. Microsoft and Apple, obviously, claim that there are legitimate uses for ripping off your own CDs. They provide those tools to their users. They cannot be held responsible if people use those tools for illegitimate uses. After all, people are supposed to be adult and mature, and they know that piracy of copyrighted material is a crime condoned on almost all countries, and certainly on all western countries. They’re also supposed to know the law. Microsoft and Apple are not legal advisers (in fact, I think that they actually warn people that you should only convert your own CDs, not other people’s — as if we were suddenly all talented musicians).

So this is real life, where honest, solid companies, with a good reputation, arm common people with fantastic weapons to encourage music piracy. But they actually do more than that. It’s as easy to copy a DVD, or an application on a CD. All it takes is another download. More piracy. Yay! The world is full of those tools!

Why don’t people fight Microsoft and Apple and Roxio and Nero and all the others actively and aggressively, then?

Well… they do… they are simply powerless to prevent what is happening. A billion of people is a lot of people. Among those, there are dozens of millions of talented programmers who know the ultimate truth of digital piracy — if it’s in your computer, it’s easy to get a copy — if you know how.
What most people don’t understand is that once the pixels hit your screen (or the bits hit your loudspeaker), there is always a way to intercept them. You can have the best encrypted mechanism of the world to transmit and store that data. But at some point, pixels have to be drawn, or the loudspeaker has to be activated. And when that happens, you can intercept it.

Knowing this too well, the FBI (and all the legislations in the world, really) aren’t fighting the toolmakers nor the end-users — that would be as hopeless as trying to tax people for breathing air — but they’re focusing on two types of copyright pirates: the ones that point others to freely downloadable copyrighted material (example: Napster… but also Google!) and naturally enough the ones that profit massively from pirated material.

So in essence this drops us nicely into the matter of copyright law. Most people in the world have no idea on what copyright law actually protects — what they have is an opinion on what copyright law should be. But these are two completely different concepts. You can have an opinion on what things should be, but they’re not more than that — opinions. Bragging your opinion out and loud does not make them into “laws” just because you say so.

And this is exactly what happens when you mix three things into the same bag: utter ignorance of copyright law, utter ignorance of technical aspects, and the ability to loudly voice opinions. The net result, of course, is chaos, panic, and anger. Mass hysteria drawn upon ignorance.
The name “copyright” tends to be a misinterpreted with implying that “the right to copy” is granted only to the author of a certain work. This is, in essence, not far from the original spirit: the author of creative content should have a right to be identified to his work and to decide what others make out of it. Naturally enough, this was rather easy to enforce in 1889 when the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works first defined the concept and tried to get a large number of signing the convention. In those days, it was assumed that duplicating a piece of art and selling it massively required a huge amount of effort (and cost), and that large companies should be unable to rip off the poor musician or author in the street, just because they had the means to do so.

Discussing copyright law is always tricky, but for the sake of the argument, let’s see what happens in the digital work. Here, the reverse is true — it’s so easy to duplicate anybody’s work, that it is the “large companies” that are at risk, since copying — and distributing! — a piece of original artwork is incredibly easy using a computer and the Internet.

Thus, the copyright laws on the 19th century, set to protect the individual author from being abused by the huge corporations, are, in the 21st century, used by the huge corporations to “protect” themselves from the nasty individuals with so many resources to easily and cheaply distribute pirated works. What an irony!

The snowball has become an avalanche. These days, futurists predict that the whole concept of “copyright” laws in the digital world slowly begin to fade (or at least to dramatically change), simply because they’re impossible to enforce. Music being the most quoted example — the number of pirated MP3s, compared to original music that paid royalties, is vastly larger, by several hundreds of times. The only reason the artists haven’t shut down their operation is because they make so much money out of related businesses — advertising, tours and concerts, merchandising and licensing brand names — that the cost of producing CDs, even knowing they will be massively copied around the world once they’re released, will still be worthwhile. But in the future, bands will not sell CDs any more — they’ll make their profits from concerts, and have the MP3 for a free download somewhere. Small bands already work like that. A few literary authors are also toying with this model — they’ve been lucky so far because it’s not so easy to get a computer to read a scan of a book when you’re in bed reading a book, on the bus or train, or even in a public toilet :). But digital paper will possibly change this, and the next ones to be hit by piracy will be the authors — although, of course, in this uncultured world, music will always sell far more than “words” 🙂

All this is much more a question of culture, mentalities, social norms, a rapidly changing world, different approaches, and models of making money out of creative content. There are far more questions than answers at this point. Nobody can claim to have “a solution”. Richard Stallman, of course, advocates that “information should be free” — and since all digital content is information, all of it should be fee. Creators should provide services — like bands performing concerts, authors giving conferences — instead of charging people for listening/reading their artwork. All of it is very., very polemic. I won’t delve into that. Like many others, I have developed a mixed approach myself — some content I give gladly away for free (and rely upon other means of income), other content is paid for. I’m not sure what system works best now, and much less sure of what will work in the future.

MISCONCEPTIONS

We come back to Second Life. Somehow, most of the very talented creative authors in Second Life have embraced “copyright laws” as their “holy book”, and, like unfortunately so many religions based on holy books, they never took the time to read what actually is written there. Their first misconception is usually the idea they have that once you have created something, nobody can copy your idea. Well, ideas are not copyrighted — just their materialisation in an object of art using a specific media. You can indeed hold a copyright to different media — thus, if properly done, you can prevent a scriptwriter to copy your book and use it as a script for a movie. However, what you cannot do is to claim you have firstly invented a concept and prevent others of doing similar things. If you design a lavender skirt, and someone does their own version of a lavender skirt, it’s not a breach of copyright. They’re two different things.

Even if someone looks at your lavender skirt, then copies the texture by grabbing it from the screen, and does something that looks very much like it, it’s still not a copyright violation — but simply a derivative work. This is the second misconception. Both creative aspects — the original lavender skirt and the derivative work on that lavender skirt — are copyrighted to their respective owners.

What you cannot do — legally speaking, but not technically! — is to grab that very same lavender skirt and sell it (or even give it away to your friends! — the issue of “profit” is not important here, only the act of unlawfully copying and distributing it) without the original author’s explicit permission.

In terms of Second Life, this is usually guaranteed if you place a “no-copy” and “no-transfer” permission on your content. It’s a technical “protection” that enforces your copyright. As we will see, this is as effective as encrypting a DVD to prevent it from being copied (ie. not effective as all).

However, Linden Lab does not claim anything of the sort on their sort. Just because people tend to interpret no-copy/no-transfer permissions as meaning that your copyrighted work cannot be copied without your explicit permission, it does not mean that Linden Lab is automatically bound to enforce your rights. Linden Lab is not an enforcement agency. They are subject to California laws. All they do on their Terms of Service is to recognise formally that all content created by you, the author, are indeed your copyright — but you also forfeit the right to charge anything to Linden Lab for their use of your copyrighted material in their marketing efforts. You also agree to allow Linden Lab to display your copyrighted material, free of any charges, royalties, fees, or any other types of encumbrances, in perpetuity and irrevocably, as long as that content is displayed on their grid. What this means is that you cannot held Linden Lab accountable for anything that happens with your content, once it’s on display on the grid.

Linden Lab simply provides you a means to display your copyrighted material and asserts your right to claim ownership of that material. And nothing else.

They aren’t even allowed to do anything else!

We now enter the trickiest part. While Linden Lab is indeed committed to ensure that your copyrights are indeed set to your name, they’re not a police force or a judiciary where you can file claims that your copyrights were ‘stolen’. Indeed, Cory’s post was rather strong to appease the irate mob, telling that anyone found duplicating content of others (it’s irrelevant if this content is put on sale or not) would be summarily banned. Legally, Linden Lab does not really need to go so far. But it’s still very nice of them to show they’re worried and thinking on solutions instead of crossing their arms and hide behind their lawyers; I find that attitude very welcome, since one of the major selling points of Second Life is the way Linden Lab recognises residents’ copyrights.

WHAT IS THE ISSUE, THEN?

We all know that Second Life is slowly moving towards an open source model — something that will happen rather later than sooner. And this means experimenting with the code, letting people start to tweak with certain aspects of it, and see what the problems are with the way the “Second Life Protocol” works.

So when a group of clever programmers and system engineers started to reverse-engineer the SL Protocol — the communication “recipes” that allow the SL client application to talk to the grid servers — LL saw an opportunity here that they shouldn’t waste. Instead of routing a group of developers to document the whole protocol, they relied on a community of programmers to voluntarily do that type of work. A group of proeminent LL developers (including Cory!) soon joined the group.

Reverse-engineering is not illegal. Actually, in some jurisdictions, it’s even forbidden to forbid reverse-engineering — it is seen as a valid and legitimate way of understanding how things work, and allow people to create derivative works based on what they learned. While we’re already threading on thin ice again — on the “morality of reverse-engineering” — I’ll stick to the legal interpretation: it’s not forbidden. But to make sure that the project documenting the SL Protocol was not violating any known rules or standards set by LL, LL publicly endorsed the project. They don’t give them any hints on how the closed SL Protocol works, but people are free to experiment.

And LL watches them. We all know what they get out of it:

  • free documentation
  • a large group of talented programmers willing to tinker with it (which might be enrolled by LL at a later stage, specifically when the client and the server software goes open source)
  • debugging, bug fixing, preventing exploits

We have already been informed that this has already happened — ie. bugs were fixed, exploits were antecipated and patched, and a group of programmers are routinely working with Linden Lab to help them out — and we all know how much help they need!

Naturally enough, this is like having a group of junior researchers playing with nuclear technology. Soon, the “juniors” will learn on how to build their own atom bombs. And this was what happened, even in a controlled environment — information leaked out prematurely on how to duplicate objects, avatars, and terraforming information, without going through the permission system. This is not “rocket science”, by the way. Anything your SL client sees comes from the server. So, your SL client is able to visualise anything by requesting things from the grid servers. When these assets are retrieved by your SL client, it has built-in rules to deal with the ever-so-tricky permission system.

But these are not “built-in” on the protocol. So, a tool that simply retrieves data without bothering to look at the permission system is rather trivial to create.

Many, in fact, have been done in the past. This was just the first one that is “easily availabe” and able to be used by any resident without any knowledge. In a sense, the CopyBot tool is as easy to understand as Windows Media Player or Apple iTunes for ripping MP3s out of CDs — you don’t need a PhD in Computer Science to understand how to operate it.

At this point, we leave the critical boundary of “technical” aspects and enter the world of “legal” aspects.

Research, in the form of the libSecondLife project, allows people access to a tool that can be used for the illegitimate purpose of pirating copyrighted content. What to do?

The tool, by itself, is inoquous — it’s just a tool, like a gun is a tool. The researchers that created it are harmless — they need that tool to build their own, open-source, 3D SL-compatible client. After all, what that client needs to do is to retrieve things from the SL grid and display them on a screen! Linden Lab, on the other hand, wants to see how far this group of researchers/programmers can go in actually developing a full-feature, open-source, SL-compatible client — probably in much less time than LL required on their own.

But a “tool” that falls in the wrong hands is naturally not a good thing. SignpostMarv Martin has explained that, similarly how suddenly people started to worry about how easy terrorists can get access to guns, explosives, and airplanes, after they watched the horrors on CNN — which showed to the public how easily this can be done — now people suddenly understood how easy it is to rip off content from other residents. In a sense, something which has been known for ages (since beta!), but pretty much ignored by the public at large, is now public news.

And here is the issue really.

I have no idea on how many people have, indeed, started duplicating content and selling it on their own with this tool just because nobody cared to talk about them. But suddenly everybody was made aware that this possibility exists. The impact, of course, was extaordinary. The reaction, ironically, was quite interesting to follow, from a sociological point of view:

The ones yelling the loudest are the very same ones that rip hundreds of MP3s every day — and feel that they have the right of doing so, because if Microsoft or Apple have dropped a nice and easy-to-use tool on their desktops, it must mean that it’s not really “piracy”.

In a sense, the lesson that they are refusing to learn is that copyright piracy is something that is way common in the digital world. While they go haywire with hysteria because their L$200 lavender skirts are now in the hands of a few pirates, they fail to understand how millions of very talented artists get their work ripped off every day without getting a cent for it.

The very same people that brag about how many terabytes of downloaded MP3s and AVIs they have on their computers at home, saying how silly the RIAA or other agencies are, and that “information should be free”, and that “I can do it because Media Player/iTunes allows me to do so”, or that “copyright laws are silly and I’m going to ignore them”… are now the ones that rally together with signs showing “Shame!” in red letters. tool. Probably not many. Very likely, far less people that have been duplicating content for ages (using other tools, developed on their own, or gathered from less-known projects and sites), and who have been “mostly ignored” by the resident population…

This is really what it means walking in someone else’s shoes. People got the strange notion that, while everybody can rip off everything they see on the Internet, somehow Second Life was “different”. This was pure self-delusion. Linden Lab never claimed that their systems were hack-proof or free of digital pirates. Residents “assumed” it was — while ignoring the compelling evidence all around them, where digital copyrighted material is being pirated every day, and the fight against piracy is being lost on every front.

Who have these angry residents to blame — except themselves, for failing to grasp what “digital content” means? It’s so much easier to shift the blame elsewhere… and thus the witch-hunting, the rallies, the angry words, the “threats of leaving SL forever and never coming back”, the shops closing their doors, and all the usual drama an hysteria coming from people that somehow thought they were “safe” in this corner of the digital world.

AN UTOPIA IS DEMOLISHED

Second Life, once again, has proved that it is not “special”. There is no “magic” that can prevent piracy of digital content, when it enters your computer. Linden Lab is not a “wizard” that knows how to weave unbreakable systems, when conceptually, those are impossible to create. SL Protocol researchers and programmers are not Evil Pirates working to overthrow the world by endorsing chaos. Copyright laws cannot be enforced technically, as so many RL examples have shown us.

Instead, Second Life is exactly like the real world. Piracy exists there as in the real world, and it’s up to the people to defend themselves from piracy, as best as they can. In the RL, they gang together and promote their services and their quality — you can duplicate art, but you cannot duplicate an artist — in organisations like… the RIAA (!). I imagine that some of the residents have learned the lesson: Second Life needs “legal protection”. But this legal protection is not a checkbox that you can click and say “so there, now I’m protected”. Legal protection comes from a legal system, one that can actually be enforced. And, in democratic institutions (and states), a legal system that is fair is one that is designed by the people — who vote for their representatives to pass laws. This means “government”.

The call for “government in SL” (another nice utopia which very likely will never become true, in spite of my earlier hopes for it) has been raised once or twice. If we had a legal system in Second Life, we might not stop the technical aspects of a CopyBot, but at least we could sue the ones using the tool. If we had a legal system that protected us, we would have a place to submit our complains. If we had a way to vote for our representatives, we would have certainly have demanded for them ways to deal with copyright piracy. But we have nothing of the sort — we have a “benevolent dictatorship” on the SL grid with very un-interfering Lindens who rarely step in for the reasons that interest us. (Well, this is not really true, but many tend to think it is.)
But again, this is once more wishing for Utopia — when nothing of the sort exists. Residents in SL are “on their own”, and always were, and very likely always will be. Yelling, protesting, crying, tearing out hairs, will not make any difference long-term. Sure, some content creators will abandon Second Life now and go back to closed-content systems. But for every content creator that leaves, 20 new ones will come into SL every day. The difference, now, is that these will know that SL is not different from the Web, where piracy grows rampant and unchecked. They will come prepared — psychologically — to deal with Second Life as it is, and not as they think it is.

For many residents — perhaps even the majority — this event was a major eye-opener. Some have been shaken loose from their letargy. Yes, it’s about your money, friends. It hurts so much when your pockets are emptied, and there is nowhere to turn for help. Such is the fate of all who have experienced Internet piracy.

On the positive side, of course, at the very outskirts of this virtual world, a tiny group, fully aware that the issues at stake are not technical but legal, have been slowly, over two years, building up their enforceable legal system under a democratic government. They have been laughed at, scorned, and mostly ignored. But they were antecipating that all this would one day hit the news. It’s almost a miracle that SL managed to keep this “secret” for so long from the media. Well, the “good old times” of “ignorance is bliss” have gone forever.

Digital content piracy is here to stay — like on the whole of the Internet. You better get used to it soon. It is as unevitable as taxes and death. And there is nothing anyone can do to prevent that from happening, since the solution is not technical, but legal.

Edit: For a good primer on the technological aspects of libsecondlife and how it works, read Tao Takashi’s blog entry.

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