Content Theft, Avatar Rights, and the RIAA

No PiracyYou had to be very distracted to have missed the recent massive cry-out against content theft in Second Life. As the world grows, and as griefers and similar people commit misdemeanours all the time and get away with it, the situation can not improve by itself, as more and more petty residents find out that the best way to make money in SL — sometimes a cartful of money — is by illegitimate means.

Cons, content theft, extortion (when you happen upon someone’s sensitive data) — all these are part of the dark side of Second Life, and have been so since at least 2004. A broken permission system sometimes allow people to copy what they shouldn’t. Naive content creators leave “freebies” around that are later re-sold for a profit. Exploits allow people under certain circumstances to block others out of their own plots (and demand payment to get back what you rightfully own). Ad farmers block the view to extort money out of their neighbours to make the ads disappear. The list is endless as people’s creativity to illegitimately part innocents from their L$.

Recently, however, the situation seems to be getting out of hand, and this time, like so often in the past, the content creators and the digital law advocates have risen (sometimes backed up with real life lawyers), organised themselves once more, and launched all sorts of campaigns against content theft — aggressively.

But will they actually be successful?

The Digital Economy

No Piracy 2At the core of the problem is the way Second Life’s economy actually works. Although shops look like real shops and sell clothes that look like real clothes; or cars that look like real cars; houses that look like real houses; estates that have dimensions in square metres… the truth is, no goods or real estate is really transacted.

Second Life’s economy is a digital content economy. This basically means that there are no “goods” (labelling them “virtual goods” and trying to define them as being “similar” to real goods is just clouding the issue) — there is just copyright on creative content. Copyright, unlike what most people think, does not protect the idea or the concept. It just protects the materialisation of the concept. Thus, when a musician commits their creation to CD, the CD is protected by copyright laws. The score, if written on paper, might be protected too (usually it is). But if someone just hums part of the tune and creates a new tune based on those few notes — they are allowed to do so. It’s a new work of art — called a derivative work, but protected on its own. This is copyright protection in a nutshell.

In Second Life, you have, however, the more serious aspect of content theft: capturing textures on your computer, and re-uploading them, and selling them as your own. Textures, of course, are the base for skins and clothes (two of the most sold types of items in SL), but even most devices (from houses to HUDs) require very precise texturing work to be sold as quality items at a premium. The work behind those textures takes hours, days, weeks. A content pirate only needs to capture it in their computers, upload it in one minute, and can start re-selling it for a profit immediately.

There is no way to prevent this technically.

Once information is downloaded to your computer — no matter how much cryptographical information it carries during the transfer — at some point in time the texture needs to be decrypted to be displayed by the SL client. It is at that exact point that the content thief will make an exact duplicate and save it to disk. It’s not a “picture from SL” (like the ones illustrating this article!). It’s an exact digital copy of the original texture. All this takes is a download of a very popular piece of software, which is free and easily available.

Early advocates of content theft prevention demanded from Linden Lab that they “prevented textures to be copied using those tools”. It is impossible, and long discussed as the principle of the analogue hole: once it is viewed on your computer, it can be copied. There is no possible prevention.

But Second Life’s economy is not just “selling cute textures”. It’s also about providing services. A good example: Namssor Daguerre, famous for creating the whole concept of “avatar skins” a few years ago, does not only sell his lovely skins (which have been aggressively copied once they were launched, since nobody else had this much-demanded product), but he also creates skins on demand. On his shop, you can select from among hundreds of possible combinations, buy some vouchers, and have Nam and his team create your personalised skin for a small fee. This is service providing; you don’t see the finished skin for sale anywhere on his shop; you pay for someone from Nam’s team to assemble the pieces together and deliver your own skin.

Now, Second Life is full of those examples: builders and scripters-for-hire; DJs and live musicians (or even their agents!); event hosters (remember the weddings and who organises them!); teachers (and recently even helpers, on the CSI:NY sims, who are paid!); journalists. And of course, Estate Managers and the added value they might provide to their tenants.

This is a different class of making money — the service industry, as opposed to the copyrighted-content-providers. Both thrive in Second Life, although we tend to see much more of content providing than service providing (except, perhaps, for DJs/Live musicians). The difference, of course, is that service cannot be pirated.

From content providing to service providing

No Piracy 3

This is now where things start to become interesting. When Richard Stallman loudly proclaimed that “Information should be free!”, the whole Left applauded. Stallman was actually against the whole idea of copyrighting content (“information”) and software (which, under copyright laws, is deemed to be “creative work” too, and as protected as books, CDs, or pictures). Being a good commie, obviously Stallman was not so clear (at first) on how people should continue to remain creative, offer their labour for free, and still have money to buy bread and a roof over their heads.

In truth, the answer was not so obvious, but it eventually was figured out: open source software. Under that model, the software is not licensed and can be copied freely. However, there is a catch. Software can be hard to install. It’s costly to maintain. When it breaks down, you need someone to fix it. If you need to improve it, you need someone that has enough knowledge about that software to write some extra code. All these services are effectively provided by software houses who give away their software without a license. A Linux shop does not make less money than a Windows shop — all they do is copy a free distribution of Linux, but charge the customer for installation, maintenance, and technical support.

We know this model works (although, when Stallman proclaimed it, most were skeptic) because we have several success stories of open source models. But does it work for other types of copyrighted material?

Consider the most obvious example, since it’s the hottest one around: music. A musician’s income comes from two sources: the shows where they perform, and the royalties on the CDs they sell. However, music is probably the most pirated type of content these days (closely followed by video) — it’s so easy and widespread, that both Microsoft and Apple ship their respective operating systems with applications to copy CDs! It’s obvious, then, that the RIAA will lose the fight.

Instead, in a more sensible digital world, musicians will provide services as performers. They will earn money from playing in front of a live audience. They will earn their income from tours, ads, sponsors. They might perform even more, and on more places, to cover up the loss of income from distributing their music for free. In fact, many earn today far more from their performances than from their sales — since the royalties on the CDs are so low that you have to sell millions to draw an income from it. The only ones bound to lose are the record labels.

But are they really? Apple’s iTunes is now the world’s second largest music distribution company. And they make money from distributing music. Why? Because it’s so convenient. For a few dollars you can assemble your own collection of just the music you wish. The music is high-quality and the downloads always work — so you don’t need to fret while you search through the millions of P2P sites until you get the music you want with good quality. And you don’t need to learn how to tweak your CD-ripping-application to get better results. Apple does that for you. Yes, I know, Steve Jobs has his own agenda and he’s hardly a Stallman fan — he wants to make money out of the music business. Providing a service.

But he’s not the only one. Music shops, in a not-so-distant-future, might just be small stores with huge hard disks storing billions of MP3s and AACs. The customer will come to get just the music they want. The shop attendant will make a selection and burn it on a CD or DVD, and ask for a small payment. You might get a DVD full of MP3s for as little as what you pay for a CD with 10-12 songs today. But the musicians will be happy — because they will place ads in those shops. The whole marketing industry promoting musicians will still fill those shops with mercandising material, posters, and enough ads to make you download music from this group and not that band. And they’ll probably give you discounts if you attend a live performance. What they won’t do is to charge you for the music. This will be very likely a thing of the past as we approach the second decade in this millenium.

Sadly, this model that works so well for music (the only ones that are going to be hurt are the RIAA…), does not work for other copyrighted content.

It’s true that some authors derive an income from signing books or giving presentations. But it’s just marginal income in most of the cases — except, of course, for college professors writing books on economy, Nobel prize candidates. The regular author has only one source of income: royalties from their books, and often not even that, but just a bit of money that was paid upfront by the publisher. As new devices are launched that allow “digital books” to be used effortlessly (even in bed or on the bus!), the writers will start to worry what happens when the P2P networks are full of copied material. They aren’t today because it’s so cumbersome to read a 1000-page-novel on a computer screen. But this will change.

Other writing-related professions fare better. Journalists get paid to write, either per piece or drawing a salary. Technical writers, and movie scriptwriters, get paid per piece. They can negotiate royalties (as we recently saw during the strike), but, honestly, they will earn much more from their upfront payments than from the royalties on licensed content.

On the other hand, digital artists — people that create things from ads and CD covers, to digital art inside MMORPGs — are already working as full service providers. The same applies to, say, voice-over artists or photographers. They get a creative task assigned and get a payment for it; they deliver the goods, and don’t care what happens to them. They got their payment and are happy. Sure, people can copy their art as often as they want — they couldn’t care less, since they already have been paid for their work.

So, broadly speaking, a professional digital artist in this millenium will, as quickly as possible, try to convert their model of income earning from copyright licensing to service providing. The ones able to do so very efficiently (eg. musicians; journalists; digital artists) will not need to “worry” about their art being copied, since they’ll get an income from providing services, not licensing content.

What about Second Life?

Imagine you buy some clothes on a SL shop. What “service” can the clothier provide you? I mean, clothes in SL cannot be “adjusted” by anyone else except the avatar owner, and even so, “adjustment” is really easy to make. What kinds of services can a clothier provide?

The answer is really not easy. I believe that clothiers are very much like literary authors in real life: they have to survive on royalties on licensed content. They might earn a very slight income on doing “special designs”. In fact, many top clothiers accept work from the Metaverse Development Companies, where they can charge for creative work at regular, real life prices. And there is enough work for quite a few of the top clothiers. But Second Life has dozens of thousands. There is no market for “designing personalised clothes” that would sustain so many creative artists. Only a few would survive, if everybody gave away their clothes for free and tried to provide services instead.

I believe the guys at Clever Zebra will find out that the same applies to building. The regular user does not want to pay for any “services” or “personalisation” of a building. They want either to buy a building for L$100-1000, or get a freebie. They’ll be glad to have “open source” buildings to copy and paste as much as they like (specially because CZ’s offerings are of extremely high quality!). But they won’t buy “services”. In fact, I only know about one builder who does charge quite a lot on her buildings, because she includes the service of “fixing” things (ie. helping the resident to resize, change texture patterns, add an extra room, fix the door, rotate the whole building, etc.). But her income is marginal; she does not earn enough to buy extra clothes 🙂

So the model of providing content as a service is still not widespread in Second Life, because the market is not interested. Or is too small. Or perhaps both!

Thus we have now a dilemma. Legally and morally, copying content without the author’s explicit, written permission, is a crime (as the RIAA is so fond of reminding us!). We can’t avoid it, and we shouldn’t. The “Robin Hood” approach of “it’s not a crime if you cannot be caught” or, even worse in Linden Lab’s case, “it’s not a crime if you cannot be condemned for it”, simply don’t apply. It is a crime — even if it is not enforceable (ie. it’s hard to catch copied content; most people discover it by chance) and if the “authorities” (Linden Lab) couldn’t care less about the issue or do not even acknowldge it. In fact, as we are reminded by Benjamin Duranske and others, people can sue copyright pirates in court, and win cases (or at least get good settlements in court). So both the law and the morality is very strongly behind the content creators in this.

What are the first steps, then, in order to combat content theft in Second Life?

First and foremost, education. I safely assume that most residents in SL — specially relatively new ones — aren’t even aware that a lot of content gets pirated every day. Raising awareness — like on the nice signs that I have shamelessly copied and posted on this article (but I hope that the creators forgive me for using them to spread the news!) — is the first step. Congregating creators in associations to raise awareness is even better — like Gwen Carillion’s Content Creators’ Association, one of many groups who try to help content creators to protect their creative work by offering (real) legal advice, is the next step. There are plenty of those organisations in SL: they pop up for a while, then disappear as people bicker and join drama wars — but the latest batch of content creators’ organisations come from people with quite a different mindset, have strong ties and connections to RL organisations and legal advisors, and their members are not Drama Queens, here on the forums today, leaving for elsewhere tomorrow. They’re residents with years of SL who will still be around long after the content pirates have left. And they know their rights and how to enforce them.

Education is probably the best effort that can be done so far. Lobbying for Linden Lab to acknowledge the issue and enforce copyright theft prevention is quite another story. One of the most-voted Jira issues is exactly about a demand for LL to step in and prevent piracy. But as you can see, Linden Lab didn’t even acknowledge it — the issue remains “Unassigned”, which mostly means that no LL employee is allowed even to consider the issue.

So we have to leave Linden Lab out of the equation. Although they stepped in on Casinos and Banks, it seems that they won’t step in on Content Piracy. Actually, this would be pretty consistent with their policy of “letting residents settle issues among themselves” (even if it is on real courts).

Notice that the above signs (which are found already on many shops in SL) handle the issue quite nicely. They’re a grassroots attempt, by the residents, for the residents. They’re lobbying for LL to handle the issue, but they do it with a informative and educational language, stating what happens when content creators get ripped off — they lose income from sales they never make, and this means they have less incentive to create.

I remember when Namssor launched the first skin in Second Life. Namssor is quite a cool guy, and for an extra L$6000, he gave access to his FTP site and you could download a Photoshop file with the skin, so that you could tweak it yourself. This was quite cool — and, of course, quite naive, too. After a few weeks, the “novelty” of skin creation wore off, as people paid the L$6000 fee, downloaded the skin, and started reselling slightly-tweaked copies themselves. In a matter of weeks, an effort that took Nam months of work was simply copied by hundreds of pirates everywhere. All of a sudden, Second Life was flooded with people that “suddenly” learned in a few days how to become skin artists. Well, they learned how to become pirates. I still believe that there is just a handful of people in SL that have the required knowledge to create a skin from scratch. But there are dozens of thousands of designs — and I’m pretty sure most of them are tweaked textures from one of the very few talented artists that know how to do these things. After all, once you’ve ripped off a good quality skin, it’s quite easy, with moderate Photoshop skills, to change it — I did it for my own Second Skin in 2005 bought from Namssor, since I wanted red-haired eyebrows, and obviously paid the fee to download the Photoshop file from his FTP site — and I’m the least talented resident in Second Life 🙂

The whole point is that it is easy to be a pirate when it just takes low-levels of skills and there is no enforcement of anti-piracy legislation inside Second Life — unless you sue in the real world.

The Quest for Avatar Rights

Linden Lab cannot really “enforce” anti-piracy content prevention. Technically, the system is always prone to the analogue hole — once you load the textures into your graphics card’s memory, they’re easy to copy. There is no “workaround”. The only alternative, of course, is to control the uploading. This is exactly what There.com, Kaneva, IMVU, and many other virtual worlds do: they are closed-content platforms, where all content needs prior approval. That’s why they have so little content, compared to Second Life’s half-a-Exabyte of content. There is simply no way to have humans screening so much content — it’s like imagining Google trying to figure out, among the 6 billion pages they have on cache, which ones are ripped-off content of each other. On the Internet, copied content is handled by the courts. There is simply no other way.

Many people claim that filing a DMCA claim with Linden Lab does not work — it either takes a lot of time, or LL mostly ignores it. LL is actually being careful. A DMCA claim really needs a lawyer to write it correctly — and it’s not an automatic procedure. You need to be fully prepared to fight your claim in court — since the other party might file a counter-claim against you, and LL will promptly put the pirated content back in-world. So you can’t rely on LL to act as judge, jury, and enforcement agency. It’s simply out of their hands. Sure, many other companies have different standards (we have seen many issues popping up at YouTube, MySpace, and other online communities, where the companies remove the content first, and settle things on court later). Linden Lab simply does not work like that.

So, unless you’re prepared to sue in court — and due to the international nature of SL, where will that court be? — beyond education, raising awareness, ostracism (through publishing of “black lists” of known content pirates), what can you do?

The answer is “not much”. There is no RIAA with thousands of lawyers to assist the content creators. The irony here is that very often the same people that rip CDs off and march on rallies against the RIAA are the same ones that protest that their content was ripped off in Second Life. But that’s human nature: you worry first about what affects you, your friends, your family — and ignore what worries the others. I’m no supporter of the RIAA or similar organisations that protect content creators in RL — although I’m member of two of those organisations in my country — but I understand the reason why they exist. I condemn most of the RIAA’s attitudes every day (if not all), and I’m all for a model of music-as-a-service opposed to music-as-a-copyright-license-scheme, because it makes more sense for me (service cannot be pirated; music can) in this digital millenium. However, the truth is, if we had the equivalent of the RIAA in Second Life (and some content creators’ organisations are working towards that goal: getting enough lawyers to sue the content pirates on behalf of their members), content theft would be much lower. It would just take a few hundred successful cases brought to court, and the pirates would think twice if it’s all worth it…

At the very least, they’d go “underground”. Right now, the pirates set up shops like anybody else, and clueless residents will buy from them since their shops look “legitimate”. A very aggressive RIAA-for-SL-content would certainly make all these shops disappear and go underground.

But there are other ways.

The first, of course, would be to limit texture uploads to registered users. This, of course, would cripple the whole content industry — since 99% of all residents have basic accounts — but it would mean that only people having given LL their RL data (at least a credit card; but possible age validation too) would be allowed to upload textures. This would mean that you would know very quickly who is violating copyright laws.

But would it be effective? Perhaps a bit more than today — content pirates, fully aware of their illegal activities, are quite less prone to hand over identification to Linden Lab, since it makes them much easier to track down — but it wouldn’t be perfect. People would obviously pay registered users to innocently upload textures on their behalf and resell them with full mods. When the RIAA-for-SL-content hit them hard, it would be the innocents to be caught. Still, it would be a bit more effective than the current model.

What’s left? Interestingly enough, old legendary MMOG programmer Raph Koster proposed an Avatar Bill of Rights back in 2000. This is a very polemic document, but if you read it, it seems to be “in the right direction” — mostly because Koster implicitly assumes that at one point in time, all MMOG software developers will adhere to that Bill of Rights, and thus that all avatars will be equally protected under “virtual law” (mostly meaning that the software developers will do the enforcement on the violation of those rights).

The polemic around the document is that it considers that avatars are not “humans”, but they’re related to humans under the provisions stated under the articles in that bill. So in effect it means that you need “additional protection” if you’re entering a virtual, online community using an avatar. Personally, I’m part of the group that has questioned the document, quoting Koster himself, by claiming:

Others point out that it’s superfluous. After all, if virtual worlds are just extensions of the real world, then surely all the rights we already have apply?

Put into other words, either we have legal rights in the real world, and they certainly apply to any virtual platform where human beings are connected to; or we don’t have those rights (either because the country where we are do not adhere to a constitution that guarantees and protects unalienable human rights; or because some of those rights are unenforceable in a virtual environment) and creating an “Avatar Bill of Rights” won’t automatically grant us more rights than we can get.

The issue was thoroughly discussed in the past with differing conclusions. In my view, my unalienable human rights extend to all venues where human beings participate, and they cannot be superceded, changed, altered, modified, or adapted to the medium of participation — doing so can, effectively, be very dangerous. I understand Koster’s urge for communities to rule themselves — and you hear echos of that from people like Lawrence Lessig and, ultimately, Linden Lab itself. Rules for self-governance are, however, one thing. Communities should indeed abide by their own rules — an the ultimate principle of democracy — but human rights are universal. Thus, an “Avatar Bill of Rights” is not needed to grant people the rights that they already have, no matter if they use emails (which is a “nickname”under which messages are conveyed), a MySpace account, or an avatar on a 3D virtual world. The human rights do not change because there are new media; it’s just the rules of community participation that can, indeed, be adapted.

Koster doesn’t address content creation by users since in 2000 Linden Lab’s own virtual world was just a dream in Philip’s mind. In fact, Koster assumes that content is provided by the software developers of virtual worlds, and he only defines the notion of property regarding what avatars are entitled to regard as property. There are more loopholes in the document than holes in a Swiss cheese, but what Koster means is that avatars, somehow, are “granted” licenses to use content, and that these become property of the avatars, and software developers cannot willfully force avatars to part with content that has thus been licensed for their use. It’s complex, and very likely unenforceable — almost all MMOG software developers will not grant their content to anyone as “property”.

Second Life remains the exception. Although LL’s ToS is dubiously worded, most of the ownership rights on uploaded/created content remain on the person that uploaded it (not the avatar). Second Life, very differently from Koster’s utopian ideals of “avatar rights”, explicitly confers people a lot of rights.

Sadly, however, they don’t grant us residents all rights that we would like to have; and, more important than that, they don’t enforce them. Thus, the issue with Koster’s document is simply: “who will enforce the rules?” We ask that of Linden Lab too — who, as said, grants us a lot more rights — and the answer is the same: “real world courts”.

I believe that at this stage we have only one option left: raising awareness first (which is going on at an increased pace) and gathering content creators together in organisations that can provide them with legal advice with real lawyers. There are not many options left, and we can safely drop any dreams that Linden Lab will solve the issue, either technically (which is ultimately impossible) or socially (ie. manually removing content without a court order, but simply because they can — or restricting content upload/creation to “pre-approved” residents); or that new self-created “rules” or “bill of rights” will ever grant people more rights in virtual worlds that they already have on the real world.

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