Step UP! for Content Creation Theft Awareness

stepuplogocopyThe untiring Gwen Carillon, one of the best jewelry creators in Second Life, and the long-time president of the Content Creators Association, a SL organisation “to support, inform and assist creators in protection of original content and other content related issues”, has launched a new project: Step UP! for Content Creators, a new way to raise awareness for content creation theft in Second Life.

Gwen, perhaps unlike many others, is a firm believer in a positive approach to the whole issue, that is, to find solutions to problems and get people to spread the word about what can be done. Just infusing terror in people’s minds usually doesn’t lead to good results — it just raises their anger, frustration, and anxiety levels. I’m sure that Linden Lab is not totally unaware of the issue of content theft; they’re just a bit misguided perhaps, and probably not sure what steps to take beyond what they already have announced. Since 2006 that CopyBot and similar tools are forbidden and considered a ToS violation. DMCA claims on copyright violations are hard to file but have been an option since then (and Gwen’s CCA has always helped content creators to file their claims). Since this hardly prevented the widespread copy of unauthorised content, Linden Lab has released a roadmap for dealing with the issue of content piracy.

But so far this hasn’t proven to be too successful. Read more for the latest horror stories.

And, of course, a solution.

CopyBot: It’s not just for crackers any longer

Back in 2006, CopyBot was a crackers’ tool. It used a clumsy interface, command-line driven, with a mix of IMs to remotely control a bot which a resident would point to some content and get the bot to download it to disk with full perms. It required patience and some skill, and it took time to copy the content; often it required some assembly afterwards. Since the rewards were great, many pirates nevertheless used it. But its relatively limited usage came from the difficulty of operating it.

Some CopyBot users were also easy to spot. They would stay in the same place for a long time, and walk clumsily. They often were brand-new avatars in their newbie clothes. They would loom around shops but not buy anything. Often they walked in a sweeping pattern, copying all they could see, and never answer to chat, IM, or voice. And sometimes you could see the human operator’s avatar hovering nearby, remotely controlling the bot and directing it to the next thing to copy. People naturally claimed that Linden Lab should forbid all bots (which is impossible to do, of course, as there are no differences between a “resident” and a “bot” except in behaviour, and checking for behaviour is like applying a Turing test to see if something is human or not — it takes time and is not easy to do).

Enter Fall ’09. Content pirates now aggregate around illegally tweaked copies of the Second Life viewer, and a soon-to-be-released version of one of these viewers will feature an easy, user-friendly way to copy basically everything you see in your line of sight:

Shocked? You should be. This is a preview of a latest-generation content-copy tool; according to this thread on SL Universe’s forums, the real version should be released very soon, at one of the many locations where crackers and content pirates gather, like on this forum. As you can see, the pirates these days are so sure of themselves that they exchange pirating information freely and publicly; no longer gathering in underground sites with password-protected and double-security checks to let just a small group of elite crackers in. No, they’re in the open, and easily found with just a few keyword searches in Google. And their blogs with all download links are public, too. In fact, they boast about their abilities in creating better and better copying tools, like you can read on the comments on my own blog. People like Neil are proud of creating the Ultimate Piracy Viewer and aggressively compete with their pirate friends in developing better and easier-to-use pirate viewers.

So right now it’s impossible to know who’s a pirate and who is not. Your best friend might be one of them, happily chatting to you while stealing all your content in your own shop. You simply have no way to know, there are no tell-tale hints that someone might be using a pirate viewer. As Phaylen Fairchild says so well on her own article, while testing on of those pirate viewers, she suddenly realised that no technical expertise was required to copy vast amounts of content in seconds. In her own words, “I had seen the devil at work here and knowing the implications such a [sic] has on our creatives in Second life frightens me.

Well, naturally enough, the ease of copying content illegitimately has now raised the content creators’ terror another notch or so. But what can we reasonably expect to happen to technically prevent content theft from happening? Tateru Nino puts it very bluntly: nothing. This is simply a statement of the plain truth: there is no way to plug the analogue hole, even despite my own past, arrogant efforts at suggesting a solution (yes, it’s flawed, and since then I’ve retracted my suggestion).

You might compare SL with the Web. Back in 1995, anyone with a browser would go to a site and simply copy its design if they found it interesting enough. There was no way to prevent that from happening, either: if you can view a web page, you can save it to disk. Some clever people managed to disable the “save image to disk” feature of the popular browsers, either with Javascript or even Flash, but that is not really helpful: you can always take a snapshot of the Web page and do a cut & paste to your favourite image editing application. So Web designers were at the mercy of piracy, like content creators in SL.

There was a huge difference. Web designers are paid once for their work, and what happens afterwards to it, is not of their concern. Second Life content creators are pretty much like artists getting paid with royalties: in pure legal terms, when you pay some L$ to acquire goods in SL, you’re really not doing more than paying royalties to get a license to view copyrighted content (under an agreement for redistribution that is set by the permission system). I know that content creators don’t view it that way, but this is exactly what happens, and is absolutely the same issue that musicians have with people copying their CDs and directors/producers when DVDs are copied. Digital content in your hard disk can always be copied, and it gets easier and easier all the time. (The only difference in the case of SL is that there is no RIAA to coordinate the attribution of royalties to distributors, and these in turn pay a slice of the royalties to the authors themselves; in SL, each content creator is its own RIAA and completely cuts the middleman by selling licenses to content directly to the end-users).

So if nobody can prevent the copy of pirated music and video, like Tateru explains, how can we expect illegitimate 3D content copy to be prevented in Second Life?

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