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?

Stop distribution, not copy

After a clever chat with Hiro Pendragon, he sort of lead me to understand that the major problem with content piracy is not the copy in itself — but its distribution. I will leave the details to IP lawyers, but it used to be acceptable to make a “backup” of the licensed content that you had acquired — say, some software you bought that you were afraid to lose if you broke the CD by mistake. Similarly, if you buy a music CD and copy it to your own iPod, it’s not a serious crime — after all, you have paid for a license of the CD and just wish to listen to music on a different medium. Even if you did a copy of the CD to have the original on your stereo at home and the copy on your car’s CD player, this would not be very serious. In general, making copies for your personal use is relatively legitimate and ethically acceptable, even though I’ve seen lawyers claim otherwise.

Things start to get more serious if you borrow a music CD from a friend and copy it to your iPod. That is already a violation — since from the perspective of the CD’s authors, they have licensed it for personal use only, and now two persons are listening to the same music, but only one paid for it. Still, it’s not a tragedy if just a handful of copies are spread this way — after all, we might not share our musical taste with all our friends. “A few copies”, while technically still a crime and a copyright violation, are not worth to bother with.

No, the serious problem starts when someone copies a CD and puts it on the Web for easy download, by hundreds, thousands, or even millions of other anonymous users. And it gets even worse if they start charging for it (as I’ve seen a few “easy fast download” sites doing: they accept anyone’s pirated content, and charge a special fee if you wish the download to happen “faster”). Not only are the legitimate authors deprived of the sales that are lost when the copies are made, but the pirates are profiting from those lost sales. Putting it bluntly, instead of feeding the musicians for their work, money is funneled towards the pirates. That, obviously, becomes more serious.

Real life is far more complicated than that, because you don’t have a direct author <-> end-user relationship, but a lot of intermediaries that take a share of the profits, and ultimately piracy hurts the intermediaries far more than the authors… no, I’m not a RIAA fangirl 🙂

But in SL we have this “simplified” model, since there are no intermediaries. Someone stealing content that costs L$100 and offering it for L$1 on their own shops are hurting the content creators twice over: first, by depriving them of sales (residents see the items for sale at L$1 and don’t think twice about where to spend their money); and secondly, because pirates get rich instead of the content creators (even though not all products are so elastic as to claim that the pirates will make much more out of pirated content because they will sell a lot more, they will nevertheless make some money out of it, and have absolutely no investment in time in designing original products).

So if we focus on the distribution instead of the act of copying, maybe we can work out some solutions that would, at least, eliminate the direct loss of sales by unfair (and unethical) competition by pirates.

Most pirates use anonymous alts, discarded at will, so they never get caught; so, a simplistic approach would be simply to get rid of unvalidated avatars. As soon as Linden Lab has some real life data on someone, the content creator has a name and address to file a RL lawsuit against them. At the very least they have a name that they can ask Linden Lab to ban — unlike what happens today, where creating free basic avatars with fake email addresses and even more fake names can be done by the dozen very easily. Although LL limits the amount of US$ you can take out of SL through the LindeX, this is also easily dealt with by pirates — they just send the L$ to validated avatars instead. Since the largest rings operate in a very coordinated way (truly organised crime!), they can set up hierarchies of avatars, all trickling L$ down to a number of validated avatars, and get their US$ that way. It’s hard to set up, but it’s even harder for LL to figure out where the money is coming from (as you know, LL watches closely when an avatar “suddenly” receives a huge amount of money, because it’s a hint for some illegal activity; but doing it in a measured way, with a very large hierarchy of transactions, will make this hard to pinpoint). And if it’s done properly, the owners of the validated avatars can simply reply that they have their legitimate businesses in SL (some do!), or host events and have tip jars (with so many of those around in SL, you just need to marshal your pirate alts in front of a tip jar and let all money flow from there), or something clever like that — enough to make solid claims that there is nothing to tie them with the pirate alts.

On the other hands, the piracy rings also have a reasonably well-known modus operandi. They create a batch of alts, set up a store somewhere in the grid, pay their rent, and sell as much as they can until someone reports the stolen content and bans their alts. Then they start afresh with a new shop somewhere else, and so on. Spreading shops for pirated content all over the grid makes it less likely for LL to catch all stolen content, and by rotating them quickly enough among alts, allows them to make a few sales here and there before they get caught. They’re very clever. A group was famed for even profusely apologising to the content creators and telling them that “they had no idea that the content was stolen”. Often they were convincing enough to make the content creators hesitate about reporting them; and before they could check on them again, they’d cancel their alts and start elsewhere — after safely transferring all L$ elsewhere. Gwen Carillon has painstakingly shown me this model in action (she’s always on the hunt for them and broke a few rings with LL’s help), and what shocked me most was the incredible organisation behind those rings. The only reason why they aren’t more widespread is that content pirates are often too anarchic and egoistic to be so organised. But some are true Mafia barons.

Now, banning all unvalidated avatars is not a solution. After all, there is a huge incentive to make the registration process as swift and painless as possible. Universities giving classes in SL need to register hundreds of avatars at any given point in time, and most students haven’t got their registration data ready when the class starts. Businesses using SL for conferences or meetings cannot be bothered to demand that all the participants register their avatars before coming to the event. And a lot of the best content creators in SL are immersionists and have no intention to validate themselves. On top of that, there is a huge crowd that hasn’t access to validation data even if they wished to validate. And, of course, this would have a seriously negative impact on the daily number of new users (about 10-12,000 register every day); if people see too many barriers to registration for SL, they’ll just fall back to any of the other worlds or social networking tools where there are no registration barriers.

However, something can still be done. As said, the two major problems here are dealing with L$ transfers from pirates, as well as allowing them to sell (stolen) content.

So here is a simple suggestion. Prevent unvalidated avatars to put content for sale; prevent them to transfer content at all. In effect, even if their inventory says otherwise, make their content immediately no transfer (either when inside their inventory, or when rezzed in-world). They would not be able to deed objects to group. This, of course, will also have to be implemented at the LSL level, e.g. llGiveInventory() and similar functions would have to check first if the owner is unvalidated before transferring content out of an object’s inventory, and silently fail otherwise. Also, when giving L$ to an unvalidated avatar, pop up one of those nice yellow boxes saying: “You’re paying an unvalidated avatar; are you sure?” which should make people think twice before giving them any money.

Now let’s analyse the implications of this model. Pirates would still be able to copy content — but they would have no way to sell it. They might accept money from other avatars (like everybody else), but everybody would get a huge warning before that happens. So pirates would have no choice but to validate themselves — which they are not eager to do, since that would make them liable iRL, easier to track, and easier to permaban. They could also in theory try to trick innocent (validated) victims to somehow copy content for them — claiming, for instance, that they have lost all perms on an object and gently asking the victim to copy it for them and put it for sale on their behalf. But as soon as the “victim” gets the warning that they’re sending money to an unvalidated avatar, they might finally realise that they have been victims of a con, and report them to LL.

So while this would not prevent people from copying content (because that’s technically impossible), it would prevent them from making money out of it (or even distribute it for free). Notice that as a nice side-effect this will also prevent them to offer pirated content for sale on XstreetSL, prevent them to take advantage of permission problems to get access to content without the use of any content copying tool, or distribute sim-crashing objects or any other similar griefing tools (they could still use anything they’ve created, of course, but they wouldn’t be able to give it to friends, although, of course, they would continue to be able to publish the LSL code on the many cracker forums out there). It would also limit the use of alts for illegitimate purposes (i.e. against the ToS) involving money transactions and scams (e.g. transparent prims in front of vendors that get your L$ or pyramid schemes), not only content piracy.

On the other hand, the legitimate use of unvalidated avatars would not be severely affected. Unvalidated avatars would still continue to be able to create content — just for their own use, of course. If they found a way to get some L$ — say, by performing at a club and earning some L$ through tips — they would be able to rent parcels, buy prefabs and furniture, buy clothes (or be given freebies), and so on. Not to mention, of course, that they would be able to attend any events (thus, both students and corporate types would have no problem with their unvalidated avatars). They would be able to enjoy SL like any other user — so long as they are using it for legitimate purposes. As soon as they find a market niche where they are actually making some serious money, and wish to convert it to US$ via the LindeX, well… then they automatically become validated avatars by giving their PayPal/credit card data to Linden Lab to be able to use the LindeX. But if you have no intention to ever use the LindeX, you might remain an unvalidated avatar forever and nevertheless enjoy SL.

So, is this the ultimate solution? Hardly so. Remember, it doesn’t prevent content copy. People with unvalidated avatars might simply continue to copy content — just not distribute it, and not profit from the content theft. And people with validated avatars might risk to do the same — but, of course, in their case they would be prone to real life lawsuits. The deterrent here is to raise the stakes — pirates would have to get hold of stolen credit cards to validate their alts, and, of course, that is quite a serious crime which doesn’t get unnoticed for long by the police, even if Linden Lab doesn’t act quickly enough (in fact, they do, since dealing with credit card fraud is something they have to face regularly).

Overall, the implementation of this method might not be a panacea, but at least it will make profiting from content theft way harder, much more riskier, and thus less “profitable” because of that. So the majority of small-scale pirates would possibly disappear, or simply steal content just for their own benefit. They wouldn’t be content consumers anyway, so it’s not as if it’s a “lost sale”.

But it’s a far better scenario than a grid full of malls with pirated content.

In the mean time, sign up for Step UP! and help content creators raise awareness that this issue has to be dealt with, technically or socially, but it can’t go on like this for longer. Content theft tools will only get better and easier to use otherwise. And we need to propose solutions, not only yell at Linden Lab to “make pirates go away” or demand from them technical impossibilities. No, we need working solutions, and we need them now.


Thanks to Hiro for the many interesting conversations over this fascinating subject and the clever ideas which lead to this proposed solution.

The above ideas are not endorsed by Linden Lab or Step UP! or anyone else, but just my personal tiny effort to help raise awareness that we really need to think about solutions. And by “we” I mean both us residents and Linden Lab, of course.

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