Meshed Out!

Devaluation of content value and content theft

Meshes, however, introduce two new issues which, even though they also existed with prims, will be far more apparent with meshes on the main grid. They’re closely associated, and Linden Lab actually has been internally discussing (and sometimes asking for comments) the way they might be dealing with them.

Suppose that you’re starting a business in Second Life (or, as an educator, launching a new project) and have no modelling skills — just a solid business sense. You will soon realise that you need a 3D environment to launch your business, be it a shop, a real estate business, a venue to hold live music events, or, well, a training/simulation area for your educational project. The first step to assess is how to get the content for that 3D environment.

There are basically the following options here:

  1. Develop it on your own, if you have the necessary skills.
  2. Buy content from existing SL content creators.
  3. Hire content creators to create the content for you.
  4. Use freebies.

All four options are very often quoted as being advantages of using Second Life’s platform for your business or your project. Unlike what happens in most environments, you can use any of the options above, or, more likely, a mixed approach. So if you have some programming skills, you might just buy some assorted content, develop your own scripts to place inside them, and eventually hire a builder or two to create something unique for you, if hunting for freebies didn’t get you anything you like, and existing content was not modifiable. All combinations are obviously possible, and a lot of businesses or projects are launched only with freebies, for instance. Corporations (and some educational institutions) might require all content to be created specifically just for them, and thus go with option 3, since they have no time to acquire the required set of skills, and existing content might either not be licensed for the use they will give to it, or simply not fit the requirements. Freebies are a mixed blessing: “full-perm objects” still carry a license and they’re not exactly the same as “public domain”, even though a few items exist which are explicitly labelled as such.

But with meshes, a new option arises, which, until now, was not possible. Most people, used to the billions of items available in Second Life, have no idea that many more exist, as meshes, outside Second Life. And, most important, they’re easily searchable. Quality varies, of course, and not all are currently importable into the preview version of the Mesh Viewer, but, in general, there is really a lot of 3D content out there. Most of it is free, but you can also get it cheaply from sites like Renderosity or DAZ3D — sites where hundreds of thousands of really good 3D modellers publish their work (this will also allow professional 3D modellers, who don’t have the patience to be fully immersed in the virtual world, to start selling their meshes to Second Life residents, even if they never have created an avatar for SL and don’t intend to do so). Some academic repositories also exist, and I’m aware of at least one European project to create high-quality, peer-reviewed, historically accurate 3D models of heritage sites. Universities, specially those which are already familiar with 3D environments, might already have developed their models and have them around for ages, and can now simply import them into SL.

What this means is that for many projects (or businesses), the need to either hire a professional SL developer, or to search for SL content (free or not), might become redundant. Just search the Web, look for the model you wish, and import it. No fuss, and no need to spend L$ to buy content or get expensive modellers to do the work for you. These days, 3D modelling is part of the curriculum of every graphical designer — and there are at least dozens of millions of those around the world. So, instead of being “limited” to existing SL specialists, you can simply get cheap/free content elsewhere and upload it to SL — fully textured, full perms, and ready to go.

Just imagine those wonderful recreations that sometimes appear on Showcase, and which have been painstakingly assembled from individual prims. Most of those recreate historical sites, which have been long since modelled in 3D, and are certainly available “somewhere” for easy upload. Also, 3D scanners are becoming more popular and cheaper — you can get one for US$3000, and, with that, forfeit the need of hiring a SL builder to develop complex items. In fact, for a very large scale project which involves a lot of tiny items for popular use, such a device would make the project insanely cheap — while right now you need expert modellers to glue prims together to give you the desired result, and thus make it more costly.

Most people don’t realise how widespread 3D content is these days, because, the truth is, most of it is not really put to good use! We just see “3D content” as something for specialists — architects, artists, MMOG designers, and, of course, Second Life residents. The truth is that a lot of people create all those fantastic models but have little actual use for them, unless they are MMOG programmers or simply artists loving to do 3D creations. But with Second Life as a possible market of digital goods worth US$0.6 billion annually, I’m not surprised if all those sites will soon have a tag saying “Second Life compatible COLLADA mesh included”. Even that NextEngine 3D scanner might have a “SL compatible” tag attached to it in a few months 🙂

The proliferation of 3D meshes outside SL, once imported into SL, will start to undervalue a lot of content. Clothes and avatar design (and accessories) require complex fitting to get a good, realistic look, so they won’t be affected. But houses, furniture, and all kinds of small accessories will be easily available. These days, for instance, vehicle design in SL requires a lot of expertise to get a realistically looking vehicle in just 31 prims (even though most will be sculpties), because of the limitations imposed by Linden Lab. But 3D meshes of every possible vehicle design have long since been a primary focus of 3D modellers, and it will be just a question of picking up one that “fits” into 31 prim-equivalents. Will that mean that house, furniture, and vehicle designers in SL will be out of business soon? I’m not sure. But that they will start feeling a lot of competition coming from amateurs who just upload finished, high-quality, free meshes… that’s for sure. This is unavoidable.

The reverse side of the coin is making content theft easier. Imagine that a very complex 3D mesh is being developed by, say, an university, to represent a whole castle or similar historical site, and that a student gets access to that mesh, uploads it to SL, and starts selling it like crazy; or that people start hacking their favourite games and export those meshes into SL. Of course you can use CopyBot to steal existing content (and meshes will just be another thing to steal), but the appeal of stealing meshes from popular games is far more exciting — and dangerous: is LL liable or not?

To prevent this from happening, an idea had been floating around for some months, which I originally heard from Pastrami (ex- Linden), long before he was kicked out of SL. Jack Linden seems to confirm that the suggestion is still being discussed but no conclusion has been reached yet. The idea is to limit mesh upload only to Premium accounts (or, at least, just to residents with payment information on file). This has a two-fold impact on limiting content theft: first of all, thieves can be easily identified by Linden Lab (when receiving DMCA claims) or even by law courts (in case a game company sues the content thief). Of course some will just steal credit card information and create alts like before — but this turns a simple lawsuit into a criminal charge, and will only be attempted by die-hard criminals, not by the casual content theft. The only disadvantage is that perfectly legitimate content creators who are unable to verify themselves with Linden Lab will be unable to upload meshes, but in my experience, the number of people who have absolutely no means of validating themselves and are simultaneously unable to use the LindeX are not professional content creators (who love to be paid for their work and will use the LindeX to get some real money for their work!). Again, there might be exceptions, and I’m sure there are thousands of exceptions — but Linden Lab should, once more, ignore the few edge cases and just deal with the majority of users; and those will definitely have some form of validation on file.

If this is what LL will ultimately implement, I foresee very happy content creators — not that copying meshes will be “impossible” (again, nothing can be prevented to be copied, once it’s stored on your personal computer), but enforcing copyright claims will be much simplified, both inside SL and, more importantly, outside it, which should act as a deterrent against the casual pirates.

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