Property is theft, or is it the other way round?

qxptplnxqtrhme965galSome of the most vociferous debates that rage around sl are those in relation to IP rights and content theft. There are certainly those who frequent sl who hold no scruples about shamelessly copying, stealing and even profiteering from the work of others, along with those who’ll happily import stolen digital content ripped from other games without any qualms whatsoever – this is clearly wrong however anyone may choose to justify it. What is less easy to define, is how such infringements of copyright, TOS and law should be dealt with.

Who polices the digital content world? Many would suggest that it is the Average Joe – me and you – who should be ensuring that we never sully our reputations by having anything to do with dodgy digital goods and, moreover, should be taking an active stance when we see others doing so. Others will say it’s content creators and rights owners who are responsible for ensuring the integrity of their work – although the power to do so can be abused and misused – we’re seeing questionable and damaging DMCA takedowns take place in sl, and the process itself can be fraught with obstacles that sl content creators may feel are insurmountable. The stance taken by Linden Lab is simple: it is the copyright owner who bears the responsibility for rights enforcement, and it’s unlikely the Lab will intervene unless required to do so by the law – even, as we’ve recently seen, when one of their own high-profile staffers has fallen foul of the rules.

Simon Linden_001Let’s face it, even if we could pin responsibility down to specifics. it’s still no easy matter to find any clarity: if you buy any item inworld or from the Marketplace, how often do you – indeed, can you – verify it’s not copied or stolen? How can we possibly know whether any particular item that bears a passing resemblance to to an established brand is a legitimate, licensed product or a derivative work that may or may not be permissible. Throw in differences in international law and jurisdictions, as well as the different ways in which the law can be interpreted. and the whole topic remains a complete minefield.

The real difficulty lies both in the structure and the nature of sl itself – if sl didn’t permit user-created or imported content and only permitted access via a single, official viewer, the problem would never arise, although the virtual world would be a very empty, and boring place, indeed! A less draconian, and perhaps a far more sensible middle ground, would be to have ‘licensed’ content creators, subject to stringent controls and protocols, who could be trusted as suitably law-abiding citizens, albeit with the threat of losing that privilege, should they ever cross the line. That might be a possible solution but there’s no doubt that it would stifle originality and result in a mass exodus of users to other virtual worlds where ordinary residents still had the luxury of building whatever they wanted. So, in practical terms, what we already have is possibly the best solution anyway.

'The Vitruvian Avatar' - The Gallery, Nowhere Land

‘The Vitruvian Avatar’ – The Gallery, Nowhere Land

Those practicalities aside, sl and creativity being what they are, rely intrinsically on a modified concept of ‘theft’ anyway. Take a look at Simon Wardley’s post here (it’s figure 4 we’re interested in), where innovators (‘pioneers’) are constantly stealing from the ‘settlers’ and ‘town planners’ as source of inspiration, utility and materials to drive new products. At the most basic level, sl content creators basically do the same thing – we ‘steal’ ideas, inspiration and fashions from the real world, and from the virtual environment around us and build our own creations around them. Very little in sl is truly original content – pretty much every tree, item of clothing, vehicle and building owes something to a real world prototype, or has been inspired or derived from something else we’ve seen inworld. Real content creators tend not to copy anyway – they’re too individualistic to do that, but they will take a concept, adapt it, modify it, improve it and give it their own unique twist… simply copying is just not their style, but the bottom line is that there really is very little that is new under the sun.

It’s a subject that will continue to vex, challenge and torment us for a long time to come, and one which will keep fat cat lawyers in expensive designer suits for as long as they care to sponge off it. Perhaps the best we can do is challenge those instances where wrongs are clearly being committed, but also to realise that sometimes we have to accept that much of our virtual world is a derivative work, built up from concepts, ideas and inspiration drawn from all walks of life, both real and virtual, and that is the nature of the beast – we can’t tame it, and maybe we shouldn’t try?

s. x

Look what they’ve done to my song, Ma
Look what they’ve done to my song
Well, it’s the only thing I could do half right
And it’s turning out all wrong, Ma
Look what they’ve done to my song
Melanie Safka – Look What They’ve Done To My Song Ma

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