How to get ripped off in OpenSim

A couple of weeks ago, two OpenSim content designers came to Hypergrid Business with a complaint: they were offered a chance to produce content for a new grid, in return for space on that grid. They did the work, then got locked out. What could they do?

Unfortunately, not much. There were no signed contracts, they didn’t know their partner’s real identity, and they weren’t willing to take the case public.

Since neither designer was willing to give their real names for the story, and the other party involved didn’t respond to our questions, I’m not going to give the name of the allegedly guilty party. (If one of the victims decides to go on the record, this will change.)

There’s a lesson here for other designers though, whether they work in OpenSim or Second Life or another virtual world.

The story so far

(Source: Powerhouse Museum Collection )

The owner of a startup grid — let’s call him or her “Dick” — allegedly asked a group of designers to create new regions for the grid. After the work was complete, the designers were — again, allegedly — kicked off the grid and their accounts shut down, but their work remained on the grid.

“I am one of the unlucky people to have lost a lot of hard work and dedication,” said one of the designers. Let’s call him or her “Tom.” Tom gave me their real name and contact information, on the condition that I don’t disclose it.  “I had only been building for six months while [two others] have been working for over a year. So I can only imagine how frustrated they are about this.”

One of the other designers who contacted me– let’s call him or her “Harry” — was one of those who put in more than a year of work. Harry also gave me their real name, but asked for anonymity.

“After we’d finished building multiple regions … [Dick] … refused to give us any way to access our own builds, and then told us we had to pay if we wanted our builds back,” said Harry. “We have all asked to get access to our own builds and inventories, which are full of a year’s worth of building and our creative work. We spent loads of time and effort and dedication… and we’re left empty-handed. ”

None of the builders had contracts in place, said Harry. Instead, there were informal understandings about future profit sharing and business partnerships.

“We never did get [Dick’s] real name,” Harry added.

In future, Harry said, the initial building will take place on a personal Diva Distro mini grid.

“I’d been wanting to give that a shot for ages… the reason I didn’t was because [Dick] had strongly advised against it and was pretty aggressive about pointing out how it is unstable, insecure, and too difficult for a novice user like me to manage,” Harry said. “Obviously, in hindsight, I can now see how that was probably another tactic to monopolize OARs [region backup files].”

Lessons to be learned

First, if you’re working on nothing more than a virtual handshake, look for these potential warning signs. Any of these should be enough to make you consider getting a written contract in place, or to do a low-risk, small, pilot project. More than one warning sign? Reconsider the project altogether.

No references. If nobody has a kind work to say about your prospective business partner then maybe, yes, everyone else is prejudiced and unfair. More likely, your potential partner has a history of bad business practices — or is totally new to the industry. Either way, time for some risk mitigation.

No real names. If you’re involved in a long-term business relationship with someone, you need their real name. Changing an avatar name is quick and easy. Changing your real name is difficult, time-consuming, and leaves a paper trail. If someone does you wrong, it’s easy for them to avoid responsibility if you can’t find them afterward. And, really, even if you do find their avatar, what are you going to do? IM them to death?  Other than ripping you off, people also stay anonymous to avoid taxes, or to moonlight from their jobs — and if they’re cheating the government or their current employers, it’s also possible that they’ll cheat you. Finally there are people — like Tom and Harry — who are embarrassed about the work they do in virtual worlds, and don’t want their friends to find out.

No legal standing. This is related to the “real names” issue. In the United States, if you get paid for work that you do, you’re automatically a business owner — a single proprietor — and your business name is the same as your personal name. At the end of the year, you need to file a 1040 Schedule C.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with having a recognizable brand name that is also your avatar name, and be known under that name in a virtual world. But unless you’ve legally changed your name — or incorporated — then the avatar has no more legal standing than an anonymous Hotmail address. Incorporating or changing your real name may be too expensive — or extreme — but you can also file a DBA form for a few bucks with your local town clerk and get real legal standing for your avatar name in a few minutes. In the United States, this is quick and cheap — there’s no excuse not to do it. Laws in other countries vary, but many places with higher hurdles to opening a business  have agencies for freelancers to work through. It will result in higher overhead costs — and, thus, a higher price for the end customer — but you’ll be fully legal. It is much, much easier to have people respect their contracts with you if you’re not breaking the law yourself.

No backups. Unless you’re working on a work-for-hire contract, you should be keeping personal copies of all your work. If you’re working on entire regions, that means OAR files. If you’re working on individual objects, then you need XML exports or IAR exports or Second Inventory exports. Another option is to have copies of all items and builds on your personal grid, and in your personal inventory, separate from that of the client. If the deal goes sour, you want to be able to take your toys and go home. If your partner absolutely refuses to let you have copies of your own work, walk away.

No written agreements. People misunderstand each other all the time. If you can’t clearly write out what you expect to get, and what the partner expects to get, then there’s a good chance that you’re actually working on two different projects — and one or both of you will be extremely disappointed when that hits home. These agreements should be in permanent form. Yes, a fax or a printed, signed, and scanned agreement or a printed and mailed agreement can later be forged. But forging business documents is a crime punishable by fines and jail time. Your potential partner is much more likely to make promises they don’t intend to keep by instant message, in-world chat, or email from an anonymous account than by putting their real signature on paper.

The solution

Real names and real agreements are always a good start. Check out a sample contract here, or download the PDF file here:  Provider Agreement

For situations in which real names aren’t an option, Michael Doyle, executive director of the Virtual Edge Institute, recommends the use of an escrow service.

One such services is Escrow.com, which is recommended by eBay and Consumer Reports. Designed to work with Internet commerce, it should just as easily work with virtual world commerce, as the principle is the same. There’s a $25 minimum fee for their service, and a $1,000 transaction would cost around $32 to insure.

You can also used a trusted third party as an escrow agent. The third party gets the money up front, the provider does the work, and when the work is completed to the buyer’s satisfaction, the third party passes the payment on to the provider. If a large sum of money is involved, however, it is better to use a licensed, accredited escrow agency  — your “trusted third party” may turn out to be not so trustworthy when there’s a stack of cash in their greedy little hands.

Another option is to design an agreement in such a way that anyone can walk away at any time with minimal losses. For example, the service provider can accept partial payment up front and then the rest of the payment spaced out, after completion of each part of the project.

A vendor should also try to avoid unenforceable provisions. For example, if you’re selling an item for the customer to use on their private grid, there’s no way for you to know whether the customer has used their access privileges as grid owner to change the permissions on the object — or did so unintentionally when saving and reloading an OAR file. And if the amount involved is small, or the vendor doesn’t have the resources, it may not be worth the time and money to pursue legal action.

Instead, ask the client to pay a little extra for a site license or an all-rights license to the content.  Clients should also expect to pay extra for exclusive rights to content.

If you’re buying content or services, always ask for a work-for-hire, all-rights contract if at all possible, and you can afford it — you don’t want to have to worry, several years down the line, whether you have the permission to copy a particular chair or not. You only need exclusive rights, however, to items that will be part of your corporate brand image, or which are part of your competitive advantage. If you’re buying virtual chairs for your employees to sit on in their virtual desks, you probably don’t care that another company might buy the same chairs. If you’re buying a new logo, however, or flagship corporate headquarters building, or a setting for your new marketing effort, you probably want something that’s unique to your firm.

maria@hypergridbusiness.com'

Maria Korolov

Maria Korolov is editor and publisher of Hypergrid Business. She has been a journalist for more than twenty years and has worked for the Chicago Tribune, Reuters, and Computerworld and has reported from over a dozen countries, including Russia and China.

  • Ener Hax

    great advice Maria! i love the example grid operator being called Dick! very subtle! =p

    here is an easier way to get ripped off: PayPal $20 to [email protected] and i will provide you with a 200 region mega world free! i can do this because some rich technologist from zaire passed away and put me in charge of his $40 million trust fund (i have been checking the mail every day, it should be here soon)

    seriously, if you did this – derr on you! that may sound calloused but come on!!!

    maybe because i have been doing web freelance work for 10 years but use common sense!

    the sad thing is that if someone was clever enough to set up this scam, wouldn't have been easier just to build their own stuff?

    i admit i am naive, but i am no dummy (well, sometimes i am)

    scamming people is not new, but using virtual worlds to do so is new. what a shame and i feel badly for people that fell victim to this =(

    hopefully the stolen stuff will get reported if it makes it out into the grid (although, if it ends up in Second Life, forget LL doing much to help you)

  • Sharon Collins

    Some… and I stress SOME… Opensim users are ripping off creators. It saddens me and angers me. We here at Virtual Highway have been trying for along time to attract some of the best creators to our closed commercial grid. Their first question is, “Are you Hypergrid Enabled, because if you are I am not interested.” The second one is the famous “cart before the horse” situation, “How many active members do you have?” Unless people can come in and enjoy themselves with things like dancing as an example, they just log in and out and don’t spend alot of time in a grid. The builders are the exception, they spend hours working on their builds and projects.

    I have checked out several of the FREE OARS available out on the metaverse, and we do use some of what has been given there. However, now I am becoming leery of even doing that. Linda Kellie is the safest we know of for only giving out her own creations, but we have also run into some that pass out free copies of creations that we know for a fact have been stolen. It’s very difficult to kick that “rip off” reputation in Opensim when the top name creators see their creations being handed out for free across the “Free Metaverse”.

    This “everything should be free” attitude damages Opensim, in my opinion. Anyone who loves to build and give their creations away is not only free
    to do so, of course, but appreciated by many. My problem is with those
    who pass out OARS with other people’s creations and don’t seem to care
    if that creator would be upset or feel ripped off. IMO… if it is “FREE” someone still spent money or time creating it, and their rights and ownership have to be honored.

    Hypergrid sounds wonderful and hopefully will someday be completely safe from content theft possibilities. But, in our opinion, it is not there yet.

    • Hannah

      Did you report that content to the person who created it? It’s between them and whoever it is that is spreading the oar in question. It is up to the original content creator to file a DMCA and report the alleged infringement.

      If you’re not the original creator, it’s not your fight. Point it out to the author and go your own way.

      I see two problems here. One is that you’re spreading FUD that damages opensim far more by painting all oar makers as thieves. That’s offensive, and it would be better *for opensim* if you were more careful and more accurate in your allegations.

      Most oar makers use their own creations, or some -like me- take care to use established open source content sources such as opensim creations and lindakellie.com.

      I feel your depiction is insulting and irresponsible. You, madam, are spreading FUD and it’s not appreciated.

      The other problem I see is this: “enterprise users” expect free content but want to dump all of the responsibility off on the people they get the content from. My attitude is that if you are an enterprise user who is primarily concerned about liability, you should rule out using free content unless you’re willing to negotiate a contract with individual creators which gives them compensation in exchange for giving your organization written permission.

      • Most OAR makers do not use their own creations. “Most” use some of their own creations and then they add things they have found free and full perms around the open grids like OSGrid. They figure because it’s free and full perms that it’s OK to re-distribute. It is not.

        The ONLY way for someone to insure that everything they put on a sim is OK to re-distribute is to do as I do and make every single texture, sculptmap, prim, terrain themselves from start to finish.

        Many people use my creations on their OAR’s and they can always point back to my website licensing and say “this is where I got it and I have permission to use it” And they can be safe that way.

        But there is no way at all for a grid owner to know what is legit and what is not. Any closed-commercial grid that brings in an OAR for someone is insane. It is the job of the closed-commercial grid owner to make things as secure as possible and do everything in their power to not tarnish the name of their grid/business.

        Apparently this is a topic that just never changes. This article was written in aug. 2010 and we are still debating this.

        Han Held, I am so upset to see you post this:
        “I see two problems here. One is that you’re spreading FUD that damages
        opensim far more by painting all oar makers as thieves. That’s
        offensive, and it would be better *for opensim* if you were more careful
        and more accurate in your allegations.”

        I think it’s offensive for people to be upset that a closed-commercial grid wants to stay closed and protect their content creators.

        I can go to “almost” any region on an Open grid (meaning open to hypergrid) and find at least one thing that is stolen. But that doesn’t mean that the region owner stole it.

        So unless you can say that the OARs that you make are made with your own textures that you made with your own hands from scratch or you can point to the licensing for every texture that says you are allowed to re-distribute then you just don’t know. You can’t say for sure that you aren’t putting something on your OAR’s that are stolen unless you can account for “everything”.

        I have a wonderful friend that had OARs out. I found out that one one of them she had some plants that were some of the Heart Garden Center plants. She had no idea. She found them on OSGrid free to copy and full perms and assumed that since they were given away free and full perms all over the open metaverse that it was OK for her to give out with her OARs. When I told her about it she took her OARs down and intends on redoing them and excluding anything that she is not sure of. This person is a honest person and had no intention of distributing stolen merchandise.

        I just don’t get why people want to jump on anyone that wants to have things legal. That is not taking away your freedom. Nobody has the freedom to steal or use stolen items.

        • Joe Builder

          Again and again I find myself agreeing 100% with Linda on another comment. One really never knows, Maybe the creator from SL brought it to opensims at one time or another to be given away freely with no strings attached. But if ones lives in a state of paranoia Lock up the grid and do a full background check on who enters. Maybe I’m wrong on this, its Opensims where many share and share alike. Then again Like Sharon says some just don’t want there creations Hijacked.
          And that sadly is a common occurrence in many grids even SL

        • Hannah

          I’m not clear on what you’re upset about, to be honest.

          When I hand something out, I do make sure that I know where everything I got came from.

          If I put up an oar file on opensim creations, then everything on that oar file has come from either your site, or it’s something that I got open source and I can point back exactly to where i got it from.

          If closed grids want to stay closed, I have no problems with that -unless they’re using FUD to compete against open grids; but that’s not a “closed/open” issue -that’s an unfair competition issue.
          I, also, did not jump on her for wanting things legal.
          But content creators -no matter how conscientious, are not a substitute for her legal department.

          Again, as I said in my post; if they are that concerned about it, they need to be willing to draw up contracts and actually hire people for specific jobs.

          Anything else is half-assed and amateur.

          • What is FUD?

          • Guest

            Fear, uncertainty and doubt

          • David Cunningham

            Fear, uncertainty and doubt

          • I am upset because I didn’t see in any way that she was painting OAR creators as thieves. There isn’t a thing wrong with a grid owner doing everything within their power to insure that peoples creations be as safe as possible and that their grid doesn’t get filled with the massive amounts of copybotted stuff that open grids have.
            This battle is making me remember that this was a big reason why I started trying out closed grids for awhile. It was refreshing to get away from all of the stolen stuff that open grids are inundated with.
            I have seen things that people take to OpenSim with the permission of the original creators. Things like shoes and furniture made with full perm sculptie kits. And they give them away free because there is no use trying to sell on an open grid. And they do just as they are suppose to and they make it copy/no transfer or transfer/no copy. But then someone gets it and takes it to their own region and goes into God mode and makes it full perms and then puts it out for free or passes it to a friend and before you know it these sculptie items are out there for everyone full perms. And people don’t have to spend the 2500 lindens to get them. They can just use the ones that someone else spent the money on and brought into an opensim open grid. The item will end up out there all over the open metaverse in different colors and textures and at different freebie stores. And then it ends up back in SL and the person who created the kit is now screwed.

            Anyway, I am off track. …. Han, I know you are careful with your OARs. But most people who make OARs do it with stuff they find for free and in full perms around OSGrid or other open grids. And that means that everything on that OAR is questionable. And there is no way for a grid owner to check and to know for sure. So it’s better that closed grids just don’t allow that at all unless they want a grid full of stolen stuff and then they can get a bad name for themselves.

        • Samantha Atkins

          Frankly the permission system is a mess. There is no way to really make something that operates like some CC or open source licenses. Some revamping is needed. If I make something full perms I full it intend it to be used wherever and by whomever as long as they don’t claim it is there own creation or commercialize it as is. But the permission system lacks nuance to express this intent.

          For that matter the entire IP system is a real mess.

  • Joe Builder

    Very good article Maria, from my understanding ripping off people, creators whatever takes to ability to build it first. Remove the ability to build and set the group options on and bingo problem solved. I personally have no idea why they think removing hypergate makes them safe lol thats to funny. My grid is hypergate enabled and good luck trying to steal something ain’t going to happen building is off. darn seems i went off subject 🙁

  • Bo Iwu

    There is no actual difference in IP safety level between grids who allow to save OAR (or even allow strangers to control sims) and grids with enabled HG. Both allows easy export of creations to SL or anywhere else where the thief wants to sell it…

    Because of the internal sim/grid architecture there is only one safe way – either sims but also grids must be fully controlled by one trustful company.

    To summarize – once you upload your stuff to a grid which allows it’s export (via HG, OAR, IAR) you have to count with fact that it is technically full-perm for anyone who can get it it’s copy and perform that export…

    • Samantha Atkins

      Recent hypergrid versions do not make stealing so easy. Nor does save OAR need to mean save everything on the region, even stuff I didn’t create.
      Your are spreading FUD.

    • Or you can pick a filtered grid. More info here:

      http://www.hypergridbusiness.com/2015/03/what-are-the-best-grids/

      These grids check whether content is protected before saving it into an OAR file, IAR file, or allowing it to leave via the hypergrid.

      If someone tries to hypergrid out while, say, wearing a no-export dress, they’ll get a warning message to change outfits. If they try to access that dress while on another grid, they won’t be able to. And if someone tries to save that dress in an OAR file, there will be a blank spot in that OAR where that dress used to be.