Waiting for an OpenSim content marketplace

Update: There are now two marketplaces, Cariama and HGExchange, that deliver items to multiple OpenSim grids. Read more here: Where to get content for OpenSim.


As a business owner — and someone who is very concerned about inadvertently violating copyright, having recently done so to my great chagrin — I’ve been eagerly waiting for a  Web-based marketplace for OpenSim products.

A place I could go to pick up freebie commodities like simple plants and textures and office furniture, as well as buy higher-end items like clothing, hair, productivity tools and office buildings — even entire virtual campuses.

No such marketplace exists today. Instead, OpenSim users are forced to visit multiple shops — frequently owned by anonymous avatars — on multiple grids. Many grids work very hard to ensure that all content is completely original. Others allow distribution of content from multiple sources, trying to weed out anything that might infringe on others’ content, but see items slip through. And individual users bring over content from Second Life, some with and others without creator permissions, and share the content with friends and colleagues who many not know about the copyright status, or don’t know the right questions to ask.

It’s a nightmare for content creators — but also a nightmare for content buyers, as well, who don’t know where to turn to get legal virtual goods.

A marketplace that’s easy enough to use, reasonably priced, and offering a broad range of content could easily become the iTunes or the Amazon of virtual goods. The field is wide open. And both creators and customers would benefit.

Here is my advice to potential marketplace operators.

Make it DRM-free

I happily pay for music on Apple’s iTunes store — even though by hunting around online I can find the same music for free. The iTunes store is easy to use and convenient. One aspect of that convenience is that I can legally use my virtual content — the music — on multiple devices. I can listen to it on my computer, on my iPhone, or on another MP3 player.

By selling their content without digital rights management features that lock down the music to just one device, Apple makes its songs as convenient to use as illegally downloaded ones — but easier to find, and without any legal liability involved.

If I was a musician, I would want my music available on iTunes — even though people could easily copy it after they buy it.

Instead of DRM, include the creator’s name and Website in the description field, or in a notecard attached to the object, so that the buyer will have that information even if the creator name ever gets lost.

Make it multi-format

For some types of content, an OAR file — a region archive — is the best delivery vehicle. For example, I might want to buy a virtual corporate campus, or a pre-designed virtual park for my employees to stroll in — or hold outdoor meetings in. An OAR file is also a good way to deliver a complete “company store” where my employees can stop by and choose a business outfit, or pick up presentation tools. Such a virtual “company store” could be useful for many companies, schools, or non-profits setting up private grids and needing clothing and accessories for their internal users.

Alternatively, a default selection of avatar outfits could also be delivered via an IAR file — an inventory archive. New users could be automatically provided with inventories already stocked with a basic selection of outfits appropriate to the grid.

Imprudence users shopping for one item at a time might prefer to get their content in an XML format, so that they can upload it to their grid.

And residents of public grids, such as OSGrid, or commercial grids like InWorldz and Avination, might prefer to have in-world delivery directly to their avatars. This last option would require agreements between the marketplace and each individual grid. If the marketplace sees a lot of growth and use, grids may be more willing to create these kinds of linkages to meet user demand — or may decide not to participate in order to protect their own, grid-only marketplaces and maintain exclusivity of their content.

Make payment simple

I would love to be able to pay for virtual goods with virtual currencies such as the Linden Dollar, the OMC, or grid-based currencies. This may or may not be possible, but in either case, PayPal would be a great alternative. PayPal has a “micropayment” option for lower fees for small purchases. Or the marketplace could aggregate multiple purchases and charge them to your account all at once, the way that iTunes does.

Another advantage of PayPal payments is that you can use a corporate PayPal account — or a corporate credit card account — to make the payments.

Meanwhile, if I’m paying with real money, I’m also willing to spend more. Spending 1,000 virtual units feels like an awful lot of money. But spending $4.95 seems very reasonable — I routinely pay that much for magazines at the supermarket checkout counter.

Provide licensing options

Today, the choice of licenses is typically limited to a grid-only single-user license. Enterprises hiring designers to work on projects can also request work-for-hire or all-rights agreements from content creators, but this usually isn’t an option in marketplaces and shops.

Offering additional license choices — with additional fees — could provide additional revenues for designers, while making life easier for customers.

For example, if I’m buying hair for my avatar, I would want a license that allows me to wear that hair on any grid, and I’d be willing to pay extra for that.

If I’m buying business outfits for my staff, I would want a license that allows anyone to wear those outfits — but only as long as they’re on my company grid. I would be willing to pay extra for that, as well.

Make it DMCA-friendly

A centralized marketplace will make it easy to creators to do a search and see if their content is being illegally distributed. Having an easy-to-follow, responsive takedown process in place will make the platform even more appealing. Simply provide a URL showing your own listing of the item at an earlier date — or a link to your blog post showcasing the item or other proof of ownership. The infringing content should be immediately taken down, and repeat offenders banned from the system.

To enforce the bans, merchants should provide real-world payment information when they sign up, such as a verified PayPal account. (PayPal lets you check whether a user is verified with this link: https:[email protected] — just replace the email address with the one you’re checking.)

I would much prefer to buy content from a marketplace where the I’m sure of the legality of the content.

One thing that would also help is a good search system, that would let creators search for items similar to their own — similar photos, similar descriptions, or a similar fingerprint. After all, every unique content file has its own signature.

Update: Five free sources for OARs and IARs

An OAR is a complete region archive, a backup file which includes the region terrain and all the objects, textures and scripts that are located on that region. An IAR is a complete inventory archive, a backup which includes all the objects, shapes, textures, scripts and other content in an avatar inventory.

Free OAR files:

Free IAR files:

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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

    hmm, i dunno – my initial reaction is "why?". i understand all your points but also think in terms of individual stores in the real world. well, maybe that example sticks since KMart carries a zillion brands and real malls exist. ahh, a better example – the interwebz!

    while there is amazon.com and other big sites, i prefer going to the source – at least to learn about the product and i feel the same with anything i would sell for OpenSim. i'd rather take 100% the responsibility to market and sell my own stuff and to make a big enough noise on the interwebz for people to find me, not hope they bump into me on a megasite

    of course, if i really made stuff that was the best ever, people would find me anywhere =)

    nice post and happy to see PayPal mentioned (still want to see more "real" pricing for virtual goods and not these 40 hour building builds selling for 50 cents) =)

  • There are already plenty of stores in-world — InWorldz, in particular, is shopping-friendly, as is Avination, and GermanGrid has stores for hypergrid travelers.

    And I do like walking around a store sometimes, especially when shopping is a social activity (with friends, kids, whatever). But for many other situations, online shopping can't be beat and Amazon is typically my first stopping off point to check prices, read reviews, and get recommendations.

    If I'm buying a virtual house I might want to walk around it first. Hair — I definitely want to try on first. I've tried to buy hair online on the SL Marketplace and it was a disaster. But I'd be willing to buy a virtual garden online, or a selection of starting clothes for avatars, or an office furniture collection.

    For virtual houses and hair I would LOVE to have a link directly to an in-world store where I can walk around a house, or try on the hair. With OpenSim land being so cheap, there's no reason why virtual architects and landscape designers can't have demonstration regions up for potential customers to walk around in and check things out.

    But for commodity goods, an online marketplace is great. It's also good if, say, a friend has something nice and you want it. Instead of him making an illegal copy of it for you because he can't remember what store he got it from — or the store has since moved, and he doesn't know where — he can point you to the marketplace listing, and you can just buy it right then and there.

    — Maria

  • Not that I'm saying you have friends that would do that. But I've had to turn down my share of offers of content from folks who actually told me up front that it was ripped.

  • Saffia Widdershins

    I do think that the system you are suggesting is the way to go. And Maxwell Graf was advocating it well over two years ago. I think something was attempted with Reaction Grid a while ago, too – I'm not sure what happened there.

    Max's idea was that one could choose which grid one wanted good delivered to or – for a slightly higher premium, have them delivered to several regions (the higher premium would be a reward for the creator for having put in the extra work/time of setting up this up).

    It would be like stores that offer choices of permissions on items. You get a cheap deal no copy/no trans, and pay more if you want either trans or copy permissions.

    I would beware of making the system too complex. Offering OAR files, IAR files or XML files could be challenging for the average virtual world user, who just wants good delivered in a ready-to-wear (or live-in) format. That's not to say that an advanced alternative couldn't be offered. But a basic marketplace with further options might be the easiest way to begin – and less confusing for users.

    I also think your point about including the creator’s name and Website in the description field, or in a notecard attached to the object is a little optimistic. That might work where the creator name is inadvertently lost. but where the loss of the creator's name has been deliberately exploited, it is unlikely that the new 'creator' will keep the description or an attached notecard.

    A final point …

    Quote: With OpenSim land being so cheap, there’s no reason why virtual architects and landscape designers can’t have demonstration regions up for potential customers to walk around in and check things out.

    I would say that fear of copybotting prevents a large number of content creators having demonstration regions on some of the Open Sim grids. People like the landscapes and plant designers who have seen their content ripped and spread across numerous grids – I don't think that they would leap at the idea of opening a demonstration garden centre in one of them.

  • Good advice, Maria. I think there’s a big opportunity for content creators right now.

    I think it’s also important to note that there’s huge market for mesh-based 3d content on the web. Many content creators sell their work on various websites like http://turbosquid. And almost none of it has any kind of DRM. The business model works.

  • vrdeity

    Often the most expensive aspect of operating these systems is the content creation. Those of us who were early adopters of SL for enterprise realized quickly that the content protections in place made grid to grid transport not feasible (for purchased content).

    I have had experience with buying whole sims and moving them to a SLE and it was a miserable iterative experience that took months to complete. In the end, it took so long to move that by the time we got it set up it was no longer needed for its original purpose.

    Currently the most efficient way we move massive amounts of content is through OAR files to open sim. The caveats are obvious. I think paying content creators for their time is only fair and having a license scheme that pays them on a "work for hire" basis might be how we do things in the future.

  • I’m not waiting any longer. Since I posted this article, a couple of designers have set up Web-based shops for OpenSim content, using a variety of formats and delivery systems, most without DRM.

    http://www.hypergridbusiness.com/2011/04/designers-offer-opensim-goods-on-websites/

    I’m planning to go and buy some hair! Life is good.