SpotON3D’s five PR mistakes

SpotON3D is a small commercial grid, with more money and programmers than customers.

It has developed three innovative pieces of technology, two of which nobody cares anything about, and one, a browser-based viewer plugin, that got people all excited. Including me. It’s a great little piece of functionality, and an elegant solution to a problem people have long had with Second Life and OpenSim.

SpotON3D's welcome and orientation area as seen from their browser-based viewer. (Click image to see larger view.)

It lets people log into an OpenSim grid without leaving the browser.

That’s it. It doesn’t instantly make OpenSim perfect, and something better is likely to come along in a year or less, but, right now, its the first usable tool of its kind. It even works inside Facebook pages and lets folks log in with their Facebook accounts, if they’d like.

Finally, after years of plugging away in obscurity, SpotON3D had something that people actually wanted.

But, instead of parades in their honor, they got called names, threatened with boycotts and picketed by protesters holding nasty signs — like “meh” and “Cake!”

And no, it wasn’t because people were jealous of their success. In fact, the strongest criticisms came from owners of grids that were much larger than SpotON3D. Really, there’s been no success so far to be jealous of.

And it wasn’t just the fact that SpotON3D filed a patent on OpenSim-related technology. Other companies in the OpenSim space had filed patents before — ReactionGrid for a process for deploying and managing OpenSim and  IBM for virtual world design methodologies — and open source advocates were outraged.

There were no calls to boycott ReactionGrid or IBM, however.

Part of the reason? Bad, bad, bad public relations moves on the part of SpotON3D. (Okay, maybe there were other reasons, too. But bad PR certainly didn’t help.)

The sad thing is, they seemed to be really trying. They commented on blogs that discussed the patent issue. They held two public forums — one on their own grid, and one in Second Life — and top executives showed up and answered questions at each event. But it just made things worse.

Protesters picket the SpotON3D patent discussion on Friday.

Here are five big PR rules that they broke:

1. Know your audience

SpotON3D may plan to attract the general public to their grid with their new plugin but let’s be realistic — folks will still have to use that damn Second Life-derived viewer. The plugin just wraps it up and sticks it in a webpage — it doesn’t change the actual interface.

As a result, their early customers will probably be people already in OpenSim who will now be able to bring in their friends and relatives a little easier.

But OpenSim users are a special bunch. The early adopters in particular are big supporters of open source software and open standards. Most have a live-and-let-live attitude towards proprietary, closed software — what other people do on their own computers is their own business. But when vendors seem to threaten the values they hold sacred, they get upset.

IBM and ReactionGrid had, to some extent, inoculated themselves by demonstrating that they shared the values of the OpenSim community. They donated code. In IBM’s case, a great deal of code. They both embraced the hypergrid, a technology that allows avatars to travel from grid to grid. Most recently, ReactionGrid has donated a full set of starter avatars in the form of a Community Commons-licensed OAR file. That was a nice gesture, and much appreciated by folks starting up their own mini-grids.

Now there’s nothing wrong with keeping a grid closed and off the hypergrid. Several successful commercial grids, like InWorldz and Avination, do just that.

But by not making any effort to demonstrate that they share the values of the broader OpenSim community — and threatening to sue companies that infringe on their patent, if it is granted — SpotON3D set themselves up in direct opposition to that community.

2. Be willing to compromise

After ReactionGrid’s patent application drew concern from the community, ReactionGrid listened to those concerns — and said they would actually amend their patent submission so that it would be limited to not just a particular business process, but the particular business process specifically using ReactionGrid’s software. And they provided details about just what that was.

“This patent will not limit anyone in the virtual world community from doing anything whatsoever that isn’t related specifically to our unique R.O.A.R. software and how we use it to build our business,” said ReactionGrid CEO Kyle Gomboy in a comment on the company blog.

In other words, ReactionGrid won’t be going after OpenSim groups and companies that independently develop similar technology.

Critics commented that ReactionGrid responded “sensibly and fairly.”

Compare that with SpotON3D’s response:

“I’m not going to let the community stomp all over us,”  said SpotON3D cofounder and CEO Stevan Lieberman, who is also an intellectual property attorney with Greenberg & Lieberman, in a SpotON3D-sponsored discussion forum Friday. “If they  try to use technology that we have obtained patents on, then we’ll make a decision on what happens.”

Lieberman also refused to provide any details about the specifics of the patent.

“It would be to the disadvantage of SpotON3D to release that… for some reasons I’d rather not say,” he said.

3. Be willing to admit mistakes

This was Gomboy’s response to a question about the details of the ReactionGrid patent application:

“Insofar as publishing a post about a patent without the details —  I agree, big mistake on my part,” he wrote. “Lesson learned. I did not think that aspect through because in my head the patent wasn’t going to affect others. I know better now.”

Very classy.

Meanwhile, here’s Lieberman’s response to critics:

“I haven’t appreciated being fired at to such a degree by a community I thought I was a part of,” he said. “The people who did that should be ashamed of themselves.”

Instead of admitting mistakes, the company has doubled down, instead. Its viewer plugin has been revamped so that it now can only be used to access the SpotON3D grid — the grid manager option has been removed from the login screen.

However, company co-founder and COO Tessa Kinney-Johnson denied that the multi-grid login option was removed, and said that the company has only shut down the Facebook access page, temporarily. The mistake is surprising, since she said at a previous forum that this “exploit” would be removed. But maybe she honestly didn’t know — it’s something that’s easy enough to check, so not really any point to lying about it.

4. Don’t play the victim card

During today’s event and SpotON3D’s previous attempt at talking to the community about the issue, Kinney-Johnson repeatedly tried to portray her company as a victim.

Despite the fact that SpotON3D is better funded than just about any other OpenSim startup out there, and with more paid staff than probably all of them put together — 12 paid programmers alone — Kinney-Johnson has repeatedly tried to convince the public that everybody else is allied against her. Unfairly, of course.

Like when she tried to tell an OpenSim developer about a security bug — and they tried to charge her $600 to fix it. Or someone accused her of whoring herself out to get business.

Yes, bad things happen to people. But these things aren’t relevant. Remember when BP CEO Tony Hayward complained that he’d like his life back — after his company spilled 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico? Oh, poor, poor Tony Hayward. How the media was hounding him! Well, he got his life back all right — he got fired — after a brief detour to Siberia. And not the metaphorical one. The actual Siberia.

“We are human beings,” said Kinney-Johnson. “We have emotions and motivations.”

That doesn’t fly.

On the one hand, SpotON3D’s patent — if broad enough, and granted soon enough — could significantly hurt other OpenSim companies and interfere with the development of OpenSim.  On the other hand, SpotON3D’s feelings are hurt because people are upset.

Really?

5. Use repetition to help your cause, not hurt it

Every politician and company executive knows you come to a public event with a list of talking points, and you repeat those talking points every chance you get.

It takes practice to stick to your script, especially when you get caught up in the emotion of the moment. That’s where public speaking lessons and media training can come in handy.

But sticking to your points can cause you harm if those points are what made everyone mad at you in the first place.

Say, for example, the community is upset because a company, oh, says its trying to patent something but won’t say exactly what it is.

Repeating, over and over again, in different forums, that SpotON3D isn’t going to provide more information doesn’t help — that’s what made people upset in the first place.

And it makes it harder for them to swallow the positive messages, like SpotON3D’s repeated claims that its actions will benefit the broader OpenSim community.

Some hints for getting out of this PR mess

It’s easy enough to criticize. But how about some constructive solutions?

Well, as it happens, I’ve got a few ideas…

  • Donate something. If OpenSim server license issues are currently a problem, donate to the viewer side. Or donate stand-alone modules. Or avatar starter packs, like ReactionGrid did. Or a collection of Creative Commons-licensed plants. Roses are always nice. SpotON3D’s business model is built on work donated by the open source community. It wouldn’t kill them to give a little back.
  • Or just donate money. OSGrid is a non-profit — they always need cash to run their servers and do all the testing they do on OpenSim code. Every bug they find and fix is another bug that won’t plague SpotON3D’s users. It’s a good deal.
  • Or land. Non-profits can always use some free space for meetings, classes, museums — all that feel-good stuff that they do. And their projects always bring in positive publicity, as well.
  • Or access to the viewer plugin. Folks running teeny-tiny little mini-grids on shoestring budgets aren’t SpotON3D’s target customers, anyway. Give them a free viewer plugin, so they can make it easier for their friends or colleagues to access their grids. When they grow bigger, they’ll start looking around for real hosting, and if SpotON3D was nice to them while they were small, they might decide that it’s a nice company to do business with when they’re bigger.
  • Or just rethink those patents. Make the focus of the patent narrow enough that it won’t affect other OpenSim-based companies. Or pledge to use patents only defensively, not offensively, and join other OpenSim-based companies in creating an organization that would protect the community against real patent trolls. Or just ditch the patents altogether — many companies are opting to keep their code secret, and just license it, instead.
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.

  • sorornishi

    Great post. Certainly a few points that SL could learn from too.

  • Hi Maria,

    a few points:

    1. Cake is not nasty.

    2. "Despite the fact that SpotON3D is better funded than just about any other SpotON3D startup out there…" probably means "Despite the fact that SpotON3D is better funded than just about any other OpenSim startup out there…"

    3. In all fairness, there was a little more information brought forward at friday's event, regarding the other SpotOn patents, and what the latest one covers. Not very profound information, but information nonetheless. Also, Lieberman stated he would not use the patent in an anti-competitive manner.

    • Vanish —

      Re: 1 — I did love the signs!

      2: Oops. I'll go fix that.

      3. He did say that, in fact he said it several ways:

      "I'm not here to sue anyone."
      "I don't get anything out of filing a lawsuit against anyone."
      "I have no intention of filing a suit against anybody."

      However, he kept turning around and undermining each of these statements by adding, in effect … unless I want to.

      "Software patents give people a monopoly over something."
      Would he pledge not to sue? "I can pledge anything I want — it's not binding."
      "I can't see the future."
      "If you don't want us to patent something because you want to use it for yourself, that's not the way the world works."

      And, my favorite,

      "We're not going to let the community stomp all over us. If they try to use technology that we have obtained patents on, then we'll make a decision on what happens…"

      4. Yes, he confirmed that SpotON3D has filed a patent for Double Dutch delivery, two others for using augmented reality in a 3D environment, but denied the other one — that they have a patent for using a single key account on multiple grids — despite the fact that they say so on their website. And he refused to provide any specifics about any of these.

  • Hi Maria,

    While I agree SpotOn3D could have done a MUCH better job at addressing the community's concerns I can tell you that I, for one, will not be persuaded to stop protesting their intentions to eventually shake down people in the community no matter what trinkets they hand out.

    This is about a company scheming to use a broken patent system to extort a share of the fruits of other people's work when they have no moral right to do so. They haven't contributed to the creation of other people's software and services (they outright refuse to even tell people what they claim to have invented) so they shouldn't be able to come back in a few years and demand people "pay up" for using "their idea".

    They have no moral right to shake down the community just because the broken patent system allows it. If they eventually try to force people to "pay up" then the backlash they got now as a corporate entity considering this path will pale in comparison to the (100% legal) social tsunami they will face as the individuals running such an abhorrent operation.

    • Ilan —

      If SpotON3D fixes its PR mistakes, and starts playing nice with the community, it will be harder and harder for you to get broad-based support for a mass anti-patent effort. Would you stay upset at Amazon's one-click if they gave you free shipping?

      Like Sarge points out below, IBM and ReactionGrid played nice. Embraced open source values. Gave back to the community. Show no intention of using their patents offensively. And, in fact, ReactionGrid specifically took steps to ensure it wouldn't, and to relieve people's worries.

      And folks stopped worrying about it.

      However, it doesn't look as if SpotON3D plans to reverse course anytime soon, so you might have time to get people organized, sign some mutual-aid treaties, form a NATO bloc, that kind of thing.

      • Hi Maria,

        If Amazon started threatening to sue small businesses or attempting to shake them down for licensing fees then yes, there would be a public outcry even if they offered free shipping.

        Regardless, it will take a bit of time to finalize but we're already working on an adequate response to ward of would be patent trolls. Stay tuned 🙂

        • Ilan — Amazon sued Barnes & Noble and a bunch of other companies. People were really upset. EFF organized a boycott.

          I'm not sure why you're defending them. The one-click patent is the poster child of a patent that should not have been granted, that demonstrates the problems of the current patent system, and that was a drag on the development of the Internet.

          Sure, by the time Amazon got the patent and could go out and start collecting license fees and suing people the WWW was big and resilient and could afford the hit.

          But it could have turned out differently — and the 3D web might grow slower than the WWW did.

          • Hi Maria,

            I'm in no way defending Amazon, quite the opposite, I think their suing over software patents is disgraceful.

            I don't quite see how you think I'm justifying them, I just responded about Amazon because you stated people wouldn't care about their patent if they just gave some trinket back to the community (free shipping in your example) and I stated that there would be a public outcry if they tried to shake down small businesses regardless.

            In other words, no amount of giving back can protect companies who start acting as patent trolls…

          • Ilan — Except that Amazon continues to enforce its patent – but the boycott has gone away. And Amazon gave out free shipping. Personally, I think the free shipping did it. 😛

            The public has a short attention span. If something has a negligible effect on them personally, they'll forget it as soon as something else comes along to distract them.

            Fortunately, SpotON3D has been actively keeping the public inflamed, and is giving all indications that it plans to continue doing just that. So there's time to get a campaign going against them.

            But that window of opportunity could close at any moment, if SpotON3D just turns around, gets smart about PR, and makes some symbolic concessions, even if they don't address the fundamental problem that its patents pose to the community.

          • Hi Maria,

            The response we're planning goes well beyond SpotOn3D, it will help protect the community from all would be patent trolls. This is about protecting people from future attacks not current plans so the people who are currently in arms aren't likely to lose interest because some shiny beads get thrown their way by a company that decides to play nice for the time being.

          • kripken

            I believe Amazon does *not* enforce that patent anymore. The FSF has lifted its boycott of Amazon several years ago, when Amazon stopped suing people over that patent.
            http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/amazon.html

  • sargemisfit

    From what I understand, both IBM and ReactionGrid have contributed back to OpenSim development. while SpotON3D hasn't. Nor have they declared that they will charge licensing fees, which SpotON3D did. I may be wrong about one or both of those points, but I've not read anything to contradict them.

  • Real Life is hectic for me right now so I missed SpotON3D meeting again. They really do kind of spring them on the community and some of us can't be online 24/7, sometimes for days at a time. Still, by what you have written here, Maria it appears I didn't miss much. Pretty much the same bad PR and no answers. Like politicians I guess but just what you expect from lawyers. Lieberman really doesn't seem to understand the Open Sim community which, for the most part, are refugees from Second Life trying to escape everything that SpotON3D represents to them.

    Tessa and Stevan just don't get it.

    In comments on my own blog Tessa made some statements about "NOT APPOLOGIZING" (in caps) repeatedly. To me that was shouting at the community and telling them where to go. I didn't really know that much about SpotON3D at the time and wanted to give them chance to explain themselves. They didn't do very well at that an, after a little research, I began to understand where they are coming from.

    I think now they have a Cat's chance in Hell of winning over anyone if they continue on their present course. Being a patent Troll is probably all they will have left to make any money out of. But it's never to late to try and turn this around. I think they need to spend some of their money on professional PR and be willing to take a similar route to Reactiongrid.

    Sadly, it's probably too late even for that if they aren't willing to explain those patents in detail, modify them or drop them.

    Gaga

  • Watch the video of the event at TGIB here: http://tgib.co.uk/2011/08/20/spoton3d-panel-discu

    Thanks, Vanish!

  • Personally, I've a mind to agree with Vanish, SpotON3D have gained enough publicity out of this and, as the saying goes "Even bad publicity is good publicity" So, when the dust settles it may not be the issue of the patent that the wider community remembers but they will remember there is some grid called SpotON3D.

    On the other hand it may not do them that much good though as potential customers are not the mass of users. Customers wanting to set up a grid will probably do some research and likely come across the negative blogging on Google or whatever search they use. They will then be faced with the choice to go with a company that has a bad rep or prefer to go with hosting without strings. I mean, who really wants to be tied into a closed walled Metaverse when the majority are moving towards an open, inter-connected, Metaverse?

    As security gets better, which is on the cards as the open source community finds solutions, I can't imagine even the walled garden grids would want to be left out of the mass market the open Metaverse will become.

  • the best thing SpotON3D could be is genuine and open. they seem to be neither

    i would point to myself as being the other extreme, too open and too blabbermouth

    and i do things to a fault like sim-on-a-stick. why should i spend my own money buying and testing sticks, getting a domain name, making zips, and spending time on it?

    i probably have easiliy spent 80 hours on it (making the site, testing, posting, blah, blah, blah) and others have donated time to it as well – DreamWalker with her BAT file and then people like Erik N. and Sarge who make and share need mods of it

    i could have (and it was suggested to me) made an ad fro preformatted sticks and bought Patriot sticks for $16 and loaded them and then sold them for $50! i have had people tell me they would have paid and evenif i sold only 10 – that would be over $300 in my pocket and i would have saved 70 hours!

  • BUT . . . all i am doing is sharing what others have done and i don't feel it's right to profit on that and it's just who i am =)

    so . . . giving an OAR or giving sim-on-a-stick – both are nice but also need to be backed up with being open and especially being open to discussion

    also not to Tessa – you solicited me in LinkedIn to share the Expo schedule and i love that type of thing, but i also expect a little back like you actually hit the blog once in a while. i think you Americans say "scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" . so read my blog on ocassion and then ask me to share your info – pretty clear you never read me or you'd know i have not been too kind to you

    can SpotON3D salvage this? yes, if they first say they are sorry that they got us all riled up. it is amazing how much good will you can forge if you can muster up the courage to apolpogise =)

  • cubicspace

    "know the audience"— it as well as the vendors are nuts.

  • yup

    i have an idea… let's IGNORE spamon3d instead of giving them free advertising.

  • PinkSamurai

    I attended one of there presentations a long time ago. it was supposed to be to teach/educate people about how to use Opensim. The presentation was nothing of the sort. it was all about how dangerous it is to use opensim and all the risks that any content creator or user would be facing using opensim etc. I felt that it was a cheap way of promoting SpotOn3D. I am not a programmer, a techy or anyone who can really give any opinion about patents or the future of the internet or 3D. I am a user who just felt on that incidence that I was treated with no respect. I felt that she was treating me like I was stupid.

    Sorry about the rant 🙂 now, I tried to read as much as possible but have to admit that I didn't read all the posts but the question that kept going on and on in my min is:

    Why not work to change the faulty patenting system? There will always be some greedy people around but the laws and systems should be addressing that by putting is place something to protect the community from them.

    so as Yup says, why not ignore SpotOn3D and rally to correct the system?

    apologies if my post if too simplistic 🙂 as I said I am a user not an expert.

    • Pink — On the content protection issue — SpotON3D was trying to position itself as an alternative to more open grids like OSGrid, where people can save copies of their own regions. (And, thus, of all items on them.)

      Saving copies of regions is very important for some users such as corporations, non-profits, and schools. For example, if you’re a school, you want to be able to make copies of everything so that you can have backups, so that you can have different setups you use for different classes, or so that you can copy one setup and use it for mutliple classes.

      Schools and companies that use OpenSim aren’t likely to be content thieves, however. They pay real money for custom development, and want to be able to use what they paid for in the ways they need (and they will make sure that they have all the right licenses to do that.)

      These aren’t SpotON3D’s target users. And setting this up as the alternative is a bit disingenuous.

      The main alternatives to SpotON3D are the other commercial grids, like InWorldz and Avination. All of these have content locked down — users can’t just make copies of regions, or hypergrid in and out taking stuff with them. But SpotON3D has a hard time comparing itself to InWorldz and Avination because those grids are much bigger, much more popular, have more merchants and events, and all that good stuff that folks want.

      So they’re shooting themselves in the foot, again, marketing-wise. On the other hand, their strong content protections are driving away enterprise uses who would be willing to pay higher prices, and need extra consulting services and other stuff that hosting companies can charge extra for.

      And, on the other hand, their focus on content is annoying to regular social users, who just want to know about how much fun they can have on their grid.

  • yup

    why give free business advice to them? are you wanting them to succeed? the sooner they run out of antihype and money, the world will be a better place.