Can people steal my stuff in OpenSim?

A few days ago I saw a Tweet, that said something like, “I looked at OpenSim, but some guy said he would steal all my stuff. So, no thanks!”

In fact, that attitude comes up a lot on discussion boards and in other forums. There’s a perception that OpenSim is the Wild West. That the minute you step onto an OpenSim grid, someone is going to grab everything you own, and distribute it everywhere for free.

Can this happen?

It can — if you let them. It can happen in Second Life, too.

Here’s  how to keep your stuff safe.

(If you don’t want to read all of this post, here’s the summary: Run your own grid — much more secure than Second Life. Get land on a closed commercial grid like InWorldz — as secure as Second Life. Get land on an open, public grid like OSGrid — less secure than Second Life.)

Keep it private and local

First of all — and this is as true in Second Life as in OpenSim — if nobody can see your stuff, then they can’t steal it. OpenSim actually offers some protections here that Second Life doesn’t have.

Don’t believe me?

Can your Second Life region be stored on your computer, disconnected from the Internet, so that not even the Lindens can access your content?

You can do that in OpenSim. Just download the standard version of OpenSim, the easier-to-use Diva Distro, or the easiest still Sim-on-a-Stick, and run OpenSim locally. You can even run it on a USB stick. Take it with you anywhere you like. Show off your builds in presentations, to friends, to just to your cat.

Want a little less privacy? Set up user accounts for your friends, plug your computer into the Internet — port forwarding required if you have a router — and make sure hypergrid access is turned off.

Now your friends can log into your little world and visit you. If your friends start looking shifty and suspicious, and you’re worried that they’re ripping you off, delete their user accounts. You’re the king, you can do what you want.

For even less privacy, turn hypergrid on, but set your security settings so that no content can leave your grid. That won’t stop copybotters — nothing can stop copybotters — but it will stop everyone else from taking stuff away.

For least privacy, turn hypergrid on and allow content to travel. Now people can come, visit, and take things home with them that you give them. You might want to give them freebie T-shirts with your face on them, for example. But if you’ve got your stuff locked down — set to “No copy,” and so on, then the copybotters can take it, but the law-abiding public can’t.

Use the built-in security tools

You know how, in Second Life, you can limit access to your land to just the people you trust? You can do the same thing in OpenSim. Right-click on your land, pick “About Land” and select the “Access” tab. Now you can ensure that only trusted friends visit your land.

For extra security, put your locked-down region far from other regions, so folks can’t use their cameras to peek in.

If your region is open to the public, and you don’t want them to take stuff, make sure all your objects are set to “no copy.” This won’t stop copybotters — but all they’ll be able to get are the textures and shapes, not the animations or scripts.

How about if you willingly give an item to someone?

Say, someone picks up that freebie shirt. If that someone is a user on your private grid, they can only do with it what the perms allow. If they’re a visitor from a foreign grid, and you allow them to take the shirt home, then they can do it with it whatever the foreign grid allows — and if they’re the owner of that foreign grid, they can allow themselves to do anything they want.

Think of this way — anything Linden Lab can do to objects in Second Life, a grid owner can do to the objects on their own grid in OpenSim.

 

Keeping things safe on other grids

What if you’re not running your own grid, but have a region on someone else’s grid. How safe is your stuff now?

That depends on the grid.

If you rent land on a closed, commercial grid like InWorldz, Avination, 3Rd Rock, or SpotOn3D, then your stuff is as safe as it is in Second Life. In other words, the grid owners can get to it, copybotters might be able to get to it, but otherwise you’re in charge.  If you trust the owners of those grids, this is a good way to go if you have fancy content and you want to keep it safe. And you can always set your land to private.

If you attach a region to an open grid like OSGrid or NewWorldGrid or ScienceSim, and you allow folks to visit your region, and you allow them to take stuff, then they can take things anywhere they like and do whatever they want with them. Permissions are preserved — but again, if someone has their own grid, or runs their own region server, they can take your stuff there and go into the database and do whatever they want with the object.

So if you have friends — or enemies — who know their way around a MySQL database, or know how to give themselves “God powers,” you might want to keep those folks off your region entirely. Or, at the very least, not give them stuff, which would limit them to copybotting.

Of course, the owners of OSGrid or NewWorldGrid or ScienceSim or whatever grid you’re on can do whatever they want with your stuff as well. After all, they own the grid. So if you have a habit of annoying grid administrators to the point where they take your stuff away from you, you might want to reconsider having regions there.

Instead, run your own minigrid, turn on hypergrid teleports — but don’t allow anyone but trusted folks in — and teleport out to OSGrid to enjoy all the amenities like freebie stores and clubs. Now you’ve got the best of both worlds — your stuff is totally private, but you can still see other people’s stuff.

Now, say someone you don’t know on some grid you’ve never heard of offers you free or cheap land. You might think it’s a great deal — but think again! If that grid is based in China, the grid owner won’t give out his real name or contact information, and the grid’s name is “Hacker Haven” — you might want to think twice.  They might steal your stuff. Just saying.

The perfect solution

But what if you want to sell stuff and not have anyone copy it — but want to have a home on a big public grid — and want your prime content totally 100 percent secure?

Here’s what you do:

Step One: Get a private grid. Use Sim-on-a-Stick to run it on your own computer for free, or pay a hosting company to set one up for you. Kitely is a great place for super-secure content creation — you can set the access on your regions to just you, and have as many regions as you want for 10 cents a month each (no, that’s not a typo) with 20 cents per hour for when you’re on them. You can keep all your stuff on as many regions as you want. And if you want someone to come visit, add them to the access list. Kitely makes it easy, with a Web-based administration panel that is the simplest I’ve seen anywhere. But most other hosting companies will set up a private grid for you as well, and allow you to manage your users.

Step Two: Get a store on a closed, commercial grid like InWorldz, Avination, SpotOn3D, 3Rd Rock or Second Life. Take the stuff you made on your private grid and upload it here for sale. The grid owners will keep it safe — well, as safe as content can be in a virtual world. If you like the grid, you can rent residential land here, as well.

Or you can go to —

Step Three: Get a residential region or parcel on the public grid where you want your home, and furnish it. There’s a lot of nice free stuff out there. Check out OpenSim Creations, Linda Kellie Designs, or one of the many freebie stores on OSGrid and other grids. Folks will be able to come and visit you as much as they like and if they copybot your stuff — well, what do you care? It was all freebies, anyway. You can also buy premium content in some shops, and on grids like Island Oasis and German Grid, where the merchants expect you to take your purchases to other grids. If someone steals that stuff, it’s the merchant’s problem, not yours — and the merchants have decided that they can live with the potential for theft in return for access to more customers. (Plus, they probably keep an eye on the freebie stores to make sure none of their stuff winds up in there.)

The benefits to having your residence on an open, public grid is that you can connect a home-based region for free or rent an entire region starting at less than $6 a month — a tenth the price of a typical region on a closed, commercial grid. (You pay extra for security, community, and support.)

What to do if your content is copied

If your content shows up in a freebie store, you should complain to — in that order — the store owner, the grid administrators, and the grid’s hosting company (check to see who owns their website).

Folks are usually very quick to take down infringing content — OpenSim merchants and grid owners typically operate on a shoestring, and can’t afford the legal costs of a content infringement lawsuit. There’s really no benefit in it to them to give away or sell pirated stuff. The rewards are ridiculously low (if any) and the risks are high. If the original creator registered their copyright, in the U.S. they can get statutory damages of up to $30,000 for each work infringed — up to $150,000 if infringement was deliberate! And even without a court case, the DMCA — and similar laws in most other countries — make it easy for the copyright holder to get ISPs and hosting companies to take down content, up to and including entire sites.

Most of the time, if content winds up in one of these stores, it was accidental — the content was passed from one person to another, until finally someone thought it was Creative Commons licensed, and donated it to the store. To make sure that this doesn’t happen, make sure that the license terms are clearly spelled out on the content itself — baked in the texture, for example — with a link back to your website. And if you do give away something as a freebie, make sure that it says that on the item, as well, so folks don’t start accidentally reporting innocent freebie stores for infringing on your content.

You don’t have to visit every freebie store in OpenSim every day. But do visit the big ones once in a while. If every content creator does this, pirates will quickly be relegated to out-of-the-way locations and dark corners — where if you can’t find them, your potential customers probably can’t find them, either.

If your content has been in the freebie store for a while, and a lot of people picked it up, you can ask the grid owners to remove it from their asset database. If they don’t comply — and you have proof that the content is yours — send me a note and I’ll follow up .  And, of course, you can also blog about it, Tweet it, post it on Facebook, and complain to their ISP. But do be polite and not jump the gun — maybe they haven’t read your email yet, or are in the middle of a big database conversion and will get to your request right after they’re done. Or they might have a backlog of takedown requests they’re working through.

If you see your content outside a freebie store, on, say, a private sim, keep in mind the following:

  • Chances are, the person with the content doesn’t know it’s infringing — they’re probably not the original hacker. The content may have been a gift from someone else, or was picked up in a freebie store before it was taken down.
  • If you ask politely, the person will most probably apologize profusely and delete the content.
  • Take a breath and remember that you’re not actually losing money here. Gucci and Chanel don’t lose money when someone shops at Salvation Army — that’s money they wouldn’t have gotten, anyway. People looking for freebies are not your target customers. But if you’re nice to them, they might become your customers when they have the cash. Just as folks move up from cheap knock-offs to the real thing when their income improves.
  • You can’t lose your copyright as a result of theft. If you created the product, you own the rights until you formally transfer them. However, you can lose the trademark if it goes into common use — like aspirin or linoleum.
This is a good time to follow the 90-10 rule: spend 90 percent of your time making it as easy as possible for your customers to find and use the content. And the other 10 percent on monitoring and enforcement, just to keep them honest.
Finally, keep in mind that when pirated content is distributed in OpenSim, it was usually stolen inside Second Life and exported — and if the original creators never visit OpenSim grids, the hackers feel safe. So ignoring OpenSim won’t keep your content safe. But engaging with OpenSim, getting to know the owners of the big grids and the manager of big shopping outlets will not only protect your content but also provide you with new sales channel for your creative work.
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.

  • Phil Clarke

    Hi Maria, as the original tweeter (at least I think it was my comment that triggered you to write this post) I would like to thank you for your detailed analysis of the OpenSim copyright issue.
    I agree with what you are saying, with one important addition.  Copybotters who steal content from SL directly make a conscious decision to use banned tools that others have created.  If caught they face an IP ban from SL so most likely they are dedicated thieves who’s motif is purely to steal for profit or to simply annoy the original creator.
    OpenSim users who create their own grid, however are usually techy-minded people who would have a poke around their mysql database just to see how it hung together (i know i would!).  They will most likely discover how easy it is to change permissions/steal content just through curiosity, rather than through deliberate intent.
    What they do with that is, of course, entirely up to them, but many people in the world would who never steal a wallet from someones pocket, wouldn’t go out of their way to return the $50 bill inside if they found the wallet on the floor!
    My point is that whilst Second Life and the other managed grids do not offer 100% protection from content theft, the consequences in the main deter the casual infringer from even trying.  For that reason, I will choose to keep products to those sort of grids for the foreseeable future.  I will however, take a trip back into OpenSim (i last went there in 2008!) to see how it has evolved and to see how others are managing to walk the copyright line!

    • I have looked at those databases and I am technically competent.  It is not a casual matter to find and re-permission / reown reasonably complex content.  Yes I could create scripts to do it more efficiently.  But what for?  I am more interested in how something was done than in simply making a copy of it in any case.  If it is already on my own self-administered region then it wouldn’t do me much good to simply change the permissions unless I wanted to sell or give it to a bunch of others.  That is not only not my style but has consequences that can come back to me.   As Maria mentions there are mechanisms in OpenSim right now to prevent people you don’t trust from taking content you want to protect back to some region where something nefarious may happen.

    • Actingill —

      The only way an unscrupulous grid owner can get access to your stuff is if you have an avatar on their grid, and store your stuff in its inventory, or if you have a region on their grid, and keep stuff on that region.

      My recommendation is to stick with grids you trust. If you want to visit one of the other, less … ummm… savory grids, go by hypergrid teleport (they can’t access your stuff — the latest OpenSim update prevents your home grid from sending out assets unless you personally request them) or create an alt.

      Here are some trustworthy grids to start with.

      1. Any of the major commercial grids — InWorldz, Avination, 3rd Rock, SpotOn3D, etc… Yes, the owners can look at your stuff — so can the Lindens. But if word gets around that these grids use their superpowers to steal content from users, they’d be out of business tomorrow. Check the TOS, though — some agreements allow grids to use content you create for “promotional purposes.” 

      2. The big non-profit grids — OSGrid, ScienceSim, FrancoGrid, New World Grid. ScienceSim is run by Intel, and they don’t want your stuff. OSGrid is a registered non-profit with over 10,000 regions and tens of thousands of users — their team couldn’t care less about your content. OSGrid in particular is a good place to register your avatar, since it’s hypergrid-enabled and runs the latest, most secure version of hypergrid — feel free to travel to other grids. The only part of your inventory the other grids can access is what’s in your “Suitcase” folder.

      If you set up a region on OSGrid, and want to keep it safe, restrict access to the region itself by only allowing trusted folks to visit. Plus, either have the region running on your own computer — even the grid admins won’t have access to its content there — or rent land from a trusted hosting company. Again, those guys would be out of business if word got out that they were hijacking their customers’ content. 

      Pick a hosting company that’s been around for a while, and has invested in its brand image, not a start-up fly-by-night outfit without a website run by folks who won’t give you their real names or contact info. 🙂

      So if you really want to visit Hackers & Hookers Grid (I’m not saying that it exists, but it probably will soon, if it doesn’t!) go via alt or hypergrid, don’t keep your valuables there, and make your home someplace a little more reputable.

  • “. . . to just to your cat.”  !!!   =D 

  • The bottom line is that when you upload or create content into a GRID’s server for example in Second Life; you must trust that particular grid. There is no other way to it. The grid must mention in its rules a sort of contract between the user, content creator that his or her inventory stored in that particular GRID will be kept safe. Now trust gets into the picture. You must choose a grid that is a registered as a real company and have all the protection clauses fully disclosed to you the creator or content owner etc.
    Now talking about copy bots. This can happen in any grid. The easier way to protect yourself against is to have all the land options where your content is secured. If the land has no permission to create objects unless the owner gives that permission copy bot will not work. Another problem is when you are a creator and someone buys your creation. Now you dont have any control over it but you can always create your own rules for that particular object mentioning that copying is not legal and not permitted. Anyone caught doing that would face legal actions.
    Put it this way. Is it legal to create fake money? But some people still do it. The government has no way to stop it but if someone is caught doing it they go to jail.

    So it is time to stop the FEVER about content being unsafe in Open Sim. If you think this way you should not be in Second Life which by the way gives you a lot less control over your creations than Open Sim and you should not be in virtual reality worlds at all then.

    InWorldz, Second Life and all these grids claiming to be safer than the other but the bottom line is that it really is a combination of things that makes this work.

    User trust
    Grid Content Management (making the inventories stored in its servers safe and secured plus full disclosure of its rules and regulations about this subject.
    RULES — tough rules and regulations that addresses unauthorized copying of any objects or creation by another user.
    User compliance
    Enforcement of this rule by the GRID security team. (a must have)

    If the grid you are into is not a serious and legally registered company then the gamble is on your side.

  • “So if you have a habit of annoying grid administrators to the point
    where they take your stuff away from you, you might want to reconsider
    having regions there.”

    That is why on a walled garden grid like SL, inworldz, avination and island oasis- you are essentially screwed- you cant back up your entire inventory to a file.
    In opensim, you CAN backup to an IAR same as you can back up the region to an OAR

    “the bottom line is that when you upload or create content into a GRID’s
    server for example in Second Life; you must trust that particular grid. ”

    Yes, grid owners have full access to your stuff, but seriously, does anyone actually believe someone who has gone to the expense and work of building an entire grid and managing it is going to CARE about STEALING someone’s $2 prim house or a 50 cent sofa in it?
    I would have far less faith in a grid like SL which had/has a random collection of unknown employees in various parts of the world who have various access points who can take a copy of entire regions or your store onto a flash drive. But then again, it’s pretty ridiculous to think someone then would jeopardize their JOB and possibly jail just to steal some $2 houses and a scripted sofa or something.

    None of this virtual stuff has any value outside of SL or the virtual world,  it’s not like it’s silver, gold, rare coins or antiques that you can take to a pawn shop and sell.

  • Ron Blechner

    So, essentially you’re saying HyperGrid is doomed.

    • Ron —

      No, in fact I’d say its the other way around. Grids that are on the hypergrid are growing faster than closed, commercial grids. And more content creators are embracing the DRM-free or DRM-lite approach.

      I believe that treating your customers well, letting them make personal backups and take content to their home grids, will, in the end, make for a more successful business than trying — fruitlessly — to impose unwieldy protection schemes. Of course, that won’t stop folks from trying! 

      Finally, the presence — or absence — of DRM has never been a factor in the growth of a new technology. On the Web, there are almost no mechanisms for locking down text and images and videos — that content is easily stolen, yet companies are still able to create profitable businesses online. 

      I’m not saying that people should throw up their hands and give up in the face of piracy. I’m saying — trust your customers with your content, but keep an eye out for pirates and take legal steps when they show up.

      The recent closure of Megaupload demonstrates that even when the pirates are based off-shore, it’s possible to go after them, and bring them to justice. Meanwhile, legal, free (or low-cost) alternatives like Hulu and Crackle and Netflix make it easy for customers to get the content they want when they want it. Even iTunes and Amazon have switched to selling DRM-free music — DRM does nothing to step the determined pirates, and just aggravates your paying customers.