Copyright in virtual worlds

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As the virtual worlds grow and develop — and evolve into the next 3D Web — the issue of copyright is being debated again. In some ways, virtual worlds copyrights may require changes in the way we think of and use copyrights. But, in most respects, virtual worlds copyrights are no different than the copyrights we currently have today.

For example, today, if a content producer makes an original work and sells to a buyer, then, by default, what is sold is single-time use only.

This was the heart of a big lawsuit — Tasini vs. New York Times — in which the New York Times had reused articles submitted by freelancers belonging to the National Writers Union by re-publishing them again in online archives. Today most publications — including the New York Times — now require freelance writers to sign all-right or “work for hire” contracts. Under these contracts, all rights to the creative work are transferred to the buyer.

Under these copyright laws, you cannot copyright an idea — only a specific expression of an idea. So if you were to take the ideas in this post, and rewrite them in your own words, that would not be a violation of my copyright. You might be guilty of plagiarism, and I might call you names — but I’d have no legal resource. But honestly, I’m not saying anything new. In fact, I doubt that there are that many brand new ideas under the sun, anyway. But if you were to copy-and-paste this post and run it under your own name, you would be in trouble, and I could sue you for copyright violation. I don’t have to register my copyright with anyone — it’s automatically mine from the moment I write something.

That’s copyright. Digital rights management is a different beast. That’s when I put controls on a documents so that you can’t pass it along to others. Or encrypt software so that it requires an activation code.

Copyright and digital rights management are two different things. In fact, sometimes they are in conflict — I might have a legal right to make a copy of something for personal use, but the technology might prevent it. Or the technology might allow me to republish under my own name — but I might not legally allowed to do this.

Finally, there’s the question of enforcement. Digital rights management is one option. Going to court to protect a copyright is usually a last resort — its expensive, and time consuming. And by the time you finish suing one infringer, a thousand others will have popped up.

Other ways to protect copyright include complaining to whatever organization is distributing the infringing content — the filesharing network, the Web hosting company, or the social network. Then there’s reputational enforcement. If someone tries to pass of my work as their own, clients can detect this pretty quickly — many are now using tools to help detect plagiarism and copyright infringement. Those that don’t can always use Google. If you ever try to submit a ripped-off piece to a client as your own work, you can be sure that you’ll never work for that client as well — or anybody else they ever talk to. Finally, there’s the convenience factor. Stolen content is rarely supported. It often includes viruses or unwanted advertising. And it can be difficult to find. Legitimate content is actively marketed, supported, easy to find. There is a reason why iTunes is doing well, even though there are plenty of ways to get the same content for free.

If you own virtual world content, what are the options available to you?

  • Restrict access. Both Second Life and OpenSim make it possible to restrict some areas to certain groups of people. In addition, both the Second Life Nebraska server and the OpenSim server can be run behind a corporate firewall — limiting access to just employees, for example.
  • Employ built-in digital rights management. Both SecondLife and OpenSim support a permissions system for objects. When an object is transferred to a buyer, the creator can set the object to be traferrable or non-transferrable, and copiable or non-copiable. This is not fool proof. There are lots of ways — new hacks appearing every day, probably — to go around these protections. Using digital rights management may deter a casual users from making a bunch of copies and passing them around to friends, but it won’t deter a determined thief. This doesn’t mean that you can ignore permissions — the lack of controls may indicate to a user that you don’t mind if the content is shared. If you do allow all permissions on an items, use a license agreement or some other method to ensure that the buyer is aware of your copyright.
  • Use scripts, support, and updates. A digital object that does nothing but sit there is not very valuable. Google’s free 3D Warehouse is full of them — the only reason that they cost money in Second Life is that Second Life is a closed world and there’s no easy way to import all the free stuff available out there. But a scripted object can check back in with its creator to ensure that it is not copied, or to check for updates. Even without scripting, each object can have a unique identification number, and the buyer can be recorded at time of purchase so that only legitimate users can receive support or upgrades.
  • Complain to distribution networks. If your content is being pirated on Second Life, complain to Second Life administrators. If your content is being pirated on an OpenSim grid, complain to grid operators — most will be very careful to remove offending content from their centralized servers. Some grids, including the largest — OSGrid — have told us that they’ll go as far as banning copyright violators, in addition to removing the infringing content. If your content is being pirated by a small, private grid, you can complain to the hosting company that hosts their servers. And if the grid is so small that it is hosted on a home computer, you can complain to their Internet service providers. If your content is on a server in Outer Mongolia somewhere or distributed over peer-to-peer file sharing networks like BitTorrent, you might be out of luck. Sorry about that.
  • Make your content cheap and easy to find. This is the iTunes model of commerce, and it can work very well with certain types of content — namely, content that a lot of people are interested in, and that hackers are making available for free.
  • Make your content expensive and narrowly-targeted. Again, this works for certain types of content. If you’re selling high-end business tools, for example, your customers are going to have bigger budgets than retail shoppers. And they won’t be interested in buying stolen goods. And the market is too small for hackers to waste their time messing with it.
  • Freemium content. Clever Zebra, a virtual world consulting firm, cleverly gives away its conference center. Then, if you want to do something more with it, you’re more likely to call them than their competitors. And they charge for all the extras and the custom work.
  • Produce custom content. If every customer gets a unique product, designed around their needs, you are,  in effect, selling your time rather than content. And nobody can steal your time from you. Except, of course, video game makers and reality TV show producers.
  • Educate users. Do your customers know that if they buy stolen content, they’re breaking the law? Do they know that content the infringes on your rights may suddently disappear from their builds, as grid operators search for asset signatures and delete infringing content? Do they know that they cut themselves off from updates and support?

And then there’s my favorite option: ignoring it. The kind of content my company sells falls either into the “reputational protection” category or into the service industry category. If one of my competitors tried to pass off our content as their own, they would be out of business pretty quick — probably long before I ever heard about what they were doing. In addition, our content has a shelf life — and has a large personal component.

If your website content consists of your contact information and a description of your company and other promotional materials, do you really care if someone copies it? More to the point, would anyone want to?

My OpenSim region consists of buildings that we use for meetings, and a bunch of freebie furniture. If someone wants to steal my office building I really don’t care since I’m not in the business of selling office buildings. I also have personal items up — like pictures of my kids on my virtual desk. These are the same pictures that already available on my family’s website. Do I care if someone passes off my kid as their own? Not really. Unless my actual kid is involved physically, or they’re making money off the picture. (If anyone is going to make money off my kid, it’s me.)

It’s much more likely that someone will visit my offices and be inspired by my layout and design — the same way that they might be inspired by visiting my website.

Or — and this is even more likely still — someone will visit my offices, and say “I can do better than this.

Maria Korolov

Maria Korolov is a science fiction writer who covers cybersecurity, AI and extended reality as a tech journalist at her day job.
Check out her author page on Amazon or follow her on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Her first virtual world novella, Krim Times, made the Amazon best-seller list in its category. Her second novella, The Lost King of Krim, is out now.