Why freebies are good for virtual designers

As OpenSim-based social grids continue to grow, Second Life content designers are understandably worried about the free content floating around these grids — content which may have been ripped off from Second Life.

Part of this is accidental. Users copy their bought-and-paid-for inventories from Second Life to their OpenSim regions, then pass the content along to friends.

In addition, a determined OpenSim grid operator can change permissions on objects stored in the grid’s inventory. In practice, however, the outright theft happens in Second Life itself, via tools like CopyBot. And most distribution takes place in Second Life as well, since OpenSim still has small concentrations of users.

In fact, major grids like OSGrid and ReactionGrid have policies in place to protect copyrights and have a reporting system for violations.

Both grids, as well as other top social grids, also have distribution platforms. The top ones are Rexxed, MyOpenGrid’s MyOpenSim Hypergrid Store, ReactionGrid’s Outpost, OpenSim Worlds, and the OSGrid General Store.

These distribution channels are actually a great boon to intellectual property owners since they change user habits — instead of asking around among friends to find a particular object, users can simply check the online stores. If the stores and freebie collections are comprehensive enough, there is no incentive to steal content. Even when there is a charge associated with getting a particular object, if that fee is lower than the cost of the time it would take to find or get an illegal copy then there is still an economic incentive to obey the law.

In addition, these stores respect copyright — the last thing they need is to incur legal fees from distributing pirated goods. As a result, it’s relatively straightforward for copyright holders to get items taken down if they infringe on their rights.

This is similar to the dent that the iTunes store has put into illegal music downloads. By making legal distribution safe and easy, much of the motivation for finding and using illegal distribution networks disappears.

The more growth legitimate distribution networks see, the better off everyone is. Customers are assured that they’re getting legitimate content. And content creators are assured that they’re getting full credit for their work — and full payment for their work, if the content is offered for sale.

This doesn’t mean that mom-and-pop pirate store fronts are doomed, any more than iTunes wiped out the street-corner peddlers of pirated music and movies. But it does mean that the pirates will be limited in their impact. After all, when they get too big, someone will come along and shut down down. And before you ask, that someone will be the grid operator, if the pirate sets up shop on a public grid. Or the hosting provider, if the pirate is running their own grid. Or their bandwidth provider, if the pirate hosts on a home server.

Yes, it’s a pain to shut down a pirate. If the pirate is running a private grid on an unlicensed Chinese server, for example, it can take years. Eventually, we will probably see pirates setting up shop in outer space, outside any national jurisdiction. They’ll be up there right along the illegal gambling sites and child pornographers. And the folks who visit will risk getting nasty viruses — and also risk incurring the attention of legal authorities.

The way to shut down these pirate isn’t to keep content closed off. Pirates will always find content. Trying to keep content away from potential customers is cutting off your nose to spite the face — and then cutting off the whole head, on top of it.

The solution is to create and fill up the legal channels with all the content that users need, cutting off the pirates from their customers — and then to go after the pirates whereever they hide.

Grow the market

Private OpenSim grids open up the virtual universe to new entrants — groups who might not have been able to afford Second Life regions, or had privacy or security concerns about Second Life. OpenSim allows for worlds to run entirely behind a firewall, limiting access to, say, just the employees of a company or just to the registered students and teachers of a school. OpenSim also allows grid operators to set up their own age limits, their own currency systems, their own policies about behavior and content, and allows for easier integration with enterprise software systems.

Now, you might think that enterprises can afford to hire designers and build content from scratch.

But, in fact, schools and businesses do need free content — collaboration tools, furniture, buildings, and terrains. This is especially true when they are first piloting these worlds. As they get more comfortable with the platform, and start to see real benefits, the budgets increase. In the long term, enterprises are going to be the best customers for designers — they need custom work, high-end designs, and are willing to pay enterprise rates in real money.

Typical items needed here are clothing and appearances suitable for school and business settings, meeting rooms and classrooms, schoo houses and conference buildings, and collaboration tools — PowerPoint slide projectors, movie screens, and blackboards.

Making free, low-end items available through the main OpenSim distribution channels will allow early adopters and skunk works to set up demonstration projects for their companies.

And it’s not just schools and enterprises. Casual groups such as professional development organizations, networking groups, and gaming clubs will also be able to furnish their OpenSim environments quickly and inexpensively. This will encourage such groups to set up shop in a virtual world — as opposed to, say, Facebook or Google Groups.

Once people are invested in a virtual world, there’s a basic human need to improve the environment, and to improve their own appearance. By helping communities get established in a virtual world, designers will be helping create a larger user base for their own products.

Marketing and promotion

Unlike real-world physical goods, virtual goods can do double-duty as advertisements. For example, when I pick up a chair from WalMart, it doesn’t actively try to encourage me to buy a nicer chair after I bring it home. There might be a Website address on the package, but that gets thrown out first.

A virtual chair, however, can include information about the designer, where to find the designer’s store on the Web or in a virtual world, and even serve up advertisements for new product releases.

OpenSim in particular allows for a great deal of interaction between objects and server-side applications. Since the end user never sees the server-side code, an object that depends on server-side applications to function is almost impossible to rip off.

Of course, there’s a fine line between a useful give-away and spam. It’s one thing to put a tasteful corporate logo in an unobtrusive location that brings up more information when clicked. I wouldn’t mind having that. In fact, I could see how that could be useful, if, say, I wanted to get more products from that designer.

But a chair that materializes a giant advertising billboard every time someone sites on it is something else entirely.

If you are a designer planning to use give-aways as a marketing strategy please be respectful. A tasteful, discrete object will be used. A loud, obnoxious object will be deleted the first time it makes a big stink.

Licensing and copyright

As several people have discussed recently, including Dusan Writer and  BotGirl, content creators actually relinquish all rights to work produced inside Second Life — Linden Lab owns everything. All the management and distribution of virtual goods is handled under the auspices of the Second Life Terms of Service. As a result, what’s distributed aren’t the virtual goods themselves, but the license to use these goods. And Linden Lab has the right to modify the terms of this license at any time.

In the OpenSim universe, by comparison, the designer who produces a virtual good owns the intellectual property of that product, and can sell it, assign it, or license its use to whatever degree they see fit.

This is a very crucial distinction. Content creators actually have more rights outside of Second Life than inside it. With OpenSim grids, the content creator can be in full control of not just the distribution process but the licensing process as well.

For example, designers can choose work on work-for-hire projects, in which all copyrights are assigned to the client. Or a designer can sell a site license to a product, or a per-user license, or assign publication or distribution rights. The creator can charge more for full rights, and less for one-time rights.

This is much more like working in a traditional design environment. Photographers, writers, graphic artists and Web designers have long worked under these rules of copyright.

This issue is particularly vital for enterprise clients. If a company or educational institution hires a designer to produce a Web site, the agreement will usually include the words “work for hire” or “all rights contract.” This way, the organization can reuse the content or re-purpose it as it sees fit.  It may cost a little extra to purchase all rights, however. Sometimes single-use rights are more appropriate — say, when licensing a single photograph to go on the cover of an annual report.

If a designer is hired to built a region in Second Life, however, then these copyright agreements will not apply, since the Second Life terms of use are not designed this way. Instead, the build is licensed, and exists at the whim of Linden Lab.

This is a dangerous situation for the buyer to be in, especially if a large amount of money is invested. For example, there is no legal way to have regular backups of a build in progress, and then restore to an earlier version. Or to backup a region that’s no longer used, shut it down, and then restore it at a later point when it’s needed again.  And the region cannot be duplicated in other worlds, allowing the company to have a common corporate identity everywhere it has a presence — instead, it needs to be rebuilr from scratch.

When Second Life is the only game in town, this is a significant problem for enterprise users. And, right now, the only way to reach a large virtual user population is through Second Life.

When Second Life is no longer the only game in town but one of many grids offering similar environments, then this licensing issue will become a problem for Linden Lab.

Until then, enterprise clients should seriously consider having their building work done in an OpenSim platform, under standard contracts, and then uploading to Second Life when the work is ready for public use.  In the OpenSim environment, they are able to make full backups of individual objects or of entire regions, protecting themselves against something accidentally going wrong. And, of course, there are no costs associated with uploading textures, or with region rentals while the build is being completed.

Meanwhile, for projects that do not require access to a large user base, such as training, education, and collaboration, OpenSim is already a viable alternative and expanding quickly.

Content creators should be looking for ways to embrace the new platform, to create recognizable brand names, and to secure prime positions on the top distribution channels

Maria Korolov