Five tips for better provenance

If you work in Second Life, you don’t have to worry about provenance. The Lindens take care of it with their permissions system. Or, at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.

And you already know that you can’t bring anything from Second Life to OpenSim unless you’ve checked with the original creators. If you didn’t know that before, you do now — unless stated otherwise, or you yourself are the original creator, you can only use Second Life content inside Second Life.

In OpenSim, however, provenance is critical, especially for schools and companies and grid operators. A creator might not bother to sue a kid running a personal region in his basement, but larger institutions not only make better targets, but should know better than to infringe on others’ intellectual property.

The problem is, it’s so easy to pick up something intending to use it legally and then forget the restrictions and re-use the content in inappropriate ways. For example, you might have a vehicle licensed for use on one grid, but you decide to change grids and move the entire region — and everything on it. That vehicle is now in violation of its license terms.

I made this from scratch. Except the bricks. Where did I get those bricks?

Here are five suggestions for tracking the origins and license terms of your virtual content.

1. Licenses trump permissions

If you have a license from the original creator to use an object, that license rules. The permissions on the object itself are irrelevant. For example, a creator might sell you a full-perm item — but only for use on their grid. Just because it’s full perm, that doesn’t mean that you can take it off-grid, even if the technology allows you to do it. The license rules.

Similarly, if you buy a no-perm item, but pay extra for a license that allows exports, backups and use on other grids, then, again, the license is king. You might need to ask the creator to remove the permission settings to allow you to take advantage of everything the license allows. If you are the owner of your own grid, however, you don’t need to, since you can do anything you want with the content of your own grid. By “do anything you want” I mean from the standpoint of the technology, not legal or moral rights.

If you make an object out of various pieces with different license terms, the most restrictive license terms apply to the finished product.

If you don’t know what the license terms on an object are, you have to assume that you are not allowed to modify, copy, transfer or sell the object, make a backup, take it to another grid, or use in the creation of a new object which you plan to sell or take to another grid.

If an original creator gives or sells you an object without specifying license terms, assume that the license terms are what is specified in the included permission settings, limited to the original grid.

2. Get your licenses in writing

Ask your content providers to include a notecard with the license terms in every object you purchase. License terms can also be embedded into the description or name, or included as a separate notecard in the folder with the object.

It’s up to you to ensure that you don’t lose that license. If the creator ever comes back to you and says, “Hey, what’s my stuff doing on your grid?” you want to be able to pull out the license quickly.

Of course, no license will help you if you unwittingly purchased pirated content. Then, you’re just out of luck and need to remember to do business with more reputable distributors in the future.

3. Keep a clean alt for building

Your regular avatar’s inventory is packed full of things you’ve bought, been given, or downloaded without making note of license terms. When building, it’s tempting to just reach into your inventory to grab a texture, a piece of furniture, a plant, or a script.

Avoid the temptation by using a clean alt for building and design work.

Stock its inventory only with fully-licensed, all-rights content. Start with Linda Kellie content, which is fully Creative Commons licensed for use on any grid, for any purpose — including commercial. She’s got buildings, plants, scripts, sculpties, furniture, clothing, avatars — plenty of starting points for almost any building project. Even entire regions. Her stuff is made from scratch, and everything is free. You can download from her website, which is a convenient way to get the textures, or you can teleport over to one of her in-world stores, of which there are quite a few, on all major grids.

Other good sources of full-rights textures is Torley Textures, Smashing Magazine, MayangCGTextures and GoodTextures (free registration required). I just downloaded a texture from GoodTextures, and their license allows you to do anything with it except sell or distribute the texture itself.

Please note that not all Creative Commons licenses are equal. The FleepGrid Shop, for example, uses the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License, which means that if you use any of the content to make something, you must give away the results for free, and with full permissions — you can’t sell it. Many items on OpenSim Creations are distributed under similar license terms, but it varies — check carefully.

4. Keep a running provenance list

When you build a complex object, like an office building for your company’s virtual headquarters, or a clubhouse for your grid’s welcome region, attach a notecard to the object listing the source materials. As you incorporate new textures, sounds, scripts or other components in the object, add them to the notecard. Note the name of the component, where you got it, and its license terms.

It’s much easier to keep track of this stuff while you’re building, than to come back later and try to figure out where all the components came from.

Then, if someone asks you for a copy of the building, you can quickly check this card to see if you have the right to give or sell it.  And if you need to move the building to another grid, you’ll quickly be able to see whether you have the rights or not — and will know who to contact for permission, if you don’t.

5. Ask your contractors for indemnification

If you hire someone to do building for you, add a clause to the work contract that requires the contractor to guarantee that all materials used are either original creations or properly licensed, and to indemnify against any legal costs that may arise if they aren’t.

This means that you need to be able to find those contractors if problems arise.

I know this is a contentious issue in virtual worlds, with many creators working exclusively under their avatar names. And I have nothing against branding or against musicians and actors going under stage names. The thing is, behind every brand, and behind every performer, there is a legal person empowered to sign contracts — a company executive, the performers themselves. If necessary, they can be brought into court.

This doesn’t mean that everyone working under the real name is honest, or that everyone preferring a pseudonym is dishonest. It just means that it’s difficult to enforce a contract if you can’t find the other guy.

More trouble than its worth?

Yes, it’s a pain in the butt to keep track of this stuff. It’s easier just to grab a handful of freebies, and do what you want with them.  And you can easily get into the habit of doing this. It’s tempting to import things from Second Life — after all, you already paid for the stuff, and tracking down the original creators is hard. Some of them might have left Second Life. You might think that nobody will ever notice, or, if they notice, won’t care.

Here are a few reasons to do things right:

  • If you get into the habit of not paying attention to content provenance, you’ll eventually accumulate a lot of objects that are not used in accordance to their licenses. Every additional object increases the odds that you’ll get caught. It’s like joyriding — you might get away with it once or twice, but if you do it all the time, eventually the law will catch up with you.
  • If your business partners, suppliers, employees, and customers see you using infringing content, they’ll think worse of you. The honest ones will leave. Eventually, you’ll be left surrounded by dishonest people. This is a vicious cycle — the more dishonest people you have around you, the more acceptable dishonest behavior starts to seem, and the quicker the honest folks will leave. Eventually, you’ll be saying, “Everybody does this.” No, it’s not everybody. Just everybody you know. And the dishonest people will treat you the same way they treat everybody else — dishonestly.
  • You’ll be sitting on a ticking time bomb. At any minute, a creator might notice the misuse of their content — in your company’s promotional video or brochure or website, on a random visit to your grid, or by hearing about it from friends. Some will be nice, and politely ask you to take down the infringing content or pay for the appropriate license. Others will raise a big, public fuss and damage your company’s reputation and public image. Others will file complaints with your hosting company and get your grid taken down. And some will go directly to the courts, and embroil you in expensive lawsuits.
  • If you’re the owner of your company then, if you’re not incorporated, you might be personally legally liable for damages and penalties.
  • If you work for someone else’s company and they find out that you’re creating a potential legal mess for them, you might get fired.
  • Thanks to Linda Kellie, OpenSim Creations, Torley, FleepGrid, and many others, there is now an abundance of legitimate, free content to use if you’re starting out and are working on a tight budget. And if you have the funds, many creators will be willing to sell you additional rights if you need them. Just keep offering them more money until they say yes. After all, if you’re a crook, you wouldn’t be bothering to ask.

So get in the habit of checking provenance and license terms of all your content. If you’re in a store, and can’t tell where the stuff came from, drop a note to the management to post clear provenance and license terms. And when you buy an item, make a notecard listing its origin and permissions and contact information for the creator if you have it.

Have standard contracts ready at hand, for your contractors that include indemnification. I have a sample provider’s contract here. (Not meant to replace actual legal advice!) If a contractor refuses to sign, that should be a very loud warning alarm.

Finally, use your judgement. If someone offers you a freebie starting pack full of goodies, but won’t tell you where it came from, walk away. They should be able to say, “I made this myself.” Or, “It’s from Linda Kellie.” Or, “We hired a designer to create a starting pack for our grid. We have a license to hand this out to our residents, but it’s only for use on our grid.”

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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. Follow me on Twitter @MariaKorolov.

8 Responses

  1. I think people are taking this issue way too seriously for cartoon pictures. In the grand scheme of things, this is a non issue and shouldn’t be given this much air play as if it’s in league with you know, real crime.

    Just sayin 😉

    •' Guest says:

       Yeah I agree there, I mean it’s not like a virtual house sells for $125,000 USD, it’s maybe at best about 40 cents real money, and if the creator doesnt sell off of SL then they aren’t losing any money if a copy is in a freebie box on Kitely or IW for people there to use. The only time they would lose money is if someone imported it BACK to SL and was selling or giving it away.
      There’s a mountain of freebies everywhere, passed along through multiple channels, imported exported, none even have the original creator’s name on them once they are exported. I have seen the same item in different freebie boxes with different creator’s names on them because multiple people exported/imported the item at different times and now pretty much everyone everywhere has incorporated these items into their inventories, builds and freebie boxes. It would be an impossibility to retroactively  fix this now without starting over from scratch on everyones regions and inventory.
      There IS such a thing as “fair use” and fair use does apply to many things- a small sample portion of a larger texture, a paragraph in a review of a book for example.

      • This article was mainly directed at larger enterprises — companies, non-profits, colleges, and grids — people who would make attractive targets for lawsuits. And it’s especially critical when you make objects for commercial use. No creator wants to see someone else make money from their stolen creations.

        But even for individuals, there’s no excuse for breaking the law. “I think I can get away with it,” is not a reason. 

        And there are limits to fair use. You can use a part of a copyrighted work in a review, or in a parody, or for educational purposes. But if you’re using pirated content as it’s actually meant to be used — listening to the music, watching the videos, wearing the virtual clothes — then you’re in clear violation. There’s no “fair use” exemption there. You’re getting something you should have paid for, that others are paying for, and you’re getting it for free. 

        Maybe the creator is overcharging. Maybe the product is old and out of style. Maybe the creator is being a stick-in-the-mud about not letting you take the content to your own grid. That’s their problem. And their decision. Will they lose customers over it? Will they protect their business or hurt it? That’s their problem to figure out. And it’s their choice to make. 

        You can’t make that choice for them because they’re the original creator, and the copyright holder.

        Yes, it’s a huge undertaking to clean things up. 

        The first place to start is to make it very, very clear when items have good provenance and are legitimate, so that people know to choose them instead. If you’ve got two plants in your inventory, and you know one is properly licensed, use that one. If you have stores on your grid, make sure that the terms are clear and posted.

        There’s plenty of good content out there now. Making it easier for people to find it and choose it would help a lot.

        As for clearing out old content that doesn’t have proper permissions — I know that some grid owners have been working on identifying infringing content even if the creator names are different, but I don’t know the details of the technology or what’s happening on that front.

        If would be nice if someone could set a system up. A registry of some kind that grids can check content against for infringement when it’s first uploaded, to keep it from getting on the grid — with some mechanism in place to allow legitimate sales. 

        Yes, there will still be grid owners who ignore it, but those grids get successful enough, someone will sue them and shut them down.

        The music industry have systems in place to compensate song writers, for example, for when their songs are played. Maybe an industry group like that, representing copyright holders, collecting small amounts whenever their content is used… keep the amounts low enough so that compliance is cheaper than dealing with the legal fees of infringement lawsuits. And they’ll add up, so that creators will have ongoing residual income from their work.

        •' Guest says:

           ” I know that some grid owners have been working on identifying
          infringing content even if the creator names are different, but I don’t
          know the details of the technology or what’s happening on that front.”

          The problem is time and labor involved there and the sheer magnatude of the quantity, were talking about MILLIONS of individual items on a grid. If an object is imported it’s lost it’s original creator’s name and uuid information, that’s all erased and replaced by the importer’s name as creator and it gets a new uuid number and creation date and name.
          Other than visually identifying that object as being someone else’s creation, there is no way that looking at the uuid’s or object names that anyone can tell who is the real creator.
          Once that importer gives the item out to others as a freebie, once other people have it in inventory, those who back up their OARS and IARS and maybe decide to move to a different grid, importing that object will now change the creator and uuid along with the creation date yet again.

          That is why I have seen a certain freebie item on no less than 3 grids as a freebie, and in multiple places on each grid, each of them having different creator names, dates and uuid’s. Since I know the object well I recognize it everywhere I see it.
          But what if one of the new owners of that object does some modifications on it, changes the textures and a few other things, now its even more difficult to  tell what it’s original was exactly. The might even take parts of it off and replace them with different ones they like better, further complicating things.
          The thing is, with individuals not edu’s- people are given or pick up freebie boxes and use the items on their personal regions in good faith, if anything, most of them are as much victims as the copyright holder.

           Intent has a big thing to do with it and those who have exported/copybotted/imported items and then try SELLING them as their own creations- those are the ones who are going to be in serious trouble and more likely to be sued than the single region owner who innocently collected freebie boxes placed around the grids of full perm items they are using for their own personal enjoyment.

  2. Pathfinder says:

    The economy of SL is a microcosm, dwarfed by the buying and selling of industry-standard mesh models across the world.  See for just one example of a mesh marketplace.  Buying/selling such models is a huge industry.

    And interestingly enough, there is *no* use of DRM (aka “permissions”) with mesh models outside of SL.  Content creators are protected by very clear licenses and legal enforcement of those licenses.  The system works.

    If we’re looking for a model of how this all might work with the future of Opensim, I think a DRM-free future is the way to go.  Licenses trump everything.

  3.' Paul says:

    It would probably be too hard to do, but it would be good if OpenSim could use a different permissions system than the SL one (or in addition to). If you replaced the Permissions with a “licencing” permission system.

    In such a system you would have clauses you could add to it (like the clauses in the creative commons system – but more comprehensive). Then the server system would be able to track the licencing permissions from the individual objects and give a report of the permissions of the complete object.

    As the system could check the licencing (not just the in world permissions) of the object, you would be able to bring up a report at any time and know what you could do with it.

    You could have licencing clauses like: Copyable, Non-Commercial, Local-Grid-Only, etc. A content creator could then tag their objects with these clauses as they desired. A set of default clauses would exist and any clauses the creator adds would over ride any competing clauses (eg: the default might be non-copyable, but if the user adds the “copyable” clause then that would over ride the non-copyable clause).

    Clauses could be added to this system much more easily than the current “permissions” system (although this would probably be in the server development rather than by grid owners).

  4. Sarge Misfit says:

    While there isn’t a whole lot of money involved here, I have to disagree with Virtual Clover and otehrs, this is definitely not a non-issue. 🙂

    All it takes is one anal ****** armed with a DMCAk-47 and your 2 year build is screwed. This isn’t something that keeps me awake, but I do have the thought in the back of my mind of what might happen to Excelsior Station if that were to happen to me, and it does cause me some worry, so I do pay as close attention to what I am using as I can when I build.