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, Mayang, CGTextures 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.”

Maria Korolov