How to choose a content license

As more and more people explore OpenSim, the content licensing issue comes up over and over again. It may be quite a puzzle for folks used to Second Life, where licensing is taken care of by the permissions system.

In OpenSim, licensing and permissions are two different things.

Permissions — which a form of digital rights management — is like a lock on a door. Just because there’s no lock on the door, or you can hack it off, it doesn’t mean that you can come in and take over the house. And just by putting a lock on it, it doesn’t make it yours. With real estate, as with digital content, it’s all about the paperwork — property deeds in one case, and license agreements in the other.

Some closed, commercial grids copy the Second Life terms of service and do use the permissions systems in place of licenses. This article is about the grids that allow the export of content from their grids, or for private personal, non-profit, educational and corporate grids.

I encourage all OpenSim users purchasing content or picking up freebies to check on the license terms, and if the licenses aren’t obvious, to ask the creator to provide them.

But if you’re a creator, which license terms should you set? There are lots of options, and it can get confusing really quickly.

Here are some rules of thumb, based on what you want to accomplish.

You want to sell stuff and make money from it

If you want to profit from your content, you need license terms that prohibit your customers from giving your stuff away — or, if they really really want to give your stuff away, you want to make them pay extra for the priviledge.

Here are some options for your license:

  • Personal, site, or reseller: A personal license is for one retail customer. A site license is for a school or company to use, allowing them to share the content with all their students or employees. A reseller or commercial license allows the customer to resell your content in their stores. My recommendation: offer your customers a choice of license terms, and set different prices for each kind of license, unless all your customers fall into one category.
  • Single grid or multi grid: Some customers go shopping on one grid, have their virtual home on another grid, and attend meetings and social events on a third grid. Do you mind if they wear your dress to all these locations? Or do you want it to stay on the grid where you sold it? Similarly, some schools have multiple grids, or rent regions from several hosting providers. My recommendation: In general, if you sell content on the hypergrid, let it travel. It’s not practical for your customers to buy a separate copy of the dress for every grid they plan to visit. However, if you’re creating exclusive content, such as custom clothing for a grid-specific role playing game, then it makes a lot of sense to limit it to just that grid.
  • Transfer, copy, and modify permissions: This is totally a matter of personal preference. Personally, I like being able to modify the stuff I buy to adjust the fit, or the color, and am willing to pay extra for the right to do so. Similarly, I like being able to make copies of my content — especially in case I break the original. The transfer permission can easily be misconstrued, however, as a license to distribute the product. Keep in mind, however, that permission settings are not the same as legal contracts. And, as piracy on Second Life demonstrates, can easily be overcome by hackers. Be careful not to lock down your content to the extent that it makes life too difficult for your legitimate customers.

You want to give away your stuff, but want to get credit for it

Giving away content is a great way to make a name for yourself. You can give away out-of-season merchandise, promotional items, or generic versions of your products, and then upsell your customers to new, seasonal, and high-end content.

A very popular license, commonly used on OpenSim Creations and other sites, is Creative Commons. They have a little license selection tool up on their site.

Your customers can take your content, and share it with others, but you get to pick whether they have to attribute the content to you, whether they must also distribute your content under the Creative Commons terms, and whether it can be used commercially or not.

This is a great license to choose if your work has your signature look and feel, and especially if you make finished objects.

Many creators also don’t want to give stuff away for free only to see others make money from reselling it.

You want to have the biggest possible impact

If you really want to see your work used everywhere — and don’t mind not getting the credit, or if someone else makes money off it — then you should consider the “Linda Kellie” or “Enerific” license.

This allows people to do whatever they want with your stuff. They can change it, build on it, distribute it, sell it.

This is a really good license to use for basic building blocks. Say you whip up a 1,000 different stone textures in Photoshop by slightly changing the color of something already in the public domain. If you distribute it under a restrictive license, people will be worried about using it because they’ll have to find a way to give you credit on every objects that contains one of those textures. If they build a big object, with many textures, the attribution requirements alone would be enough to drive anyone nuts.

Plus, the final object has to comply with the license terms of every single constituent part. If one piece is not allowed for commercial use, then the whole thing isn’t. If one texture isn’t allowed to leave the grid, then neither is the whole object. It takes a lot of effort — and good bookkeeping skills — to keep track of that.

That doesn’t mean you still can’t get credit for your work. Linda Kellie is very well known for her contributions to OpenSim, and her instantly-recognizable content can be found on many grids. Even though she doesn’t require attribution as part of her license terms.

This is also a good license to use if you notice a lack of something in OpenSim — say, a lack of vehicles. You can make and release a set of basic vehicles and scripts that your users can then modify and use as starting points for their own creations. You would be helping to jump-start the development of the vehicle sector.

Hair by Linda Kellie.

Linda Kellie has done this with her clothing templates, her hair, her buildings, and her textures. Her content gives new users and new creators a solid starting point from which to begin building, and that was a major service to the growth of OpenSim.

You’re not locked in

As the original content creator, you can pick different license terms at different times, or for different customers. You can give away your stuff to schools, for example, under a Creative Commons license, but sell it to corporations under a more restrictive site license.

You can charge more to distributors and resellers and less to individuals. You can give away things for free today as part of a promotion, then shut down the freebies tomorrow.

You will not lose your copyright by doing so — the only way you can lose your copyright is by signing a “work for hire” contract in the jurisdictions where it is allowed, such as the United States. This is what normally happens if you are an employee of a company, or do contract work.

After all, if you are hired to create a logo for a corporation, they don’t want to have to come back to you and pay you extra each time they use it in a new ad campaign or put it on a new product or modify it. They want to pay you one fee for the work, and then use it any way they want. Jurisdictions that don’t allow “work for hire” contracts typically replace them with an “all rights” contract where you technical retain the copyright, but your customer can do anything they want with the content.

With that exception, your copyright belongs to you, and to your heirs for decades after you die — in other words, the technology platform you use will have long become obsolete by then.

Should you register your copyright?

You own your copyright from the moment of creation. But if you want to sue someone and get punitive damages, you will need to register it. Typically, this is done for big-ticket items — like music videos.

If you make a significant amount of money from a limited selection of high-end products, registration may make sense. It costs $35 per item to register copyright in the United States, and you can do it online.

If you’re turning out dozens of new textures a week, however, the registration fees may quickly outstrip your earnings — not to mention the legal costs of going after offenders. By comparison, filing DMCA reports is free and, in my experience, pretty effective. No startup grid wants to have to defend itself in court against an infringement lawsuit, and taking down questionable content is generally a no-brainer.

And as more creators insist on their rights, copyright infringers will be forced out to smaller, marginal grids in emerging countries. And even there the authorities are starting to crack down — plus, the connection speeds are lousy if your servers are in Outer Mongolia.

Maria Korolov