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  SL vs. RL IP  
Posted 2005-02-12 by Tony Walsh
It's no secret that Second Life is rampant with intellectual-property infringements--it's just ignored. Linden Lab, like any internet service provider, isn't in the business of policing copyright and trademark violations, and isn't responsible for the actions of its users. Like other ISPs, Linden Lab will remove infringing material in full compliance with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Linden Lab's Second Life has an advantage over web sites, however--the virtual world is not nearly as easily-travelled and referenced as the rest of the internet.

While the RIAA, MPAA, other industry organizations and corporations are busting users for P2P file sharing and even linking to illegal files, Second Life residents are lucky to be able to hide behind a wall of cyberspace. Within the confines of Second Life, there are countless knock-offs of brand-name items, unlicensed audio tracks, textures "borrowed" from real-world artists, and more. Most residents aren't aware of, or simply don't care about intellectual property laws. Most corporations and artists aren't aware they're being ripped off. Ignorance is bliss, but for how long?

Linden Lab's hands-off approach to IP infringements is a sensible one only up until the point the company is ruled to be a software-maker instead of an ISP. Historically, creators of software able to be used for copyright and other IP violations have been sued into oblivion. So why push the envelope?

Recently, Linden Lab has been auctioning off "Sponsored Links" to in-world businesses via Ebay. A Sponsored Link is easily-accessed via the Second Life interface. Today I discovered a Sponsored Link for the "All StarWars Mega Store," which sells avatars, vehicles, and weapons with a Star Wars theme. As you may know, Star Wars is a hugely popular movie franchise. The trademark "Star Wars" has been registered by Lucasfilm Ltd. Furthermore, Lucasfilm is known to be quite sensitive about the use of their characters, vehicles, and weapons. Of course, there's no way for Lucasfilm to know about the violation, because Second Life is a gated community. Can what goes on inside these walls hurt Lucasfilm? It depends on your definition, of course, but it's not inconceivable. Star Wars Galaxies is a popular massively-multiplayer game in a 3D virtual world much like Second Life. It costs about ten dollars a month to play Star Wars Galaxies. Why pay ten dollars a month if you can go to Second Life and dress up like Darth Maul, complete with double-bladed lightsabre, for a one-time fee of ten dollars? While it's unlikely anyone would do this, it's clear that a Second Life replete with Star Wars-themed goodies has the potential to draw customers away from Lucasfilm's numerous computer and console game options.

It has sometimes been enough for ISPs and other companies to merely show they made an effort to dissuade IP violations. However, in the case of NCSoft versus Marvel, it appears that even slightly infringing on someone else's turf is basis enough for a lawsuit, regardless of the rules communicated to users. NCSoft's City of Heroes MMOG allows users to customize their avatars in such detail that the characters may resemble those protected by law. Second Life does the same and more, allowing users to upload, trade, and sell audio and visual files. If Marvel wins their case against NCSoft, I'm sure quite a few corporations will begin eyeing other online worlds that allow user creation and customization.

Clearly there is a need for a stronger position from Linden Lab on the use of Second Life as a tool to infringe on intellectual property. The stronger the position, the greater the protection in case of a future lawsuit. But outside of the well-being of Linden Lab hovers the health of its community--a community driven by resident creations. Corporations aren't the only ones hurt by resident infringement. Any resident who provides original creations to the community is hurt as well. Resident builders and merchants who play fair must compete against a sea of unlicensed, imitation, and/or illegal merchandise.

Imagine if Linden Lab developed an in-world system for reporting and eliminating IP violations. Such a system would eventually force innumerable in-world creators to give up their infringing ways and look into alternatives. Such alternatives could include former violators working with in-world content-creators to produce original material. Suddenly the role of content-creator gets a lot more important, which, for a world built upon user creations, is how it should be. Second Life is currently teetering on a foundation comprised of both original and illegal building-blocks. By taking a more active role in the fabric of its virtual reality, Linden Lab can only increase its durability.
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