Virtual Pirates a Real Concern

Second Life residents suffer copyright infringement violations, putting Linden Lab on the spot.
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Second Life has now fallen prey to the same copyright infringement issues that are plaguing the Internet, instilling fear in users and businesses about having their content stolen.

Residents of Second Life, the 3-D virtual online world created by San Francisco-based Linden Lab, are now seeking the protection of Linden Lab after a program called CopyBot was made available for a price.

CopyBot, developed by the libsecondlife group as a reverse engineer to Second Life's software, allows users to make a copy of any user-created content in the Second Life world without required permissions. Even in the virtual world, the ramifications of this are obviously enormous.

Instead of purchasing a virtual

Toyota

(TM) - Get Report

Scion for 300 Linden, the in-world currency in Second Life, a resident could use CopyBot to take their own pirated Scion for a drive. Users could loot the

Reebok

(RBK)

store and walk out with any number of personalized virtual shoes. American Apparel could be fleeced of its virtual clothing, and

Dell

(DELL) - Get Report

could see its

in-world computers stolen right from its lap.

Aside from big businesses, individual developers are scared of having their original creations copied and freely distributed, much like how audio pirates are illegally downloading and sharing albums over the Internet. These residents are running to Linden Lab for protection. But unfortunately the company hasn't prepared for the bootlegging.

"Needless to say this product has caused tremendous worry among content creators who want to understand how its use may possibly affect their business," said Robin Harper, vice president of community development and support at Linden Lab, in a blog post. "In particular, they are concerned about theft of their creations, and the potential for unscrupulous people to undercut their prices and essentially take away their business."

Linden says that, ideally, it will build ways to better identify the work of residents so that the use of CopyBot is not profitable. However, Linden is acknowledging that the user-created content is an asset that is being stolen, and that the company needs to create more features and provide better information about how users can protect themselves and their work.

In a separate blog post, Linden's Chief Technology Officer Cory Ondrejka said that until these features are developed: "the use of CopyBot or any other external application to make unauthorized duplicates within Second Life will be treated as a violation ... of the Second Life Terms of Service and may result in

these accounts being banned from Second Life."

Linden is proposing different ideas it is looking into to help protect developers from the CopyBot scourge. The company is developing data that will stamp each uploaded item a resident creates in the virtual world, assigning a "first use" tag that will help claim ownership and aid in copyrighting. Harper says that Linden is committed to completing the project as quickly as possible.

Secondly, Linden is suggesting that it could work to reduce how much avatar and clothing data are downloaded in Second Life. Also, the company is contemplating a move that would see a reduction in incentives to copying content within the system, preserving the creator attribution.

In regards to virtual clothing, Harper said that the company could create a virtual clothing tag, much like those on designer and brand-name apparel in the real world. "The signature becomes a recognizable asset and could be coupled with a landmark as a form of advertising," says Harper, who likens the pirating of this tagged clothing to "the person who buys the fake Rolex off the back of a truck."

Ondrejka also extends sympathy to the Second Life community and offers some solace to those wondering what Linden's first step will be.

"To the community, I am very sorry that we have not already completed the features needed for you to address these concerns yourself," Ondrejka said. "We are working very hard to complete them and will release them as soon as they are ready. In terms of prioritization and scheduling, additional asset data will be deployed in the first quarter of 2007."

In the meantime, Linden Lab executives are recommending residents who have been swindled by CopyBot pirates to file grievances of copyright infringement under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Passed in 1998, the DMCA is a U.S. copyright law meant to protect an Internet and technological copyrights. In addition, the DMCA prevents the circumventing copyrights through digital means.

However, the main goal now for Linden now is to curb the use of CopyBot, but Ondrejka is unsure of how to douse that fire.

"Like the World Wide Web, it will never be possible to prevent data that is drawn on your screen from being copied," said Ondrejka. "While Linden Lab could get into an arms race with residents in an attempt to stop this copying, those attempts would surely fail and could harm legitimate projects within Second Life."

Robert Holden is staff reporter Robert Holmes. He reports often from Second Life.