Friday, October 16, 2009

city's breakling down on a camel's back

The question posed was daunting: can a virtual entity release (or even retain) copyright protections on their created works? Each of us, on the grid, is backed by a typist existing beyond the world we know; that entity is legally liable to, and protected by, copyright law. But if our virtual and real identities are never legally connected, what are the protections that support, or punish, our avatars?

I started by looking into Hatsune Miku. Footage of her performing live for a stadium crowd has been posted; and that article also led me to news of Kyoko Date, perhaps Japan's first virtual idoru kashu, back in 1996. This also drew me inescapably to footage of Feel Good Inc. by the Gorillaz, performed live. (Ironically, there was better, clearer, more synched coverage out there, but it's all been pulled in a copyright dispute with Viacom.)

But in the Gorillaz' case, all profits go back to the collective of artists--signed to Viacom, apparently, at this point--who got together and voiced/animated the band; Hatsune's profits go back to the software developers of Vocaloid. In both cases, the real dominates; and in Second Life, as much as we may deny it at times, the real dominates too. Unless we're wandering Octoberville, or a roleplay sim with rigged models, there are no NPCs in SL.

Okay, so where's the problem? At the end of the day everyone logs off and enters meatspace again. No one's wholly imaginary on the grid; so why is there concern at all?

The answer to that question just might be in how Second Life is perceived. MSNBC, a year ago, asked if Second Life was a game. Linden Labs have always insisted it wasn't. Griefers on the grid generally insist that it is. That's a pretty big chasm between the two modes of thought.

But think on this: if it's just a game, then, at the end of the day, it's all about points, not players. Moral or immoral, it's just virtual play; no consequences. Kill, maim, murder, stab, rape--steal--insult other avatars--be rude in public--wherever your personal 'do not cross' lines happen to fall...then go to sleep after, get up, and do it all over again. No harm, no foul.

But if it's not a game...if it's just us, finding new ways to express ourselves...if it's us finding new ways to live and interact with our fellow beings...then what happens on Second Life has consequences. Second Life then emphasizes Life, more than Second, and what happens there, happens to us and not just our avatars.

How many people have left SL over a broken heart? How many people have decided they can't date anymore in SL, and then stopped dating in RL, too? (I know at least one. And if there's one...) How many people make their livings in SL? How many people value their SL lives over their RL ones? (Again, not all of us, but I've known a few...)

So where are the lines drawn? It seems to be the mentality of those who lift and resell that it's just pixels, that it's on the net, and thus, on the net it's free; the internet ethos writ large in a virtual realm. But consider, truly consider, the price of that freedom:

* I don't pay for my Gmail account. But Google does. And partially to subsidize that, Google spins text ads across the top of my account. Some of them I click, some I don't--it's based on what I receive in email, which on occasion, makes for fun text ads.

* I don't pay for my web sites. (My friend pays fees, though, to host her domain--of which my web sites are a small, small part. Without her hosting, I would not have web sites.)

* I don't pay for my LiveJournal account. (But my friends did; in fact, I have a permanent account on LJ because of their largess.)

* I do pay for Netflix, which gives me the ability to have a set amount of DVDs delivered, and an unlimited amount of television shows and movies to be watched online. Are they "free", in that I can watch them anytime? No, because I pay for that account.

* And I maintain I pay for Hulu, because while I don't pay them by way of hard-earned dollars, I am telling them they can play ads for me, and I decide whether I like--or do not like--any ad I see. This both tailors my preferences, to the ads I want to see (in advertising speak, to the ads that will likely sell me something), as well as helps advertising marketers get a feel for what does--and what does not--work.

But we have to think to draw these conclusions, don't we? PBS has sponsors who carry the weight of programming costs; so does Radio Riel. Linden Labs itself is carried by tier payments and virtual real estate purchases; but they are also carried by upload fees, for sounds, animations and textures. A Second Life account isn't free; while it is possible for someone to completely and totally exist on SL and never spend a virtual dime, it's far from easy, and there is still investment in SL that goes on, in terms of hours spent at the keyboard, if nothing else.

Another article from 2007 mentioned the then fledgling involvement of IBM in Second Life. Now, it's a foregone conclusion; IBM owns several islands, and tops well over five thousand employees with active accounts. (Though I'm even more amused to consider the "Lips" picture on Philip Linden's avatar may be a copyrighted trademark...not that Richard O'Brien or the production company behind RHPS may care at this point, but again--see how far copyright infringement goes, when we start breaking it down?) Would IBM engage in islands used for corporate meetings, employee training, and product development if SL was just a game?

Beyond anything else, Second Life reflects real life. Beyond anything else, Second Life has a cost, just as life does. And the problems of the real world--from racism to copyright infringement, and everything in between--are reflected in the virtual realm.

Runes of Magic, when players move from zone to zone, or the main world to more private instances, flips up aged sketches of game concepts paired with tips for use of the game. One of those tips that randomly rolls around is a caution that everyone the player interacts with, in Runes, is a real person.

Maybe that should go up on the port screen now and again: "Remember: everyone in SL is a real person. Treat them accordingly."

Of course, then it comes down to the individual: are we likely to take everyone we meet at face value, and treat their homes and possessions as theirs, and worthy of respect? Or are we just there to sneer at the "fur fags" and toss LOLcubes onto their parcel until the sim crashes? Two entirely different motivations, as to how things work on SL.

It remains to be seen which motivation will win. In the meantime, I don't think there's any established precedent on a purely virtual construct having anything resembling rights; but there is no purely virtual intelligence on the grid (barring variations of the ALICE program). Massively commented last month on avatar rights and virtual property; it's a good read that outlines the basic concepts. And the Star had a wonderful article on avatar rights (largely concerning Anshe Chung); this passage in particular leapt out at me:

To avoid relying on property concepts, one scholar has written that avatars should enjoy the protection of defamation law. Her argument is that online characters rely on reputation when interacting in the virtual world and that slights to their reputation carry over to their real-world counterparts.

Especially considering the business with RR, that's a fascinating perspective.

The Simon Fraser University in Canada has a paper--available for reading or downloading online--in their digital collection about rights in virtual property; "ownership", in other words, and how it applies to virtual worlds. Gwyneth Llewelyn put out an article on "content theft" and raising awareness. And Stephen Euin Cobb wrote on discrimination against avatars last July, in a very thought-provoking article.

But none of this brings any further light to the topic at hand. The U.S. government--and I might go out on the limb and further state, no world government, in fact--is prepared legally to deal with the concept of virtual citizens of any realm. No one's thought this over, save people on the ground in virtual worlds, it seems. And none of the RL law has yet managed to catch up with what's happening online.

While many of the lawless, "Wild West" aspects of the grid are starting to fade (gambling gone, banking gone, slowly but surely the adult entertainment industries are being tucked away or disappearing entirely--at least, those who haven't decided the hell with Zindran life, they're moving back to the mainland), in many ways it's still a virtual frontier--because issues are being raised that the world beyond hadn't even bothered to consider. In ten years, will Second Life still be thriving? Maybe, maybe not--but if it is, it's almost a guarantee that there will be more virtual protections in place.

It remains to be seen whether those as-yet-unwritten protections and rights will combat the problems in any meaningful way--or, as with DMCA provisions now, just provide lip service between bouts of tortured misapplication of the principles.

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