Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Content Theft

In the ordinary way of things, theft is unknown in Second Life. Unless you have given me permission (via a Friends List option) to edit your objects, I can’t take your stuff, or even move it. Creators can set the “permissions” on items they make so that new owners can copy them for their own use, but not transfer the copies to others (copy/no transfer) or so that there is only one copy…and if you give it away or lose it, it’s gone (no copy/transfer).

But everything in SL is just…computer data. Pixels on a screen. Pixels on YOUR screen, being processed by your computer’s graphics card. Is there some way that you could tap into that data in your graphics card and somehow copy it to your personal machine in a usable fashion? The answer is yes. Several tools are available that let you copy Second Life objects. The amount of expertise required depends on the particular tool.

There are legitimate uses for such tools. For example, you could create backup copies of all your own creations, so that they are safe from any disaster that might strike the Linden Lab inventory servers. However, these tools are also used to steal Second Life content.

We are in an age of instant access to perfect digital copies of just about any sort of media. Today’s kids have grown up sharing copies of music, videos, games, and computer applications. A great many people believe that they have an inherent right to anything digital. I’ve heard it said that “if you publish it on the Web, it’s public domain”.

I’m sorry, but it’s not. Just because you CAN copy something does not give you the right to do so. A creator expends talent and time to create something, and they have a right to decide who is allowed to benefit from their work.

In my opinion, one of the reasons that Linden Lab closed down Teen Second Life was the widespread distribution of copied items, many of them items that had been stolen from the main Second Life grid. This seriously disrupted TSL’s internal economy as well as harming main grid creators. SL’s micro-economy depends on creators being able to profit from their work. If creators cannot make a profit, stores will close, land will go vacant, private islands will disappear, and Second Life will shrink. If desirable new content isn’t available, people will become bored with SL and leave. More land will go vacant, more islands will disappear. Eventually, there aren’t enough landowners willing to pay tier to keep the grid running, and SL becomes a bit of internet history instead of a living world.

The individual may excuse herself. “Oh, it’s only one copy. The creator will never miss my $L200.” “It’s the professional copybotters that are the problem, I just changed the permissions on this one thing and gave one copy to my best friend.” “Somebody gave this to me, I didn’t steal it.” But imagine those rationalizations multiplied by a thousand, or ten thousand. Each theft adds to all the others. What is an acceptable loss now can grow over time until it destroys a multi-million dollar virtual economy.

There is no technological way to absolutely defend against illegal copying. The fact that the data must go to your graphics card to let you see SL at all will always give clever thieves a weak point to pry at.

If there is no technological solution, there is a social one. Each of us must be on guard against illegal copying. Don’t accept stolen items. If you see something you suspect is stolen, notify the creator. Creators should pursue content thieves by any legal means, especially the Digital Millenium Copyright Act Takedown Notice process. Most of all, we need to call a spade a spade. Content thieves are not cool dudes. They’re criminals, and their exploits harm not only the creators they steal from, but the entire virtual society. If we all insist on getting something for nothing, we will end up with nothing.

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