Friday, August 12, 2011


All the stuff we buy in Second Life is just pictures, right? Computer data, pixels, make-believe. So why do we spend money on it?

Well, the stuff we buy in Real Life is just atoms, when you get down to it. Or even less substantial, merely swarms of quarks. We buy stuff, virtual or real, not because of what it is, in any absolute sense. We buy it because it has value to us. We pay money for our stuff based on an agreement between us and the seller – he feels the price he’s getting is a fair return for the work he did, or the materials he paid for, and we feel that it’s a reasonable price for the value the stuff has for us.

Why do virtual things have real value to us? Mostly, because they provide a form of entertainment. The clothes we buy make our avatar look sexy. The plants and furniture we buy make our virtual homes more realistic and fun to spend time in. They give us endless topics of conversation. (“OMG, you look fabulous! Where did you get those shoes?!”)

If a friend loves our shoes, why not give them a copy? It’s digital stuff in a digital world, just data, and you can just copy and paste data, right? No, not always. Second Life protects the rights of content creators with a permissions system.

In the real world of solid objects, if I have a pair of shoes, you cannot have the same pair of shoes. You might buy another pair just like them, but my shoes are a unique, identifiable item. If I give them to you, then I no longer have them myself. The number of people who can own my pair of shoes is limited by physical laws. But computer data doesn’t behave like that.

If I have some computer data, I can make a copy of it. A perfect copy, completely indistinguishable from the original. I can give you a copy, and you can give your friend a copy, and on and on. An infinite number of items may be created at no cost.

The creation of computer data, whether it takes the form of a pair of shoes, or hair, or a new animation, or an image, involves creative effort. Virtual objects don’t need physical materials, but they do represent time and skill on someone’s part. The creators of Second Life believe that people have a right to be compensated for their time and skill. As a result, the permissions system allows people to decide how others will be able to use, copy, or pass on the things they’ve made.

The usual permissions settings you will run across are:
  • Full Perms. You may copy, modify, or transfer this item. If you give someone a copy, a copy will remain in your inventory. If you rez the item in world, a copy will remain in your inventory. Objects you create are always “full perms” to you yourself, but you may set permissions for the next owner in the build window.
  • Copy/Modify/No Transfer. This is probably the most common situation. You can rez the item in world, and if you lose it or mess it up while editing it, you will still have a copy in your inventory. You cannot, however, give a copy to anyone else. The only time this gets to be a pain is when you are tired of it and want to clean out your inventory. You have to throw away a perfectly good thing…you can’t sell it in a yard sale.
  • No Copy/No Modify/Transfer. A lot of jewelry is Transferable, because it’s often purchased as a gift. When you give someone a No Copy item, it behaves like a Real Life item – once the other person has it, you do not. When you rez it in world, it is in world, not in your inventory. If you forget and delete it, it’s gone.
Some No Copy items are modifiable, but the same basic behavior applies. Only one of the thing exists. Similarly, some Copy/Transfer items are No Modify. Possibly the creator doesn’t want you messing with the perfection that is her creation. Often, this is done as a defense against illegal copying, since it’s easier to steal an object that’s Modifiable.

A few items are sold with NO permissions – No Copy/No Transfer/No Modify. I consider this to be a completely paranoid over-reaction to potential content thieves. I never buy “zero permission” items, as they have very limited utility.

There are some fine points to permissions. For example, an object might contain a “No Modify” script. That makes the object itself “No Modify”, too…but you can still edit its shape and texture, even though it says it’s No Mod.

Textures are almost always sold Full Perm, but are accompanied by a copyright notice and a use agreement. For a texture to be useful to a builder who plans to sell her creations, it must be full permission, so she can pass it on to her customers as part of her build. This means that texture creators have less protection from the permissions system than the creators of other content. Please adhere to the seller’s use agreement.

There are technological ways to defeat the permissions system, for just about everything except scripts. Please don’t. Widespread theft and copying of virtual merchandise can do enough cumulative harm to the virtual economy that it could collapse. The virtual economy of the Second Life Teen Grid did just that, just last year. When all creations are free, very few take the time to create anything worthwhile.

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