Where exactly do the IP rights of avatars legally end and morally begin? A recent Second Life Insider story provokes that question, taken from a conflict within SL's often viciously competitive fashion industry. In brief, it begins when acclaimed fashionista Mistress Midnight buys and alters a custom skin created by another designer, but solely for her own personal use. This leads to acrimony and accusation from the aggrieved designer and a couple of her colleagues, and a fascinating (if painful to read) conversation ensues, ultimately revolving around the meaning of ownership in a virtual world. Sometime NWN contributor Aimee Weber has the entire story, appropriately entitled, "SL Fashion, Personal Modifications, and Of Course, Drama". As someone who knows, likes, and admires most of the Residents involved, I have to hope the drama part of the thing subsides, soothed by the realization that the underlying issues are complex and as yet unresolved.
Update, 9/9, 3:11pm: Bumping this post up, as the story continues to metastasize, and, unfortunately, claim victims. Widely admired and beloved fashion designer Torrid Midnight (featured in NWN here, here, and in passing here), who was accused along with her business partner Mistress of "ripping" skins, was caught up in this controversy, and after a truly ugly comment was reportedly (and anonymously) directed at her, has indefinitely withdrawn from Second Life altogether.
Triste Bertrand has a summary of the story thus far here, along with some thoughts on its relation to "fair use" in copyright law.
A somewhat differing view to the conflict is available on Pixel Pin Up's Forum here.
Finally in this blogosphere wrap-up, there's an appraisal of the conflict in SL Exporer News, which includes a side-by-side comparison of the original and modified skin in question. For what it's worth, I join the author in failing to see any substantial, glaring differences in Mistress Midnight's version of the altered skin from the neck down.
For myself, I should add this: in conversations about SL-based IP rights up to now, it's often been assumed that social pressure was the first line of defense in protecting Residents' creations. Go around blatantly copying and reselling the avatar fashion designs of others, this line of reasoning went, and word would get around the Second Life community, and after enough approbation, the culprit would soon find themself out of business. This still seems to be true, in most cases, but it doesn't cover controversies like these, where definitions of "theft" and "fair use" are in serious dispute, and some of the parties involved are among the most well-reputed content creators.
Nor, unfortunately, does it factor in how much damage a few choice vicious words can do.