There once was an island called Neualtenburg, and for a time, it was home to a unique experiment in virtual democracy. Founded by Ulrika Zugzwang, it was conceived in liberty (though unlike the rest of SL, decidedly not libertarian) and dedicated to the proposition that all avatars who joined up should have an equal chance to hold their land and assets in common, and have a say in how its civic life was managed.
"Neualtenburg is a real-life nonprofit land cooperative," Ms. Zugzwang told me last year, "where members interact through a virtual-world government. It's one of the few places in SL where folks come together to purchase a shared asset and then agree to follow a set of rules to solve their inevitable differences." The owners shared the costs associated with owning a virtual island (around $200 a month in land use fees, for starters), and establish through democratic processes the bylaws that governed the public commons. Her ultimate intention was to link this governance with a non-profit corporation she was preparing to file papers for.
Largely developed by her close collaborator Kendra Bancroft, Neualtenburg itself was built to resemble a Bavarian mountain town, with cobbled streets, an ancient beer hall (serving the town's special brew), and above all, a deeply thought out system of democratic governance.
"The system is designed to outlive any one member," Ulrika told me last year. "The [artisan] Guild meets on a project-by-project basis. The representative assembly meets for 1.5 hours or so once a week. The scientific council only meets informally in our group forum." There were even two political parties, one centrist and pro-free market, the other (initiated by Ulrika) a left-leaning Social Democrat party. Of course there were political disputes, over how much the citizens should be "taxed" by Neualtenburg's governing body, and so on. But by intent at least, Neualtenburg resembled the utopian visions of the 19th century, a voluntary community where idealists would pool their resources to live in a collectivist society free as much as possible from the forces of unregulated capitalism beyond their walls.
"There's almost a strange sort of Nationalism to Neualtenburg at this point that seems to mollify internal conflict," Ms. Bancroft observed at the time. "People are very proud to be part of this City."
But that was then. Over the successive months, culminating into a final dissolution last Summer, the island of Neualtenburg quite literally disappeared from the world. And this attempt at utopia was lost amid an acrimonious dispute-- and a DMCA violation claim.
Very roughly summarized-- and readers involved in the dispute are welcome to offer their own perspectives, however contradictory, in Comments-- the conflict began when Ulrika left Neualtenburg in what she terms a "coup", and other members of the city-state describe as the upshot of a fair election. She had plans to move the "Neualtenburg Projekt" vision to another place in Second Life, however-- which made things complicated, because the island the Projekt resided on was also called "Neualtenburg".
"We were in negotiations for them to purchase the rights to the name 'Neualtenburg'," Ulrika told me in June. "In one of the offer/counteroffer cycles I rejected a request to shutdown and archive the N'burg [web] forum. Simultaneously, I discovered that the group doing the negotiations was acting illegally in that they were not involving democratically elected officials." Whether this is an accurate characterization or not, Ulrika interpreted it as a breach of faith. "It was at this point that Kendra had them removed from the forum, she ejected them from the Projekt, and I issued a DMCA notification to Linden Lab to have the sim name changed." Ulrika Zugzwang conceived the name and concept of Neualtenburg, and now she wanted it back. And according to Linden Lab's policies on IP rights and DMCA enfocement, she had the legal standing to make that claim.
Unsurprisingly, some of the Neualtenburg members in question saw things differently. It was not simply a matter of immediately quitting the city to recreate it under a new name. "We are not in the business of developing land," Salzie Sachertorte told me then, "so it is a longer process for us, especially as we have 33 residents engaged in the process."
What's more, Neualtenburg member (and highly regarded SL analyst) Gwyneth Llewelyn points to a January 2006 announcement from Ulrika, which suggested Ms. Zugzwang was abandoning SL altogether. "Her written statement did not leave any margin of doubt on her leaving," she told me. "We had to assume that she was being serious with that statement, and we moved on without her— first by settling the pending accounts with her (as she requested), selling her land, and electing a new official to replace her." For them, it was hard to square that depature notice with this unexpected return, and her demand to reclaim ownership over a project name they thought she had since abandoned.
But the DMCA suit was filed, and for awhile, if things weren't resolved, Ulrika Zugzwang even considered acquiring an official US government-sanctioned trademark to the Neualtenburg name-- and retaining a real lawyer, to take the SL dispute to the next level. Virtual world academics and Second Life observers often ponder when SL will have its first homegrown conflict over user-created IP rights which leads to an actual court battle. It's ironic (but in a way, not surprising) that the first such court case might very well have been over the name of a socialist cooperative.
But as it happened, a deus ex machinima made most of the dispute more or less moot-- specifically, company staffer Jack Linden invoked Linden Lab's "god powers" to change the name of the island, and the land management group that controlled its assets. Which is why, when you seek out Neualtenburg the island in the Search function, you won't find it. You will, however, find "Neufreistadt", the new name for the isle where Salzie Sachertorte, Gwyneth Llewelyn, and others from the days of N'burg still reside. (Would that real life territorial disputes were as easy to resolve as tinkering with a few bits of ASCII in a database.)
"I've learned some very important lessons," Ulrika Zugzwang told me a few months ago. "First, a virtual government with a structure that does not map directly to the SL-client tools for sim control and object permissions is unenforceable. In times of harmony, the system will appear to function, but in times of discord, the system will break down and authority will shift to the group that is in control of the SL-client tools." Moreover, she adds, "I've also learned to get everything in writing because people whom you think are your friends are [not]."
Her IP rights intact, Neualtenburg still exists, albeit in a more modest form, living on as "Port Neualtenburg", a small seaside village and artisans' cooperative.
Because she's a self-described social democrat, I ask Ulrika Zugzwang how she justified her use of the DMCA law, widely seen as a bludgeon for multi-national corporations to restrict the expression of groups and individuals, with her real life politics.
"First to clear up a misconception about socialists," Ms. Zugzwang tells me, "I do support capitalism, albeit regulated to prevent abuse. In regards to trademark and copyright, I feel they succeed when they are used to protect individual artisans, inventors, and business people from themselves and larger corporate entities. Conversely, I feel they fail when they're abused by larger corporate entities to seek monopoly control of a market and thus stifle innovation. So, it does feels strange to invoke a legal tool that's infamous due to its corporate abuse. However I recognize that it has protected me as an individual artisan and inventor."
For their part, Gwynneth Llewelyn and her colleagues continue to foster another experiment in online world democracy, on the island with a new name-- and, perhaps, an even more ideologically contentious polity.
"At this stage," she told me last week, "things at Neufreistadt are rather stable, and many are probably baffled why we get both conservatives, neo-conservatives, liberals, a few libertarians, an extreme right-wing observer (he hasn't become a citizen yet), lots of social democrats, and a few socialists. It's a rowdy crowd."
Gwynneth smiles. "What it also means is that we're usually labeled as fascists by the communists, and communists by the liberals and conservatives. Well, both camps are actually right— we have all of those inside Neufreistadt these days, but that's how it should be in a free country."