COPYING A CONTROVERSY (Updated)
If the earliest days of Second Life resemble the first century of American history (and they do) then the most recent years of the world seem to be replicating the last couple decades of the Internet in miniature form. Throughout 2004, SL was an obscure medium for gamers, techies, and assorted early adopters— not unlike the Net’s Usenet groups of the 80s and early 90s— then somewhere in mid-2005, began attracting substantial interest from real world businesses and the mainstream media. Which, much like Netscape’s initial public offering in 1995, led to the mini-dot com boom we’re awash in now, with massive brick-and-mortar corporations throwing money at the world with a kind of frantic urgency. (And like the original boom, usually ending up with lightly-trafficked sites of ambivalent success.)
Right on schedule, the peer-to-peer, open source movement that consumed the Internet of the late 90s arrived to Second Life’s community in recent weeks, beginning with the idealism of talented hackers creating cool applications— which quickly careened into widespread protest, accusations of IP theft, and economic chaos.
Welcome to the Napster era of Second Life. This time, the part of Shawn Fanning is played in part by a tiny pink cat, while everyone else in the world gets to be Metallica. But if I recall right, Lars Ulrich never tried to crush Fanning with a giant boulder.
First, the cool hack from idealistic coders: it begins with libsecondlife, a group of Residents attempting (with Linden Lab’s explicit blessing) to reverse engineer an open source, modified BSD-licensed version of the Second Life client. The ultimate goal are limitless versions of the client, operating on thousands of independent servers insuring Second Life’s spread through the entire Net. While the group has been operating for months, in the last week or two they introduced an in-world demonstration of their client that very quickly became the buzz of the community. The libsecondlife team had figured out a way to log automated avatars into the world, using their scaled down version of the client.
With Eddy Stryker
“The client is a small command-line program written in C# that has all the code needed to ‘speak Second Life’, so to speak,” libsecondlife member Eddy Stryker explained, when he showed me the technology last week. “From the server's point of view it looks and acts exactly like a normal client logging in to the grid, going through all the same steps, it just sends less data… Basically they look and act just like a normal client with a lot of options turned off or turned down.”
The hack suggested a way of finally introducing AIs and non-player characters into the world, creating endless possibilities for game development, simulation, and more, but that wasn’t even the coolest part. Because not only had they figured out a way of introducing artificial avatars, they’d also hacked up a way of cloning existing avatars, clothes included. Not just one or two clones, but over a dozen, dropping out of the sky like godspawn.
Edited in double-time, this video demonstration features me, Talila Liu, and Gwyneth Llewelyn and our several dozen doppelgangers:
“It logs in to SL, reads the appearances of the closest
avatar, and sets its appearance exactly like that person had theirs set,”
Stryker explained to me, while I stood amid a
“So the one bad thing I see with this is designers of clothes and stuff bitching,” Talila Liu observed, after her run through the cloning process.
“Yeah,” Eddy Stryker acknowledged, “it could be a problem at some point, and that's a general issue for Second Life overall. This specific bot, though, doesn't save any information, so when you turn it off all the temporary data is erased.” Eddy already had an application of his own in mind. “I am working on a project for a client right now that needs these mannequins,” he said, “which is going to have an early preview in the first week of December. But at the same time, the libsecondlife library is open for anyone to use, and we have a channel of developers that are all working on their own projects.”
He said that last week, and in retrospect, it was an ominous statement. Because while libsecondlife’s cloning bot didn’t save any information about the avatars it imitated, a similar libSL application, CopyBot, did. Intended by the group as an offline debugging tool, it existed in their site’s source code repository, and someone took advantage of the group’s open library to compile a version— and start selling it in-world. Several more people got into the CopyBot sales business.
And within a few days, as Talila Liu had predicted, CopyBot was savaging the community of Second Life content creators. But they did more than bitch about it
Many of them expressed their fears to Linden Lab. An announcement from the official company blog addressed their concerns, but did not generally resolve those worries, for it began by saying, “Copying does not always mean theft. There can be legitimate uses for copying, just as there are on the web.” Which was, to be sure, a totally valid observation to make, but for some content creators, that seemed to suggest Linden Lab was taking a neutral stance on CopyBot, telling them instead to take it up with a DMCA suit, if they felt their IP rights were being violated.
And so concern became panic, or anger, or both. Many content creators took their grievances to the marketplace, closing down their shops and nightclubs and venues, in protest:
As of yesterday, over a hundred locations were shuttered, including some of the most popular sites in Second Life, like The Edge nightclub of Jenna Fairplay. While there were surely hundreds if not thousands of other storeowners and vendors who didn’t join the boycott, the impact of those who did was undeniable. It was quite possibly the largest and most substantial collective protest staged against a Linden Lab policy since the tax protest of 2003; and like that teacrate rebellion, it was an open display of no-confidence in the company’s commitment to a core tenet of the society. The tax revolt was fueled by a policy that seemed to penalize excessive content creation; fairly or unfairly, the CopyBot Boycott of 2006 was driven by fears that Linden Lab would not be an active defender of users’ IP rights.
But the protest didn’t stop at the boycott, and the several Residents who were selling the CopyBot soon found themselves swarmed by Residents waving signs and shouting slogans.
Which brings us back to the tiny pink cat, who yesterday was one of the Residents selling the CopyBot— in his case for L$1500, either as a money-making opportunity, or a way to grief worried Residents, or both. (In a brief, somewhat incoherent interview, the cat claimed that he’d sold over a hundred copies of CopyBot, and that he was well in his rights to do so, since Linden Lab “said it was OK to use, as long as you weren't violating copyright.”) When I arrived, he was standing next to his vending machine, trying to keep it clear of obstructions. Not satisfied with mere sign-waving, some protesters kept rezzing large wooden barriers that would block the cat’s vending machine, which he in turn kept deleting away.
He was a football-sized miscreant, and in the face of several dozen Residents swearing and chanting at him, stood there silently, which seemed to enrage them even further. One Resident created a massive boulder, instantiating it next to the vendor, and as it grew a hundred meters in diameter, flung cat, protesters, and embedded reporter skyward in every direction:
And so it continued, there and throughout the grid, content creators and their allies versus those who would unleash CopyBot into the world.
Within hours of this, Linden Lab reasserted its authority, in tones both apologetic to the community at large and angry at the exploiters. Thenceforth, senior developer Cory Linden announced, use of the CopyBot or similar technology would be considered a violation of the world’s Terms of Service. Violators were now subject to permanent exile.
And with that, in the span of a few days, the Copybot controversy—at least in terms of an active protest— was resolved.
The fallout, of course, continues. And in its way of being a parallel, alternate world history of the Internet, Second Life has finally reached a place that’s more or less on a par with the Net as it is now, where arguments over digital rights management and file trading still rage. On the larger Internet, those debates generally pit larger corporations against their consumers, the RIAA and the MPAA versus, well, everyone else. But in a world where everyone by definition can, with a few clicks, become a content-creating entrepreneur, the debate has become egalitarian, pitting creator against creator, each with their own personal view of what constitutes theft and fair use, and the degree of faith they place in having their IP rights kept sacrosanct in Second Life.
You can see that in my blog’s Open Forum on the topic, where for example, Gwyneth Llewelyn observes, “I find it amusing but perhaps educational to see how freely people rip off MP3 or movies or applications or games, without thinking twice that they are effectively violating other people's copyrights... but in SL, they suddenly understand what ‘content piracy’ is all about!”
In coming months, Linden Lab promises to implement Creative Commons licensing, creation date watermarks, and other tools which enable Resident creators to make more plain which content they created, and when, and what compensation they expect in return, for its use. Perhaps those features will be enough to restore the confidence of those who felt most threatened by CopyBot; perhaps by then, for one reason or another, it won’t matter.
As for libsecondlife, a group widely admired for its hacking skills, they are now anathema with many who depend on the creation of SL fashion and other content for their livelihood. “Some are just plain scared,” LibSL member Baba Yamamoto tells me. “Some hate us… we've had people leave the group because of the reaction their friends had… we've been banned outright from what sounds like half of Second Life, if you believe the forums.”
But Baba still sees a positive outcome in all this.
“I tried my best to explain what CopyBot is, and why it's inevitable,” he says. They regret making the technology freely available, he insists, but do not regret “the exposure of the problem we face because of it. CopyBot does nothing that an open source client couldn’t do. It deals with only what the clients are sent.” In other words, while CopyBot may have been obliterated from the world, the fact still remains that computer graphics which are visible over the Internet are, by their very nature, copyable.
“We learned from CopyBot," Baba says, "to be more careful with what we release publicly. The problem is that we are open source and our source code is public.” As with Eddie Stryker, it strikes me that Baba Yamamoto doesn’t seem emotionally engaged by the controversy, evincing a programmers’ fixation with the reality that code makes law— but an emotional indifference to the furor it caused. I suggest as much to him.
“Personally I'm not upset by CopyBot,” he acknowledges. “I can’t speak for other [libsecondlife members]. “I wish we had done it a bit differently, but I feel this outcome was inevitable. We may come off a bit worse than if we had done it differently, but I don’t think we could prevent it.”
“This seems like another case of talented coders who create a very cool hack for the challenge,” I say, “and only realize the possible negative social consequences after the damage has been done. Sound fair?”
“That sounds true. Still we should have handled it better. [But] I still stand behind my decision to publicize the insecurity of the system. The way CopyBot was presented was not right, but this would still be the result…
“Until now people felt safe, sort of,” says Baba Yamamoto, “they figure the content is protected.”
And while few are inclined to be thankful, CopyBot has liberated them from that illusion.
UPDATE, 11/16: An announcement posted on the Libsecondlife website this morning begins with this statement: "The libsecondlife team was disappointed this morning to learn that several days ago, Baba Yamamoto and Nimrod Yaffle were both aware of and flaunting the misuse potential of the CopyBot test-suite. Mindless of the consequences of their actions, they persisted in demonstrating and distributing the application. In light of this betrayal of our trust and reckless attitude toward intellectual property concerns, we will not permit them to stand alongside us. Nimrod Yaffle was not, and has never been, a part of libsecondlife. Baba Yamamoto has now been told formally that he is no longer a part of the team and all his access has been withdrawn. We will now restrict developer access to those who are capable of demonstrating maturity and self restraint, and who are respectful of the trust placed in us by Linden Lab and the greater SL community." Confusingly, the post's author is listed as Baba Yamamoto. Investigating further.
Note: This post has been updated several times since publication yesterday afternoon. Scroll to end of story to read Updates. - HA, 11/16
2nd Note: Here's a follow-up to this story. - HA, 11/26
2ND UPDATE, 11/16, 2:30pm: According to Linden Lab Director of Community Services Daniel Linden, "the company has received slightly fewer than 100 complaints regarding the use of Copybot by close to fifty individuals."
3RD UPDATE, 11/16, 9:45pm: In this SL blog and others, Residents have pointed to a libsecondlife IRC chat log that seems to imply that members of libsecondlife, including Baba Yamamoto, actually made CopyBot publicly available out of willful malice or gleeful nihilism, knowing full well the chaos it would cause. In Comments below, Yamamoto has just posted an annotated explanation of the chat log, to argue that these claims were taken out of context.