Eerily ergonomic, infinitely adjustable, incredibly expensive, the Aeron chair is a fetish item in the computer industry, so it's not surprising that Residents have made virtual versions of them in Second Life since the very beginning. All that's changed, however, because Herman Miller, the company behind the Aeron, has just set up their own official store in SL, and is giving away chairs made with their official imprimatur. For a limited time, Residents with knock-off Aerons can bring them to the Herman Miller outlet in Avalon (direct teleport at this link) and exchange them for an officially branded SL version, for free. This exchange agreement also applies to Second Life knock-offs of designs by Charles and Ray Eames, and other masterpieces in the Herman Miller catalog. (The company otherwise sells their Second Life line for around L$300-600, i.e., a few dollars.)
Residents who have been creating and selling Herman Miller knock-offs up, however, are getting a less friendly offer from the company:
"[W]e've contacted those parties and informed them of our trade dress protections, copyrights and trademarks they are infringing, asking politely but firmly that they cease and desist," the firm's pokesman, appropriately named MarkSchurman HermanMiller, tells me. "Some have complied, others have countered with proposed partnerships, and some have yet to respond."
And with that announcement, the first public salvo has been fired: a real world corporation is loudly and actively asserting its real world intellectual property rights against Resident-made objects which allegedly infringes them. Many wondered when this moment would come, and though DMCA notices have been quietly filed by companies through Linden Lab, this is the first move I'm aware of that's being done in conjunction with an official move into Second Life, and a marketing offer. (The furniture swap is part of Herman Miller's "Get Real" campaign handled by Rivers Run Red, a metaverse studio currently advertising another client's services on this blog.)
Other real world companies interested in staking out an SL claim of their own will surely watch what transpires next. In a world where economies of scale are irrelevant, and a skilled Second Life builder working from her parents' basement can create furniture of equal visual quality to anything in New York's finest showrooms, is a corporation's official brand a strength, or a liability?
As it turns out, those answers many depend on how soon you're able to get your feet on the ground.
Coke in Greenies' popular kitchen, with the company's OK
Not all real world corporations in Second Life take Herman Miller's aggressive approach, one should add. Coca Cola, for example, allows Residents to incorporate their famous trademark into user-created content, just so long as it's not in an overtly violent or sexual context. (Then again, Coke isn't selling any of its official products in SL.)
The Herman Miller store, MarkSchurman tells me, is actually an outgrowth of a company R&D program that was already studying Second Life.
"The store was simply a natural extension of the effort," he says, "giving us a presence in-world so that we can actively participate within the community in a way that hopefully adds value and richness. Protecting our intellectual property was an outgrowth of that interest, as we began to look around and realized there were a number of sellers infringing on our designs and brand." And though he doubts many Residents are making a fortune from Herman Miller knockoffs, they're still earning a profit off the legendary brand. In any case, he adds, "[T]he strength of legal trademarks and copyrights is directly linked to the holder's rigorous defense of them--by ignoring infringement the holder weakens the value of the intellectual property and raises the likelihood others will choose to infringe."
MarkSchurman believes that the real appeal of their official product line in Second Life will be the same quality their real world analogues are known for. "If our virtual designs are superior, as we think they are," he says, "and you want the accompanying 'label' that identifies them as Real Herman Miller, there shouldn't be any reason someone would want the knock-off in their inventory."
Ironically, the official Aerons, while beautifully detailed, are not as robustly designed as many Resident-made chairs on the market now. I find that out after a Herman Miller salesman and I take a seat, and realize that our feet are dangling inches off the floor.
"Can I adjust this chair?" I ask him.
He says that's not possible at the moment.
I actually laugh out loud. "An Aeron chair you can't adjust?" That seems like an iPhone(tm) without a touch interface, or a Moleskin(tm) notebook made from flimsy cardboard.
The Herman Miller salesman tells me they just opened their store, and will be making improvements.