The Second Life community boasts numerous roleplay groups based on well-known intellectual properties. Variations spun from the narratives of Star Wars, as here, and Star Trek, as here, abound. Many are extremely large; by one estimate, for instance, the number of Residents roleplaying in settings derived from John Norman's Gor novels approach 50,000. Among the smaller of these is a group dedicated to Dune, the classic Frank Herbert sci-fi franchise of novels, movies, and other IP. Their leader, Vooper Werribee, counts 130 members who enjoy roleplay in the sands of an Arrakis based in Second Life, taking on the personae of sandworm-riding Fremen, Harkonnen-hating Atreides, and so on. (He believes only 20% of these are currently active.)
Notwithstanding those paltry numbers, last weekend Werribee and other members received legal notices from Linden Lab via Trident Media Group, a New York literary agency which maintains the Herbert Estate. "In particular," the notice reads, "Trident Media Group has complained about your use of characters, concepts and other material associated with 'Dune' in the Second Life environment." Those include roleplay locations entitled "Sardaukar Mask", "Fremen Domain", and "Bene Gesserit Retreat". The Lindens' notice ordered Werribee and his group to remove such titles and objects from Second Life within two days, or the company would do so itself.
I made two attempts in as many days to confirm this notice with the Trident agent listed in the notice, but have not received a reply. However, I did receive a confirmation from the Lindens (full statement below.)
So this is perhaps the first publicly confirmed case of an SL roleplay group finding itself under fire for alleged IP rights violations. In any case, Vooper Werribee does not dispute Trident's right to file such a notice, though he finds it "quite intriguing how this has manifested itself in a somewhat obscure setting when as far as I can see Star Wars and Star Trek-based roleplay sims do not seem to have suffered the same intellectual property enforcement." Then again, both of those franchises have a history of allowing their fans to create derivative works, as long as it's not defamatory, and no profit is made. (Werribee tells me he's never made a profit from his desert sim, only charging rental fees to help defray land costs, but has still lost several thousand dollars owning it.)
And where do the Lindens stand on Second Life roleplay based around unauthorized IP? They sent me this statement from their legal team:
"We're impressed by the creativity of role-playing games in Second Life and believe that they're an important part of the inworld social experience. When intellectual property owners notify us of concerns about fans' use of their intellectual property, we pass these concerns along. It's our hope that the parties will communicate directly to resolve their disagreement in a way that respects intellectual property while continuing to offer great experiences for fans and gamers in Second Life."
By the time I visited the Arrakis of Vooper Werribee, however, his version of Dune had been duly renamed. He did, however, maintain the uniform of an Atreides. I asked him if he planned to remove his remaining Dune-esque objects from Second Life.
"No," he answers. "We've made all the compliance changes we intend to now. Basically we've removed the words 'Dune', Bene Gesserit, Atreides, etc. from as many object names and descriptions as we can find. But we still intend to keep the place as a 'generic' sci-fi desert planet with spice mining. And still intend to roleplay here." Ironically, he tells me Star Trek roleplayers have expressed an interest in using it for "first contact" scenarios. "Some Star Wars players are interested in using the place as a 'spice mining' base," he adds. "As Star Wars has 'spice'."
"The spice must flow?" I suggest.
Vooper Werribee laughs. "It sure must!"
Update, 4/16: In comments, open source guru Richard Stallman offers some trenchant observations, which include questions about references to "intellectual property", which actually subsume numerous types of legal claims. For clarity's sake, I'm posting the full infringement notice sent by the Lindens' to Vooper's real life email address:
Subject: Re: Notification of Trademark and Copyright Infringement Received by Linden Lab
Linden Lab has received notification from Trident Media Group, LLC, the authorized agent for the Frank Herbert Estate, that you have infringed its trademark and copyrights in the science fiction novel and film “Dune.” In particular, Trident Media Group has complained about your use of characters, concepts and other material associated with “Dune” in the Second Life environment.
Linden Lab respects the rights of both Second Life residents, as well as trademark and copyright owners. Accordingly, we ask that you discontinue using “Dune” within the Second Life environment. Please remove all material that makes use of any “Dune” intellectual property. Please remove them from your inventory and all in-world locations, including but not limited to the following:
Object: Map of Arrakis
Object: Sardaukar Mask
Location: Region of Splintered Rock
Parcel Name: The Worm Hole
Parcel Name: Fremen Domain
Location: Region of Desert Basin East
Parcel Name: Bene Gesserit Retreat
Parcel Name: Dune Roleplay: Spice Miner's Hostel
Parcel Name: Dune Roleplay at Splintered Rock
Location: Region of Splintered Rock
If you do not do so within two (2) business days, please be aware that Linden Lab intends to expeditiously remove, or disable access to, the allegedly infringing work(s).
Within two (2) business days, please also provide us with new, non-infringing names for the Second Life groups listed below. If we do not hear from you, Linden Lab will disable your groups until new non-infringing names are provided.
Group: Dune Roleplay at Splintered Rock
Please direct any future communications regarding this matter to Trident Media Group:
[Trident contact info redacted]
Linden Lab Removal Team