Yesterday, top Second Life content creators Munchflower Zaius and Stroker Serpentine filed a class-action lawsuit in U.S. District Court against Linden Lab, for allegedly allowing and enabling content theft of their material by other Residents. Rather, the avatars' real life owners, Shannon Grei of virtual fashion brand Nomine and Kevin Alderman of adult entertainment empire Eros LLC, respectively, joined the lawsuit on behalf of their businesses. Reached in-world yesterday, Ms. Zaius (right) declined comment, though Serpentine suggested to the Alphaville Herald that the plaintiffs did not expect monetary damages, so much as better protection of user-created content: "This is about a pattern of ambivelence over six years. We want fundamental change in the regard to the very content and creators that made SL what it is today."
To see Zaius and Serpentine listed on this lawsuit is not surprising; in 2007 they were co-plaintiffs in a copyright and trademark suit against a fellow SL user. And Serpentine has been a passionate advocate of virtual IP rights against content thieves in-world (as with this public awareness campaign) and a loud, frequent critic of Linden IP enforcement policies, which he considered lax and inconsistent. Their lawsuit, therefore, is effectively a trouble ticket sent via the US court system.
Does their case have merit? That's for legal minds and the court to discern, but three points stand out to me:
- Can Vuitton Make the Lindens Liable? In a recent trademark/copyright lawsuit, Luis Vuitton won $32 million in damages not against someone selling Vuitton knock-offs, but the Internet Service Providers who hosted the knock-off sites. "The jury agreed with LV that the ISP defendants should be liable," notes Keith Kupferschmid, "because they knew of the large amounts of counterfeiting of LV product taking place on their sites and failed to take proper action to stop it." IANAL, but it seems possible that Serpentine and Zaius' law team will invoke this precedent, and argue the Lindens didn't respond forcefully enough to content theft complaints.
- Will Success Give Content Creators' More Protection -- Or Barriers? If this lawsuit is successful from the plaintiffs' point of view, it may actually be bad for the content creation community, especially small-time creators just starting out. A successful suit may pressure the Lindens to add greater legal restrictions and liability waiver protections to the content creation process. (In real world economics, it should be noted, threats of lawsuits generally hurt small businesses, who can't afford to insure themselves against liability, and benefit established corporations, who can.)
- The Ultimate Irony of User-Created Content. It's unlikely that Second Life would be as successful as it is, without talented content makers like Munchflower and Stroker. At the same time, it's also unlikely that either of them would have the career they do, without Second Life's success. (Previous to his career as a virtual adult content entrepreneur, as he relayed in a recent documentary, Kevin Alderman was a plumber. As Stroker Serpentine, however, according to MediaPost, he's grossed over $1 million dollars in content sales.) Or to put it another way, if Linden Lab had not managed to develop a successful virtual economy, he would probably not have the money to sue Linden Lab.
What's your take? And while it's difficult in such a fractious case, please keep it civil.