The Virtual Whirl: Of villains and crusaders

This week, in The Virtual Whirl, we're taking a look at the vigilante side of intellectual property rights.

For many, it seems like a good idea to mass-report or name-and-shame intellectual property rights violators whenever and wherever you see them ... but is it really?

A fellow who held some Second Life land near the home of one of my groups spent about a year building up his site for use by one of his role-playing groups. We'll call him Jon. Jon wasn't a very fast builder and didn't get a lot of time online, but he was meticulous, and his time online coincided with mine, so I saw him working at it a little every day.

Occasionally I wandered over and we talked about the design, and we'd brainstorm for adjustments. I didn't have any particular interest with his group, but he was a nice guy to talk building with, and the end result was very nice.

Just to place things on a timeline, this was all in the days before anyone ever used the word 'copybot' or the first version of that device had even been made, but even back then there were ways to rip prims and textures if that's what you wanted to do.

Anyway, the build was finally completed, and Jon was very proud. It wasn't until a few weeks later that a fly in the ointment emerged.

See, about seven or eight weeks before he'd finished, a store had sprung up many sims away that was almost completely identical in all but a few flourishes – owned by someone we'll call Jacob. Jon didn't know about Jacob's build.

As I mentioned, all was quiet for a few weeks, then one of Jacob's regular customers saw Jon's build.

Jon started to get angry notecards and IMs from Jacob's customers and their friends, accusing Jon of ripping off Jacob's store design.

People picketed his site, disrupted and griefed the role-playing group when they were in session, and even set a few sim-crashers (back then you could actually get a scripted device that was capable of crashing a sim almost on demand), which meant that locking down the parcel itself didn't help things any.

Jon eventually deleted the build, abandoned the land and I haven't seen him since then. I did have an opportunity to speak to Jacob after, who said nobody had ever told him a thing about it.

Jon clearly hadn't copied Jacob's work. Had Jacob copied Jon's? I think it is unwise to speculate. Coincidences really actually happen sometimes. The more people you have creating content, the more likely it is that two people might hit on the same bit of zeitgeist.

In another incident, during my time writing for Second Life Insider (which became Massively, obviously), I ran into a fellow who ran a Second Life club whose design and signage closely mirrored that of a prominent offline establishment.

We chatted about it, and it turned out that he'd sought permission to do so from the company and had been granted it, having a rather long and detailed letter outlining what the company felt were acceptable and unacceptable uses of their trademarks. They had insisted on a few minor modifications, but gave their blessing to the project.

The club operator was in business for about four months before some well-meaning user thought that his club was in violation of the company's trademarks and filed an abuse-report with Linden Lab. Linden Lab deleted the content (from the parcel and from the operator's inventory), without seeking any verification.

After all, conventional wisdom is that virtually all usage of corporate trademarks in Second Life is unauthorized usage. Except that it wasn't. In another case content was deleted that was created by the rights-holder themselves – they left Second Life, of course, and chose not to return.

Another user in Second Life adapts a number of popular German table-top games for use and sale in the virtual environment, and has permission to do so. He has, on a number of occasions, expressed concerns that someone might get it into their heads that his work is unauthorized and lose it all, without recourse.

Intellectual property rights vigilantes, alas, aren't privy to any communications between third-parties. They don't know when rights may have been formally granted to another person or under what conditions. I've seen a temporary, authorized, Disney build in Second Life and cannot ever be absolutely sure if their copyrights and trademarks are being used with authority or without it.

If you want to get involved in the fight against fakes, rips, and intellectual property abuses and misuses in virtual environments, your best course of action is to contact the rights-holder. They are, after all, the only ones in a position to know what rights they have granted or withheld and to whom.

Angry mob tactics just put everyone offside, including rights-holders who may think twice about licensing content into virtual environments if it causes more trouble than it seems to be worth.

Most importantly, however, it is the right of the rights-holder to choose when, if and how to take action (or inaction) in any unauthorized usage situation. If you're taking action for them without their knowledge and approval, you're actually infringing on their legal intellectual property rights. You've become a villain, and not a crusader.

This article was originally published on Massively.