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Linden Lab asserts control of names and images

Tateru Nino

When Linden Lab chooses to shake things up, it doesn't do it by half-measures. Easter Monday saw an announcement by Linden Lab that they were introducing a new Second Life logo program, and changing the terms under which various words and images are presented.

Unfortunately, we technically can't show you the new logo, since by all rights we have to go through the application process first. Actually, after reading all the terms and conditions a bunch of times, we are not sure that we're even allowed to mention its name. It's inSL, anyway. We'll let the company lawyers sort through the paperwork.

Linden Lab is giving everyone 90 days to cease using SL and Second Life words and images as a part of their domain names, trademarks, business names and site imagery, except where explicitly permitted by the new rules or where licensed (such licenses unlikely to be granted).

We've noticed a tendency for Linden Lab policy announcements and supporting information to be both lengthy and tantalizingly incomplete, usually omitting the key items that you really want to know. Today's announcement and the collection of supporting documentation in the new Brand Center seems to be no exception to that trend.

A number of older Second Life users, such as the redoubtable and energetic Gwyneth Llewelyn, tell us that they seem to recall that Linden Lab provided a general relaxed grant of the use of the SL term in the past, though we have been unable to locate such a grant, if it ever existed.

The changes in terms and conditions would appear to invalidate Richard Minsky's controversial SLART trademark (as that directly contravenes the usage guidelines), without specific permission -- though having already been granted his trademark by the US Patent and Trademark Office, Linden Lab would have to convince him to either vacate it, or go through a formal challenge on the mark regardless of the terms that Linden Lab now specifies.

It's not hard to see where Linden Lab is coming from here. They don't want to end up like Kleenex or Xerox where their unique names have become generic terms that include other brands. People are already starting to refer to Chinese virtual world HiPiHi as 'the Chinese Second Life'.

With the increasing proliferation of Second Life compatible grids and simulators, Linden Lab hardly wants everyone else's brand being referred to with their own trademarks -- and face it, Second Life is becoming an increasingly generic term in the media.

Buchanan Ingersoll and Rooney's Frank Taney (who represented Eros LLC and others in two Second Life content theft cases recently) agrees that the protection of the value of the trademarks, and guarding against their dilution is very important to Linden Lab. "Linden is trying to prevent consumer confusion about what products or services are actually provided by Linden," observes Taney, "and to prevent consumers drawing negative associations with Linden's marks because of the nature of the products and services with which third parties are using Linden's marks."

There seem to be several possible motivations behind the sudden step up in trademark enforcement. Taney speculated, "To show potential acquirers or investors that their marks have value and that they are appropriately policing their marks."

Other possible factors creating the impetus for the new regulations could include a desire to change the company culture to make it more traditionally corporate and less Haight-Ashbury, or simply a general concern about Linden Lab's corporate image and the perception of its products and services.

Linden Lab has not specified what actions it might take against users or businesses that include Second Life, Linden, or SL in their names if they fail to comply within the 90 day grace period. Since a Second Life user or group cannot change names, it will be interesting to see how that plays out. There are a lot of groups and user names that include those trademarks within Second Life itself.

As for organizations and websites outside of Second Life, we assume that actions will primarily consist of lawsuits and injunctions in the event of non-compliance.

FlipperPA Peregrine, who has been responsible for quite a number of ventures that happen to include 'SL' as a part of their link to Second Life, and whose efforts in these ventures have been previously lauded by Linden Lab, told us "This is quite overbearing, as Linden Lab has always encouraged creative use of naming conventions before."

"How many times have we heard Torley, a Linden employee, use the term 'Essellians', for example? Hopefully this will get people to stop saying 'Linden Labs', at least, which has always been a pet peeve of mine!". It's one of ours also, we might add.

As someone with personal experience running such such endeavors as as SLBoutique and SLCC (the Second Life Community Convention), and who understands the importance of both cross-pollination of branding and of brand-protection, we asked Peregrine if he was concerned about the change in terms.

"I'm quite concerned, to be honest," he told us, "I'm not going to pass judgment until I see how Linden Lab is going to try to enforce it, but trying to lay claim to the acronym 'SL' seems very overbearing."

Thanks to Sarah Nerd, we all know SL stands for "Super Lulz" (well, among other things that rank quite a bit more highly than Second Life). We wonder if the new Slovenian presence in Second Life will object to Linden Lab suborning these two letters. [More about the new Slovenian installation coming up in the next day or so - Stay tuned!]

"These more stringent restrictions could really hurt third party developers who enhance and popularize Linden Lab's own product. Given the current state of Linden Lab public relations, I'd think there would be bigger fish to fry than worrying about how their fan base refers to them."

Peregrine always preferred to think that Linden Lab dealt with users in these matters much the way that Paramount treated Star Trek fans, but fears that these changes signal the harsher Tao of Apple Inc.

Linden Lab's new guidelines are quite broad, and definitely seem intended to apply to the press at large and news blogs (like ourselves). Eric Krangel at Reuters observed, "Based on a cursory examination of the press guidelines, the matter is being passed to our legal department for a review of compliance."

Whatever the reason for this specific shift, it is most telling that it indicates the latest in a long-term change in Linden Lab psychology. One which has, perhaps, been in progress for a year or more and has -- we think -- yet to play out fully.

Linden Lab, Second Life, inSL and SL, are trademarks of Linden Research, Inc. Massively, the Joystiq network and Weblogs Inc are not affiliated with or sponsored by Linden Research, and you'd have to be unreasonably foolish to think otherwise.

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