Linden Lab's collective copyright conundrum

Over the last few months, there's been an increasing amount of talk about the modified Second Life viewer being used with Open Life Grid (a third-party virtual environment based on reverse-engineered and open-source systems and protocols). Most of the talk centers around copyright infringement -- or license violations, if you prefer.

It's claimed that the operators of Open Life Grid are failing to comply with the source-code licenses (the GPL with FLOSS exceptions) under which the Second Life source code has been made available. Now, while the issue has been reported to Linden Lab's license-infringement hotline, the issue is actually a bit trickier for the Lab than it would first appear.

You see, the viewer code contains contributions from a number of third-party contributors, each of which retains their copyright, intellectual property and rights to their contributions under the terms of the contribution agreement. All of whom have the right to commence their own actions.

Linden Lab does not (as a rule) discuss any legal or enforcement matter with any other party. However, as each contributor is a joint copyright holder who can take action of their own, the question is: Can the Lab afford not to discuss its plans and actions in this matter with its fellow copyright holders?

"Linden Lab will rarely, if ever, publicize legal disputes with third parties, since that tends to have a negative effect on any conversation intended to resolve the dispute," observes Rob Lanphier, Linden Lab's 'Open Source Busybody', "So, please don't assume that lack of public action is the same as lack of action."

But signs on the SLDev mailing list and on other forums suggest that some contributors have interpreted the silence as unwarranted delay or lack of action on the Lab's part. And should any of them seek to take legal action of their own, the "effect on any conversation intended to resolve the dispute" cannot be predicted. The safe bet would seem to be for the Lab to communicate the status to its fellow copyright holders, as alien as that idea may seem.

Sure, Linden Lab has the contractual and legal right to take unilateral action for infringements in license terms, but it may well be that it no longer has the luxury to do so.

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