EFF Agrees That Copyright In Second Life Is A Mess

from the exactly dept

Way back in 2003, when Second Life first announced that its users owned the copyright on anything they produced in the world, we pointed out what a bad idea it was. In the early days it was cheered on, because people thought it was better than what they considered the alternative to be (i.e., Second Life creators Linden Lab owns the copyright on everything). But as I noted at the time, the problem was that putting real world copyright into a virtual world, where the fundamentals of physics are entirely different, is bound to cause problems. You have property rights in the real world to deal with the efficient allocation of scarce goods. Putting them into a world where there is no scarcity at all on those goods is backwards, and only leads to massive problems.

It’s nice to find out that some folks at the EFF have come around to this viewpoint also. Michael Scott points out that Fred von Lohman recently noted at a conference that copyright in Second Life was “in some ways worse” than in the real world, noting that just posting a screenshot from within Second Life may violate many different copyrights — unlike taking a photo on the street. And, by setting up virtual world issues to be governed by external world laws, problems are going to follow. This was a situation that from the beginning should have been dealt with in Second Life, rather than trying to apply real world laws to a world with a fundamentally different makeup.

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Comments on “EFF Agrees That Copyright In Second Life Is A Mess”

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Catharina (user link) says:


You might be interested to know that our Second Life group “4freedom” is activating against the way copyrights work in Second Life. We filed a petition against that and now Linden Lab is cooperating on implementing a different system into the viewer. The idea is to let creators make an active choice on copyrights. For more information see:

Ima Fish (profile) says:

the problem was that putting real world copyright into a virtual world, where the fundamentals of physics are entirely different, is bound to cause problems. You have property rights in the real world to deal with the efficient allocation of scarce goods. Putting them into a world where there is no scarcity at all on those goods is backwards, and only leads to massive problems.

What the frick are you talking about? What exactly does copyright, which is a government granted monopoly, have to do with physics? How can physics impact a legally created government grant?! And since when do you equate property rights with copyrights. They’re not synonymous at all.

It isn’t April first where you live, is it?

Xanthir, FCD (profile) says:

What the frick are you talking about? What exactly does copyright, which is a government granted monopoly, have to do with physics? How can physics impact a legally created government grant?! And since when do you equate property rights with copyrights. They’re not synonymous at all.

Hi! Your reading comprehension must be a little low, because we’re talking about Second Life in this post, not the real world! In SL, the ‘laws of physics’ are sufficiently different such that you can duplicate ‘physical’ objects with the same ease as digital objects (because they are digital, of course!).

Thus, property rights mix with copyrights here, and physics *can* have an effect on government-granted monopolies. We’ll run into similar problems here in the real world when we get a decent 3d printer that the masses can afford.

Prokofy Neva (profile) says:

EFF Needs to Keep Their Paws of SL

Catharina, don’t misrepresent yourself here. You can’t unilaterally force something into the viewer with only 95 votes, and the Linden that implied this was being undertaken in fact has left Linden Lab. You evidently represent a tiny minority of copyleftists in Second Life. It’s absolutely right that the default of objects is that indeed they are on closed permissions, i.e. proprietary to prevent especially newbies from unwittingly losing their creations by inadvertently giving them away. All the flags are perfectly flexible in the current iteration to signal any intent from sharing to selling so there’s no need to monkey with it under the case of “choice” – the choice is already there, with built-in protection against un-choice.

If you want to give away everything for free and make it copyable, you’re able to do that with the existing tools and don’t have to forcibly impose the Freetard Republic on everyone in Second Life.

Once again, I see evidence that the “Electronic Freedom Foundation” if in fact they are embracing this, isn’t really about freedom and copyright but about undermining the link between creativity and commerce, just like Creative Commons and Lawrence Lessig. No thanks.

Let’s go back to the urban legend that sparked this latest spasm. This idea that you have to ask permission for every single screenshot of a scene in SL is patently ridiculous. It’s a concoction by lawyers looking for work in virtual worlds, and has been hyped by several lawyers in particular on the conference circuit of late — recently a conference at Stanford flogged this concept, which is why you seepeople freaking about it now. There is no lawsuit testing this. There is certainly no court case testing this. No one has ever launched anything anywhere near a lawsuit against someone taking a screenshot in SL of a scene as a violation of copyright, although they have launched lawsuits, which have been settled out of court, about copyright infringement of specific creations like clothing and furniture.

No, this is all Lawrence Lessig’s work. He was happy to flog copyright for the little guy in Second Life when he saw it as an engine to challenge what he saw as a powerful and potentially very popular software company making a 3-D world, and go against the tide of games like World of Warcraft where the game gods own everything. But as soon as people then enjoyed that freedom and the recognition of property rights to make income and prosper, then it evidently became ideologically distasteful to him, and the EFF. Lessig was nowhere to be found then when it came time to protect the little guy’s copyright against rampant theft and the distinterest of LL about exploits in the viewer — he was too busy browbeating people to give everything away.

Just because there is an “analogue hole” in SL as with any digital property doesn’t mean that the DRM that is used on it is somehow ineffective or cumbersome for those that want to “share”. That problem always annoyingly hyped by irritated tekkies that they can’t copy their tunes on to various laptops and devices doesn’t obtain in SL because due to the properties of virtuality, many items you buy are copyable but not physically transferrable so you can place out different copies or use them repeatedly without violating copyright.

The SL DRM is brilliant. It works as the codification of intellectual property rights and a social injunction against theft the way web pages never succeeded in doing (because the Web 1.0 engineers didn’t want it to succeed, given their own copyleftist ideology). It works to signal the intent of the maker and ensure that he can make an income from his creativity.

Please come and take my poll which helps give the big lie to Creative Commons:

Second Life, unlike the music industry online, has proved to be a way for people both to encourage creativity and sharing AND make a living by insisting on protection of intellectual property. EFF needs to keep their paws off this in this worst kind of way.

Catharina (user link) says:

Re: EFF Needs to Keep Their Paws of SL

Can’t see your problem. Our proposal does not change anything for people who want to keep building propriety stuff.On the other hand it is a real undertaking now to build free stuff because on every little detail one has to change the rights. So yes maybe incidental newbies will build something free in the beginning, but they will learn soon enough. The petition is actually signed by 129 people and a “fresh” Linden will come to help with implementing this.

professortiki says:

copyright vs. free internet

More and more copright is turned into a tool to shut down the free internet, as can be seen in the recent lawsuit of Taser Inc. against Second Life. At the end of the day we have to ask ourselves, what we consider the higher value for our societies, the freedom of information or some sophistry about “copyright” issues that didn’t even cause any damage to anyone.

Bob Bunderfeld (profile) says:

There are bigger issues

While I agree that the Copyright/Intellectual Property Rights are a mess in Second Life, there is a larger problem; Linden Lab itself.

While I agree that having the “Real World” laws govern the Virtual World of Second Life, especially in Copyright/IP, is a bit convoluted, it could have been made easier if a REAL EFFORT was made by Linden Lab to enforce Copyright/IP issues.

As it stands now though, Linden Lab has FIRST HAND knowledge of multiple Copyright/IP Infringements and have done NOTHING to fix them.

Linden Lab is unique, in so much that they seem to have “interesting” ideas, but do NOTHING to bring those ideas into effect.

I would like to see the Management Team at Linden Lab be removed and a whole new Team brought in that would give their full attention to implementing these “unique ideas”. Perhaps then a way to make all this work might be found out; at least they would’ve tried.

Dale Innis (user link) says:

We don't need a whole new set of laws for virtual worlds

Just like we didn’t need to reinvent the legal system when photocopiers appeared, or digital recording, we don’t need a whole new set of laws for virtual worlds. Applying existing laws to the new technologies is exactly the right thing to do, to first order. When we do that, if we find places where the laws no longer work as intended in the new medium, we modify the laws. It’s pretty implausible that we would have been able to make up a superior set of laws from scratch for virtual worlds like Second Life.

Copyright gives the creators of content certain rights in that content, and forbids other people from doing certain things with the content. It’s exactly because technologies (like the pencil, the photocopier, the camera, digital sampling, the ‘copy’ command, and the virtual world equivalents) make copying easy that we need copyright laws in the first place. The rights that copyright laws give to content creators should, and do, apply in virtual worlds just as much as in the real world.

The scarce resource that copyright is about is human creative effort. That resource is just as scarce in virtual worlds as it is in the real world; the differences in the laws of physics between the two aren’t relevant to copyright. The EFF person that you’re referring to did *not* say that “copyright in Second Life is a mess”. He said, according to the NWN posting, that (because it’s a relatively new area without much case law) things are “worse” in the sense that there are more “gray interesting mysteries”. But that’s true of any new technology.

It’s IMHO wildly unlikely that any judge would find copyright infringement in a Second Life (or real-life) photo that had someone’s copyrighted texture as part of the sidewalk behind them or something. On the other hand if you take a picture of someone’s artwork and try to make a profit selling it, you are in a potentially messy grey area in *either* Second Life or real life. The same principles apply in each.

Prokofy Neva (profile) says:

Take it to Open Sim, Catharina

Um, I can see YOUR problem. YOUR problem is obvious. You are advocating overriding property rights and forcibly defaulting to copyleftist-driven theft and trying to cover that up with “ease” and “choice”.

A petition signed by 129 goofs in their mom’s basement? Please. Another petition with the opposite of your copyleftist cause would give the lie to that — guess I’ll have to start one. A Linden coming to help implement this? No way. M Linden, fortunately, isn’t so stupid as to give away the store.

It’s not just about newbies; it’s about anybody wanting to have *choice*. Choice is not given by taking all choice away, i.e. forcing an opt-out in order to make putting in permissions an option. Defaulting to NO PERMISSIONS is a forced march with only an opt-out recourse to recover one’s copyright. The overwhelming majority of people WANT the permissions on their and respect them, even if your tiny sect doesn’t.

Your entire cause is given the lie by the actual facts of SL. When tekkies with ideological fixations like yourself do make freebies, in fact, more often than not, they put them “copy/no transfer” because they are horrified at the idea of anybody selling their precious freebies.

And in fact, the overwhelming majority of content creators would be horrified to find what you are up to here, Catharina, they haven’t been informed, they can’t be expected to take part in the wonky tekkie JIRA, and you are trying to put one over on them. Stop it. Take your copyleftism to Open Sim where they don’t care about permissions and IP.

Keep your paws off Second Life.

Catharina says:

Re: Take it to Open Sim, Catharina

I guess you never even bothered to understand what this is all about or you just want to deliberately spread misinformation and create FUD. I won’t bother to reply to that. All I can say is that you can never win this fight against free culture. It is there and it is not going away if you like it or not. People decide for themselves what kind of copyright they choose and they are getting more and more aware of the consequences and the opportunities.

interval says:


Yep, agreed. SL==BIG DEAL. I played around with it once for a few hours. Never went back. As soon as I hit the “red light district”, which seemed to be all over the place, I knew it wasn’t really destined for greatness. I laughed at the way companies were rushing to get presences in the thing a few years ago. A lot of wasted effort.

Finn says:

Catharina, pay no attention to Prokofy’s screed. Prokofy seems to be professionally engaged in abusing people who think that they ought to have the ability to legally free their own works from the broken US copyright system. Like the people who think that gay or secular marriage somehow invalidates their own religion’s idea of marriage, Prokofy is strident, offensive, and just doesn’t want to see anyone else’s views.

There are indeed interesting untested legal questions about screenshots or other works that happen to contain a copyright-protected work within them.

I’m not a lawyer, but I do have a great interest in copyright law, including copyright law in SL. My impression of US copyright law is that the copyright holder is the sole interested party and as such is the sole person capable under the law of claiming a legal standing (effectively, the legal ability) to make takedown requests of copyrighted material. So, if the copyright holder never complains, big deal.

There is still always the specter of a copyright holder not discovering a potentially infringing use until much later, and then “performing due diligence” — making life hard for an unwitting creator.

When Prokofy says “No one has ever launched anything anywhere near a lawsuit against someone taking a screenshot in SL of a scene as a violation of copyright, although they have launched lawsuits, which have been settled out of court, about copyright infringement of specific creations like clothing and furniture.”, Prokofy is speaking from ignorance. A few of my acquaintances have had to pursue legal action against people who — before the advent of programmers extracting images from the SL client cache — took screenshots of their hard work and used them to duplicate their work. There have also been a few pursued cases of some people profiting from screenshots or machinima made with trademarked or copyrighted artwork.

The real test will be when someone makes a copyrighted work, finds someone making sufficient profit off screenshots or machinima that contain the work, and then goes through the DMCA process and then continues on to sue for damages and does not settle out of court – thereby setting the scene for legal precedent to be decided, precedent that may have an effect well beyond Second Life.

As it stands now, US law defaults to all created works being copyrighted to their creators — automatically. Linden’s settings are perfectly okay in that fashion. They could create a tool (or a setting) that allows a creator to “open up” the copyright permissions of their creations (but not “close down”, because under US law, once the creator relinquishes a right, it is gone). They could also create a tool that allows people using the client to turn off any 3-d shape or texture that is more restrictive than a given set of permissions.

I’d like to see a space on objects and textures to embed metadata designating a particular Creative Commons license.

Personally, I think that if put to a reasonable test, that anyone who creates and then sells (or gives away) any content in Second Life has to already understand that such content might make its’ way into screenshots and machinima as those are inherent capabilities of the client, and so couldn’t really pursue a case under US law unless the screenshot or machinima was explicitly and materially for the sole purpose of reproducing their work.

European law is far more complicated, at least that is my impression of it.

Prokofy Neva (profile) says:

Re: Re:

You are mixing up two kinds of cases here — the cases of people taking screenshots, i.e. of textures or skins, as part of a process of copying them illegally, versus people who take screenshots of scenes, like street scenes, and whether that is permitted or not. It is permitted by default on the Mainland. On private islands, the owner can set permissions as he sees fit. EFF got the interpretation of the TOS on machinima absolutely wrong from the get-go and continues to tendentiously misrepresent it.

You don’t cite any court documents or links to prove your point that there are “pursued cases”. So I’m not buying it.

Wayfinder Wishbringer (profile) says:

Not a valid point made that I could see..

“Putting [copyrights] into a world where there is no scarcity at all on those goods is backwards, and only leads to massive problems. “

Why does the author believe this? What evidence does he have of such and what foundation for such claim? Copyrights have to do with intellectual property. They don’t involve scarcity (or prevalence) of goods in any way that I’m aware of.

“just posting a screenshot from within Second Life may violate many different copyrights”

Not by any law that I know of. “Kleenex” is a trademark and copyright of the Kleenex copmany… but there are no copyrights broken by taking a photo of a kleenex (or a box of such) and posting it on one’s website– especially if it’s a minor part of a much larger picture. At that point, the photo itself becomes copyrightable. While there may be some isolated incidents where a “screenshot” might infringe on copyright, I’d have to believe those few and far between… and possibly even non-existent.

IMO, the author could have spent his time on much more valid subjects… such as the increasing abuse of copyrights on SL via the copybot program (those thousands and thousands of “freebies” aren’t being released by their creators, guaranteed). That Linden Lab still allows the use of such a “safecracking” device is to me, unconscionable and indicates their total lack of empathy for content ownership or security.

Mathew Caplan says:

Copyright no problem

Assuming that us in SL have copyright privies for anything we make then I dont see a problem given the current system. If a person wants something they designed to be shared but wants the design copyrighted to them they set the item to copy no mod. If it’s just the item itself they want to hold copyright over then you set it to mod no copy. If a person wants total copyright on their item they do no mod and no copy. Taking a picture of an item copyrighted to someone else with the explicit purpose of making money off their idea without permission is copyright infringement. Pictures taken on their are not specifically copyright infringement though due to them not being able to prove them as anything more than a simple screenshot. Also, just like in the real world, if you design something some one else will try to duplicate it with slight variations. No where in the SL rules does it state we have the standard copyright protections of this world where no one can duplicate your item with mod for a set period of time. SL merely grants us rights over our own personal creations for the purpose of allowing us the opportunity to sell these items as “our work”. So I honestly dont see any issues unless an idea is directly stolen and on that note, just keep a copy of the original work so the creation date can be cross verified to prove that yours was in existence first and thereby had your intellectual/virtual property stolen. Remember though that if you allow copy or mod you give up at least a small part of your copyright by default.

Little Knotty (user link) says:

LL Not Interested in Virtual Law

Marty Roberts, LL’s chief general counsel, once told me, “I am too busy running Linden Labs to be concerned with the development of law in virtual communities.”

Also, the views of Prokofy Neva expressed above do not reflect the views of sane human beings. It is commonly known within the SL community that Prokofy Neva is not human.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

Screenshots versus the Real Issues.

Screenshots of Second Life are a fairly clearcut case of “fair use.” The essence of a common Second Life object– let us say, a garment– is the underlying model, which is not only three-dimensional, but is capable of exhibiting various kinds of dynamic behavior. A screenshot is typically a JPEG file. It does not possess the technical means of substantially reproducing a Second Life object. In a JPEG file, there are no locations reserved to store the pieces of information which go to make up a Second Life object. Applying the various tests, such as nature of the work, extent and substantiality of copying, effect on the market for the work, screenshots in general are privileged because they do not reproduce the means by which the screenshot was dynamically generated, just as a screenshot of a word processor does not reproduce the word processor. Now, of course, one can envision aberrant cases, such as a screen shot which is little more than a head-on view of a wall mural (which, in Second Life, would itself in any case be an embedded JPEG file), but similar cases arise in the case of conventional photographs as well. The actual controversial cases which have arisen in Second Life, eg. the Copybot episode, have involved considerably more extensive copying than is involved in making a screenshot. They have involved intercepting and copying the underlying model.

Of course, the real problem is more fundamental. Second Life is paralleling the development of personal computers back in the 1980’s and going through the same kinds of problems. I have discussed this at some length in my “The Future of Second Life”


The things which Linden Labs will need to do in order to make the software work better will often have the effect of driving Second Life merchants out of business. The same thing happened with personal computers. To preserve markets in selling commonplace software objects requires that the underlying system be deeply flawed. Windows (or Linux), for example, incorporates hundreds of tools which were once separate programs, individually purchased. There is a similarly immense body of internet standards, things like HTML. Second Life will have to go through the same process, if it is to survive.

Hypatia Callisto says:

thanks for some levity there, Andrew. And I agree with you completely – the problem with Second Life is that they aren’t innovating enough.

Unfortunately the same people who flog copyright heavily are usually the same people who flog their wish for Second Life to not progress in its graphics capabilities.

I’m a supporter of copyright – the DRM method of SL being on the network is completely uncomparable to the DRM of files on your personal computer. The permissions system is not a DRM system, the purpose of it is very important, but it is to enforce security on the servers, it’s not for us. It’s just a nice happenstance that it provides a good thin and easy way to protect just enough to make it possible to trade. Which is just perfect.

eekee says:

A detailed "meh" @ the OP

Trying not to touch the ethical issues, I think it likely that enforcement of copyright in SL (preventing copybot) is entirely impossible. I thought perhaps open-sourcing the viewer was to blame before I remembered copybot made it’s appearance before the viewer was open-sourced. The protocol was cracked, and if LL closed the viewer & changed the protocol it could be cracked again.

Perhaps the viewer source could be closed and the protocol encrypted, but that will result in still more people who can’t run the viewer for technical reasons and frankly it would probably still be possible to ‘crack’ the client to get access to the object data.

Encryption would obviously reduce efficiency, but I often wonder if just the matter of handling restricted permissions at all may make all aspects of inventory handling far less efficient than if there were no permissions.

That said, maybe the sacrifice is worth making. I’ve been around 4 grids, two with in-world money (which of course requires some attempt at permission restriction) and 2 without. The 2 with are SL and Legend City Online, the 2 without are OSGrid and Reaction Grid.

Now, we all know what a fantastic wealth of content has been created in SL and just how beautiful you can make your avatar with the expenditure of a little money, and just how nice a home you can buy, etc etc, but SL is the oldest grid by far. Legend City Online dates from September ’08, I imagine OSGrid is older; I’m going to compare these two.

LCO has a substantial mall in it’s welcome sim where you can buy hair shoes clothing buildings and art. It’s a half-sim mall, it’s perhaps not what dedicated SL shopoholics might call ‘substantial’, but the fact is you do have quite a choice in how you want your avatar to look, to focus on that one important facet.

Do you have the same choice in OSGrid? No. There is what seems to be a fair-sized freebie area in Wright Plaza, and the skins available there may seem quite remarkable if you just came from SL with it’s (usually) pathetic freebies, but there’s no nice clothes to dress your girl avatar up in. There’s little other than t-shirts and jeans, and the shirts are usually untextured except for the logo. The best quality clothing is that purloined straight from Linden Labs texture download page!

OSGrid also has the cheapest sims for many – you provide your own hosting – and the quality of the average sim in OSGrid is also low. There are some fine builds, but they’re scattered and somewhat rare. Granted it’s nice for a person to have a whole sim for a personal playground & the experimentation they will be able to do can teach them a few things, but it makes the grid as a whole look a bit of a mess and I don’t think there’s much you can learn from a sim that you can’t learn from a 4096 parcel.

Shelly says:


I have a question if anyone has any answers I’d appreciate it. A house design, is copyrighted in Real life and the person who owns that copyright produces the houses in secondlife. This person claims that no one else is allowed to recreate these houses, not in secondlife, not in any other 3d platform and not in Real life, fair enough. But she also claims they can not be used for inspired works. By inspired I mean not copied, not using her textures, just pure inspiration incorporating some of the design techniques used in her builds but say 70-80% new build. Anyone know if she can do this?

Jessica Holyoke says:

The change in the Lindens’ ToS might greatly change this debate. However;

1. The virtual street is not analogous to the physical street. Everything you see on your screen is a copyright protected article of work by *someone*.

2. Those copyrights are inherent in the article and to the creator.

3. One of the rights copyright protects is the ability to create derivative works.

4. Taking screenshots or machima is making a derivative work of the initial copyright protected work.

5. The “Fair Use” analysis doesn’t come into play for just any reason.

6. The concerns over the screenshots or machima is a very real concern, and not just made up by lawyers. In the ideal world described, and the new terms of the Lindens’ ToS, a creator may create an avatar that is comical or cute and another resident, without the permission of the creator, can make a film of the avatar for his or her own commercial purposes so long as they have the permission of the land owner, the renter of the server space, or the resident using the avatar. But not, surprisingly, the creator of the avatar itself. Someone else gets to take advantage of a creator’s work only because that creator created the work on the Second Life servers.

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