Unreal estate: man flips virtual nightclub for $500k

Paul Raven @ 19-11-2010

The metaverse doesn’t make the news as often as it did a few years back, but don’t assume that means the glow is off for real profits from virtual worlds: Jon “Neverdie” Jacobs just made a cool half-million bucks on selling an asteroid-cum-nightclub in the Entropia Universe MMO.

Until recently, Neverdie was the owner of one of the hottest virtual properties in Entropia, Club Neverdie, situated on a virtual asteroid around Entropia’s first planet, Planet Calypso. Jacobs bought the virtual asteroid back in 2005 for $100,000, after taking out a mortgage on his real-life house.

[…]

Taking out a hundred grand to buy virtual property may have seemed like poor business sense, but Jacobs had a plan. He turned Club Neverdie into a must-visit destination, one that includes more than a dozen bio-domes, a night club, stadium and a mall, where other players flocked to spend real cash on virtual goods and services. Jacobs was making around $200,000 in annual revenue, enough to comfortably support him and his family. Some might wonder why Jacobs didn’t instead start a real-life business like most others. Jacobs’ answer, “games made sense.” Club Neverdie was a “turnkey business” for him — besides dropping in from time to time to check on the property, the business largely ran itself and had no other employees besides himself.

Flipping property has long been an appealingly easy business model for those with enough capital to spare… but not so much in meatspace these days. I think we’ve yet to see the first full-scale metaverse property gold-rush, but once we have, the first metaverse bubble-burst won’t be far behind; in the meantime, a smart chancer can still make their mark on that particular and limitless frontier.

Incidentally, a little further down this piece there’s an interesting and (to me) unexpected junction to another story, namely the J K Rowling plagiarism lawsuit, which gets weirder and weirder the deeper you look into it:

Jacobs wasn’t always a virtual celebrity, but even his past plays out like something out of a movie. His was born to a Miss United Kingdom and Adrian Jacobs, a prototypical Bond villain of sorts. An infamous ’60s British financier nicknamed “Mr. X,” the senior Jacobs was banned from the London Stock Market in the ’80s after a string of shady deals, and has been reportedly quoted as saying, “I’ll be back again, richer than ever!” You can almost hear the super-villain laughter. Adrian Jacobs died in 1997, but in 2009, his estate filed a lawsuit against J.K. Rowling, claiming the author of the Harry Potter series had copied substantial parts of Jacobs’ 1987 children’s book, Willy the Wizard.

Call me cynical, but I’m now even more convinced that the Willy The Wizard suit is an opportunist scam…

[This story via MetaFilter, to whom I’d point out that while I’ve blatantly stolen their headline pun, I did so in the belief that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. That, and the knowledge that I couldn’t think up a better one at short notice. ]


Rowling plagiarism row rattles on; the sound of a broken system

Paul Raven @ 22-02-2010

Blind Justice?Remember me mentioning a plagiarism lawsuit filed against J K Rowling, wherein some dude claims prior art of the Harry Potter books because of his self-published work, and tries to take her for a whole lot of money?

Well, it’s soon to arrive in court, and Teresa Nielsen-Hayden has a good summary of matters from the publishing perspective; in a nutshell, the guy doesn’t have much of a hope of winning, and most commentators on the case demonstrate a massive misunderstanding of the authorial process. Or, in other words, the likelihood of two authors coming up with a similar idea is pretty high, and so you can’t really sue someone for publishing a book that uses an idea you once used. Or at least you shouldn’t be able to; nothing seems to stop people from trying, though. [image by hans s]

The problem is, as I’ve mentioned before, that copyright law (like most law) tends to favour the party which can afford the better legal respresentation, and that in the case of written fiction, precedents for the roadblocking of vaguely similar works by an author or their estate (a la the late Salinger) are corrosive to the creative process that copyright law is nominally intended to protect; stealing the work of others is wrong, certainly, but is reworking their themes or ideas only to be permitted within the limited (though flexible) framework of satire?

The imminent ebook explosion and recent high-profile flaps about critically-acclaimed works which involve some degree of plagiarised content only serve to emphasise how badly copyright law needs a comprehensive overhaul for the age of digital abundance. Left the way it is, the only people who’ll see any long term benefit will be specialist lawyers to media moguls, and most of them are currently busy making sure we have no idea what’s being decided in the ACTA treaty


Who owns culture? J D Salinger, J K Rowling and the line between derivation and infringement

Paul Raven @ 07-08-2009

The bookworms among you may have caught the news last month about J D Salinger’s successful lawsuit against a writer who planned to publish an unofficial sequel to the cult classic The Catcher In The Rye. It’s a complex situation; while I’ve a certain sympathy with Salinger not wanting people messing with his creations, the ruling actually flies in the face of the US Constitution’s First Amendment, as TechDirt pointed out:

It’s difficult to see any reasonable justification for this ruling. Much of the ruling goes through the four factors of fair use, focusing a lot on why the new work is not a parody […] This misses the larger point: the work is entirely new. It’s not directly copying any actual expression. The real problem here is the idea that only “parody” can be considered fair use in these situations. There’s simply no reasonable logic to support that.

The rest of the discussion on the four factors fair use test is rather troubling. Most specifically, the judge’s analysis of the third prong, concerning “the amount of the copyrighted work” being used seems to go to great lengths to explain how the new book uses a great deal from the old book, but bases this on similarities between the way the character acts, not any actual copying of expression (other than the odd word or phrase, which would certainly seem to be minimal actual copying). Similarity (on purpose) is not copying. Stunningly, the judge even points out that the stories have similar arcs (which isn’t surprising), but to claim that because of a similar story arc there’s infringement is incredibly troubling for pretty much any writer.

Indeed – I raised a similar point in the wake of the latest plagiarism lawsuit against J K Rowling, and now it seems that the Fair Use Project and the American Library Association have filed an amicus brief expressing their concerns about the precedent being set. It’s interesting to compare the two cases, because that makes it clear that the law tends to side with the more successful or high-profile creator: Rowling’s lawyers have successfully (and quite rightfully) batted away claims from other writers that general story or character similarities make the Harry Potter series infringing works, but Salinger has prevented publication of a story that he feels infringes on his prior creations. Salinger’s case has a unique flaw (at least to my eyes) in that he has steadfastly refused to publish anything at all for quite some time. If he has no intent to write his own sequels to Catcher, how is the other writer robbing him by doing so?

Of course, there’s always the issue that cash-in works designed to exploit an established fan-base tend to be crap (and apparently reviews of the putative Catcher sequel suggest that it wasn’t much cop), but is that any reason to use the law to prevent their creation? For example, I’m pretty appalled by the travesty that Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson have made of Frank Herbert’s Dune universe, but I’d never suggest that they should be legally prevented from doing so.

I guess the question here is: does the publication ban showcase the law protecting Salinger’s ability to make money from his own work, or the law protecting his feelings about the work of others? Because I’m pretty sure the latter is not what the law is supposed to do, and it sets a bad precedent for any of us who aspire to make an income from our own creative output.


Shakespeare: almost certainly a plagiarist

Paul Raven @ 24-06-2009

Lego ShakespeareRemember me raising the spectre of plagiarism last week with regard to J K Rowling? Well, here’s a neat counterpoint via TechDirt; the people at GrokLaw have sat down and tried to work out how many lawsuits Shakespeare’s King Lear would garner were it published under the same system of copyright law as exists in the US today:

How many lawsuits do you see? At least a half dozen? I even see some methods and concepts claims, if we view it with modern copyright owner eyes. Remember J.K. Rowling’s litigation over methods and concepts that Darl McBride and Chris Sontag cited? I suppose he could have raised a transformational fair use claim. But what if he accessed the prior works in digital format? Does fair use exist there? Or maybe they’d have been DRM’d. He’d maybe then never have read them.

Of course, what really would have happened is there never would have been a King Lear written. It would have been too legally risky. You can go to jail for copyright infringement, after all, even if you are noncommercial, if you distribute a DVD, and if we are imagining, let’s imagine Shakespeare did that. Shakespeare wasn’t even noncommercial. And there are criminal sanctions under regular Copyright Law, too.

If Shakespeare had plenty of money, he could have contacted all the copyright owners and paid them whatever they asked, but if he didn’t have enough money, the result would have been he would have been unable to afford to write King Lear. Do we want a world where Shakespeare can only write King Lear if he has money? If you think I exaggerate, remember what happened to internet radio? And if one song is worth $80,000, is the sky not the limit, if you are a copyright owner and hold all the legal cards and can get Congress to keep upping the ante to suit you?

As the last paragraph suggests, the full piece is a partial response to the Jammie Thomas/RIAA case, but it highlights the same risks I mentioned last week as regards plagiarism suits against authors. [image by ryanrocketship]

As a supplement to that, via The Valve comes an essay at Harpers by Jonathan Lethem, which I guess I must have missed last time round. It’s a lengthy, beautifully written and eloquent defence of plagiarism in a postmodern media world, in which he points out that almost every big media company who fights against perceived plagiarism actually owes their success to it. You should go and read it.

In a courtroom scene from The Simpsons that has since entered into the television canon, an argument over the ownership of the animated characters Itchy and Scratchy rapidly escalates into an existential debate on the very nature of cartoons. “Animation is built on plagiarism!” declares the show’s hot-tempered cartoon-producer-within-a-cartoon, Roger Meyers Jr. “You take away our right to steal ideas, where are they going to come from?” If nostalgic cartoonists had never borrowed from Fritz the Cat, there would be no Ren & Stimpy Show; without the Rankin/Bass and Charlie Brown Christmas specials, there would be no South Park; and without The Flintstones—more or less The Honeymooners in cartoon loincloths—The Simpsons would cease to exist. If those don’t strike you as essential losses, then consider the remarkable series of “plagiarisms” that links Ovid’s “Pyramus and Thisbe” with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, or Shakespeare’s description of Cleopatra, copied nearly verbatim from Plutarch’s life of Mark Antony and also later nicked by T. S. Eliot for The Waste Land. If these are examples of plagiarism, then we want more plagiarism.


JK Rowling: probably not a plagiarist

Paul Raven @ 18-06-2009

Poor old JK Rowling; whatever you may think of the Harry Potter books (I think they make passable doorstops), there’s no denying that her success has brought her into the firing line of a lot of resentful (and less successful) creatives. As reported at TechDirt, Rowling is once again being accused of plaigiarising someone else’s work in order to create Hogwarts et al.

In these trigger-happy times of copyright law, cases like this are bound to come up – though it’s telling that you you have to make it pretty big before anyone will bother suing you. But the long-term implications and precedents are important to writers and other creatives – especially in science fiction and fantasy, which thrive on what has been described as their ongoing conversational nature. In a genre where building on (or dismantling and deconstructing) the ideas of your predecessors is an integral part of the game, a few successful suits of this type could open the gates to a flood of smaller cases; it seems there’s plenty of copyright lawyers who don’t care how spurious a case is provided there’s a chance of a decent fee. Here’s TechDirt‘s Mike Masnick:

The whole thing is pretty silly, of course. The publisher is vehemently denying any copying, and it seems unlikely that any copying did actually happen. However even if you did grant the premise and say that Rowling was “inspired” by some other book, so what? Did it really change the economics of the original book? If anything, this latest claim is just a clear money grab, designed to give new attention to a long-ignored book. No one could claim with a straight face that Rowling’s work took away any value from the other book.

Masnick also links back to an incident from last year that shows that not quite everything Orson Scott Card says is reactionary bigoted claptrap (though this example has some serious sexist undertones); commenting on the Harry Potter Lexicon case, Card pointed out that Rowling’s agressive defence of her own intellectual property hasn’t done her any favours, and that the world of literature is entirely based upon the adoption, adaptation and reuse of other people’s ideas. In defending herself against these latest accusations of plagiarism, she actually weakens the arguments she used to win the Lexicon case. Which all goes to show that copyright justice frequently boils down to a game of who can afford the better legal team… so, no news there, then.

Just to be abundantly clear, here, I’m not trying to claim that copyright law works in a way it doesn’t. The point I’m trying to make is that, as a reviewer, critic and wannabe writer of fiction, I’m well aware of the fact that there are only a few handfuls of basic story plots and character archetypes from which to start writing. The art of fiction is to flesh those essentials out into something new, but equally it’s possible to deconstruct and boil down any story into a simple synopsis that can make it sound remarkably similar to any number of other stories, without there having been any hint of deliberate copying involved in their creation. If we know that as readers and writers, how can we support a legal framework that can so easily exploit these phenomena in the name of financial gain?