Dune roleplayers in Second Life squelched by IP takedown notice

Paul Raven @ 09-04-2009

The big brands may have all but abandoned Second Life, but the still-growing (yet still somewhat troubled) metaverse platform remains a haven for niche-interest communities… like roleplayers re-enacting locations and events from intellectual properties such as films and novels, for example.

Second Life Dune simulation (with sandworm)

One such small community is based around Frank Herbert’s famous Dune series, acting out conflicts between the Fremen and House Harkonnen, riding sandworms and so forth. Or at least they were until very recently, when the estate of Frank Herbert issued a legal notice for the group to discontinue their reappropriation of controlled intellectual property. [image by Wagner James Au, borrowed from linked article]

In his write-up, Wagner James Au makes the point that there are other unofficial RPG sims in Second Life that make use of controlled IP (from franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek, for example) but who have been allowed to continue by the legal types – whether that be because they consider it to be not worth the hassle to shut them down, or that they can see value in fans propagating their memes without being paid to do so, remains uncertain.

Au also claims the Dune take-down notice to be the first such official occurance in SL; I’m not so sure about that, as a friend of mine from The Wastelands claimed to have been stomped by Bethesda Software for selling Fallout-themed items from a shack to cover his land tier payments. It may have been an exaggeration, but his bitterness about it suggested otherwise.

But the question remains: how effective is this sort of take-down at preserving the image of a brand or property? Sure, you may prevent people from making a little pocket-money off the back of your copyrights, but the PR value of letting them be (or, heaven forfend, encouraging them) could be pretty significant… as could the inverse.

That Dune sim has been running for a good year and a half; I remember visiting it when it first opened. Now, if it’s taken Herbert’s estate that long to catch on to a genuinely tiny community of roleplayers, things are only going to get harder. After all, there’s only one Second Life at the moment, but in a decade or so there’ll be hundreds of them.

Will big brands hire researchers to trek through digital realities in search of reappropriated brands, characters and memes, like IP bountyhunters? Will kill-filed private sims harbour markets where you can buy cheap and unofficial avatars based on properties owned by Disney, Pixar and all the rest?

Who knows. One thing can said for certain, however: if the lawyers wanted to protect the sanctity of Dune as a much-loved brand, the first thing they should have done was kept Kevin J Anderson well away from it…