Second Life, 3D dildos and the intellectual property mindset inversion

Sven Johnson reports on intellectual property wranglings in Second Life for the latest instalment of Future Imperfect.

Future Imperfect - Sven Johnson

Second Life’s unique content creation tools have been its strongest unique selling point, resulting in a vigorous virtual economy. But there, just as in real life, intellectual property rights are a thorny issue – and there are signs that the social media masses are starting to change their attitude to content theft.


Regardless of what people think about Second Life, if nothing else it’s opened up so many fascinating cans of worms you could fill a virtual cupboard and – if you wanted to – dine a few years just on leftovers. The largest of these cans is almost certainly labeled “Intellectual Property”, because no other issue so deeply permeates the service. Even 3D cybersex, a significantly sized can in its own right, is often based on someone else’s intellectually protected content: user-generated strap-ons successfully monetized through permissions-based virtual world filesharing.

Beyond the popularity of DRM-embedded virtual genitalia, however, there are at least three other arguments to be made for this assertion. First, there is perhaps general consensus Second Life’s success is a direct result of developer Linden Lab adopting the unique position of claiming, at least, to concede rights to “resident”-generated content. Without this fundamental change we’d probably not be reading nearly as much news about virtual worlds, since the service’s subsequent attention-getting growth is arguably tied to Linden Lab’s precedent-setting policy change, the monetary exchange systems which followed, and the not-so-easily dismissed virtual economy that formed around both.

Second – based on my own relatively attentive, search feed-powered observation of the SL blogosphere – the number of actual lawyers (as opposed to all the other types) taking an interest in Second Life appears to be growing substantially. Harvard running an in-world law class may get everyone’s attention, but guest lecturers packing virtual auditoriums with nothing more than the promise of a good trademark law presentation indicates a significantly different level of legal society representation … and Second Life community curiosity.

Third, who hasn’t heard of the now infamous “SexGen lawsuit”, covered both in Wired and on CourtTV? For a while it was difficult to avoid this legal brouhaha, as it generated enough snark to power a developing country; many of which would probably beg for similar levels of attention. Admittedly it was a recipe made from two different cans, but without the embedded permissions system there wouldn’t have been a business to protect, and thus no lawsuit to file.

Even so, on the intellectual property front, mainstream media covers only half of what’s transpiring; the “effect”. What they don’t generally cover is the “cause”; the pre-litigation, low-level friction between newly-vested content creators and the legion of Joe “I don’t pay for stuff I can’t touch” Six Pack’s (of whatever nationality).

This portion of the overall issue is especially interesting in my opinion, because for the first time in a long while it’s not some faceless, deep-pocketed conglomerate squaring off against a financially challenged everyman, but non-remarkable people going against other non-remarkable people. It’s a potentially struggling single mother versus her middle-class suburban neighbor, or a self-supporting college student trying to make ends meet versus the pampered, partying kid in the adjacent frat house. The tune’s the same, but the dance partners in this venue are very different than what we’ve come to expect. And on this stage, isolated though it may be, the typical entitlement-heavy arguments in favor of unauthorized filesharing start to stumble.

As a result, ordinary people are increasingly beginning to consider the broader ramifications of their actions, and this resurgence in long-dormant brain activity – to ask questions rather than mindlessly accept canned answers – appears to be having some effect. After all, people who’ve never given a second thought to intellectual property laws are turning up for lectures. Given by lawyers. In a relatively unexciting virtual simulation. When they could be playing Grand Theft Auto. Or watching teevee.

Say what you will, but that’s not normal. Something is going on.

Thus, I can’t help but wonder if this shift, however minor it appears to be at this stage, isn’t indicative of a broader change outside of this particular fishbowl, especially as indie craft sites such as Etsy and hosting services such as Flickr begin to go through their own IP growing pains.

Taken collectively, the fishbowl gets bigger.

Consequently, we may have the beginnings of what appears to be an intellectual property mindset inversion. Now that they’re increasingly becoming “content creators”, and in some cases fairly sophisticated ones at that, the social media masses may no longer believe intellectual property (as a concept) is such a bad idea. And the very tools which enabled them to overwhelm corporate-controlled IP may have them demanding their own tools … except it’ll effectively be too late.

One has to wonder how this will go down.

Meanwhile, I expect to see another round of blog entries clogging my feed as news spreads that an IBM employee has announced making a small but significant step toward virtual world interoperability. This, of course, has already energized the core debate over how intellectual property will be handled on a larger scale; a much bigger fishbowl. It should prove to be a doozy.

I bet Linden Lab’s former CTO is glad he’s taking a job at a music label.


Sven JohnsonSven Johnson is an unrooted freelance designer increasingly working at the intersection of tangible and virtual goods. His background is varied and includes a fair amount of travel, a pair of undergraduate degrees and a stint with the U.S. military. He’s a passionate wannabe filmmaker, a once-upon-a-time underground comix creator, and – when facilities are available – an enthusiastic ceramicist who is currently attempting to assemble a transmedia, transreality open-source narrative in what remains of his lifetime.

[Future Imperfect header based on an image by Kaunokainen.]