Linden Labs, the commercial operation responsible for the much-hyped online "virtual world" Second Life, this week invited its subscribers to sue it for copyright infringement.
The bizarre declaration followed a rampage by a software program which cloned material created by Second Life users: their inventions, and identities were cloned and rendered worthless. (Reuters' full-time reporter in Sadville, Adam Pashik, found himself replicated - although in the case of Reuters wire reporters, we thought that's how they're all created anyway - most likely from underground factories beneath American "journalism schools".).
The story is just desserts for people who prefer to pay money for a stilted, synthetic version of human interaction rather than the real thing, you might think. And many of you do, judging by our email inbox and comments across web discussion boards, where schadenfreude ("Saddenfreude"?) was much in evidence. "Hah hah hah" and "Told you so" were pretty common reactions.
But it justifies a closer look, however, because the episode illuminates the utopian desire to jump into an alternative "world", without first looking at the small print - and without considering all the factors that make the real world so messy and interesting. We discover that such factors are overlooked in the desire to don a furry costume, impressive pecs, and take flight; in fact, lemmings behave more rationally.
What's amazing about the story is how little either Linden Labs or Sadville's citizens understand about copyright. Linden Labs was only too happy to take users' money, and let them exchange virtual money for real dollars, without an enforceable set of ground rules for intellectual property. CopyBots are nothing new in virtual worlds - it's not a question of if, but when such a bot will appear, and how much material it can appropriate.
Sadville subscribers have been complaining about the "theft" of user-created textures for some time. Other experts say that enforcement is impossible, and that anything created can and will be cloned. This isn't a unanimous view. Others point out that in other virtual worlds, each unique user-created piece of material is tagged with a unique serial number, which permits usage tracking. But supposing Linden Labs is unable to prevent the replication of user-generated content - why not declare the game a commons, where no property rights exist?
On the face of it, it appears negligent to promote a property-based regime, one with real monetary consequences, without the ability to back it up.
The team behind the notorious CopyBot, libsecondlife had even been blessed by Linden Labs. The developers described it as "a debugging tool and silly demo with a [now] obviously bad choice of name," and voluntarily withdrew it. So on this occasion, damage was limited, as this delightful account from Sadville's premier online newspaper (Second Life Herald) informed us:
"The saddest sight for me to see was the newbie stalls of the first, halting, tacky or kitschy content that people make in SL, emptied in panic and fear over a Bot that would never bother with their content. Botting was mainly a poor folks, mainland problem because it involved flying around and copying people's stuff on the more open-highways mainland; islands are hidden, set to group, filled with security orbs that reject people."
All hail the security orbs, then. But future attacks - and these days malicious operators use botnets - may not be so easily tidied up.
But Linden Labs' reaction doesn't auger well. By encouraging subscribers to "use the DMCA" it seemed to be unaware that this is a mechanism for obliging service providers to remove infringing material. The service provider in this instance is ... er, Linden Labs.
So help us answer a question wisely. Who is more negligent in this case - Sadville's operator, for its unenforceable property regime, or the virtual enterpreneurs, for believing that a viable, convertible property regime is actually possible in Sadville?
Answers on a flying teapot, please. ®