Open sourcing Second Life

Would a virtual economy survive?

Linden Lab declined to talk to the Register for this article, but said in a statement that: "It has been a long stated goal of Linden Lab's to open source aspects of Second Life. We've always felt that this is the best way to ensure scalability and growth within our world. In the same way that the real world relies on its citizens to create and develop infrastructure, it is only logical that our residents would have as much say over the platform."

Freedman says the first open source SL client could be released within six months, with server-side software following over the next few years. The full roadmap is here.

But two questions follow from this – first of all, what does it mean for the Linden Lab business model? Linden Lab told the Reg that: "Any move in this direction would neither have an effect on the maintenance of residents' intellectual property rights nor on Linden Lab's ability to generate revenue via the sale of virtual real-estate."

But if I can host my own server using open source software, then surely I could have my own private island too, without having to pay Linden Lab for it? Freedman speculates that its business model could evolve to become something like a Red Hat, where the software is given away for free and the company makes its money through consultancy and support.

It certainly sounds like a more promising business model than selling virtual real estate, especially if you're planning to let other players enter the market. Land's value depends on its scarcity – so if anyone can create as much land as they like, prices will only head in one direction – down.

The rest of Second Life's fledgling economy depends on people being able to prevent the copying of what they sell – a tough call in any electronic metaverse, open or not. As a way of protecting value, Freedman suggests a kind of a watermark.

"I hate to use the words 'Digital Rights Management', but it could mean something like that, that allows you to see if something has been copied," he says. So while you couldn't stop people copying a virtual pair of shoes, you could at least prove they were genuine and legitimate. "Linden Lab is planning on some way of implementing that."

At least open source Second Life elements will be released under the BSD license, not the GPL – so people who develop more elaborate creations within Second Life won't be obliged to re-release the code behind them.

Though there was no evidence that anyone lost any money (virtual or otherwise) from the Copybot palaver, the fact that a misdirected libsecondlife tool could cause an economic panic illustrates the fragility of an economy based on intellectual property in a virtual universe.

Second Life is certainly at an intriguing point in its development. A fully open sourced Second Life has the potential to become the de facto standard for a three-dimensional version of the world wide web. "We would love to see a fully open source metaverse," says Freedman.

For people who make their living selling content in Second Life, that might be good news - more customers. But protecting that content will be even tougher in an open source world.

And a bigger question is - could Linden Lab's business model survive open sourcing? And could Linden Lab's commitment to the open source path survive a buyout or an IPO?

Ben King is an online reporter at Channel 4 News.

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