Second Life drama -- tier increases and CopyBot

2006-11-16 08:11:00

Man, the virtual world of Second Life seems to be awash in even more drama than usual. That kind of virtual milieu always provides all kinds of opportunities for social drama between players, but this time it's the entire world, and its creators, Linden Lab.

I haven't spent any time in SL in months, but I still have friends and acquaintences who spend lots of time on the Grid. In the past couple of weeks, I've gotten a real earful about the hefty increases in costs for purchase and maintenenace of private islands (on the order of 50%), and the horrors of the evil CopyBot. CNET News.com has a good article about the ongoing flap.

If I were an SL content creator, I'd be freaking out about CopyBot too -- it basically allows you to make a perfect copy of any object, irrespective of the permissions you might or might not have on it.

It's a the same problem first seen with Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc. (a.k.a. the "Betamax Case") in the US Supreme Court, it's hard to declare copying technology illegal unilaterally if it has legitamate uses.

In the CNET article, Baba Yamamoto, a member of the group that created CopyBot, explains that its original purpose wasn't illegal copying of objects:

Yamamoto told CNET News.com that CopyBot was created as a tool for testing and demonstrations and was never intended to be used for illegal theft. But because the tool was created using an open-source license, some Second Life users have gotten hold of it and are now freely using and distributing it.

Just like other copying and distribution tools like filesharing networks like BitTorrent, it's easy to see the legit purposes people might have for them, but it's just as easy to use them to violate copyright.

It's an issue that has plagued content creators since the creation of the player piano, and the tools for making copies just keep getting easier to use, and the fidelity of the copies just gets better and better.

In the digital world, copies are perfect, and trivial to make -- so copy protection (euphemistically called 'digital rights management') has to strike a balance between protecting the content from copying, and allowing easy access for legitamate use. Any copy protection can be broken -- as computer-security guru Bruce Schneider famously said, "trying to make digital files uncopyable is like trying to make water not wet."

Fortunately the Lindens can react a little bit faster to these kinds of developments than can society at large (hey, they literally run the SL world), so in this case, it looks like after a brief period of head-scratching, they have decided pull out the Terms of Service stick, and call CopyBot use to make unauthorized copies a TOS violation which will get you banned.

Interesting though that they are not banning CopyBot outright, or rolling out an update to the SL client that would break it. I think that's the right decision, since CopyBot clearly has legitimate uses -- despite all the screaming to the contrary from the content creators. Besides, DRM will always be cracked, and the Lindens shouldn't be squandering their resources on a silly ongoing DRM arms-race which they'll never win.


This is the blog for Matthew Eernisse. I currently work at Yammer as a developer, working mostly with JavaScript. All opinions expressed here are my own, not my employer's.


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