Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The Content Creators Association

Content (mostly textures, which includes all clothing and skins) get copied every day, which is a fact of life. Talented artists and creative designers are way less affected by it than most people think, because they don't invest all their future income on doing a single texture (ie. one set of clothes that will be sold for ever and ever), but, instead, they will continuously release new material. A brand's reputation comes from the ability of the artist to be developing fantastic new things over and over again — most content designers are fully able to do so, and that's why they became references.

On the other hand, sometimes a specific product becomes extraordinarily good. It becomes unique, a masterpiece, and very hard to achieve that same level of creativity. It's normal and human; we're not "always at our best", but here and there, we have better days. Content creators might thus become associated with that "special masterpiece" that everybody talks about.

They also become immediate targets for scammers, armed with CopyBot, and ready to copy just the masterpiece and resell it thousands of times.

Well, blaming Linden Lab for scammers will not lead to nowhere. At this stage, people should have noticed the phenomenum of the "Analogue Hole": bluntly put, if you can view it on your computer, you can copy it. This is something many people have a hard time to understand. Once an image/object gets decoded to be displayed on your screen, a digital copy of it exists on your computer — and everything on your computer can be duplicated (fairly easily). Encryption techniques, data rights management systems, or any other complex software only works on two occasions: data transfer (ie. protecting digital data while it's being communicated between two computers, in case the communication gets intercepted) and storage (while it's safe on your hard disk).

But once you open that bit of digital data and display it, "some" software needs to decode it, send it to the video card, and have it displayed. Once it's on unencrypted form somewhere in your memory, anyone can copy it with the proper tool. It's effectively impossible to "protect" anything that way. You have to unencrypt data to be able to display it!

Putting pressure on Linden Lab to "deal with the scammers" and "forbid CopyBot" is thus as worthless as taxing the air we breathe. Instead, what people should do is engage in legal action.

Nevermind for a moment that "information should be free" or that "in a better world there would be no copyrights" (one wonders if this means that in that "better world" we wouldn't have any art, either, but that's another — political — question). This might happen in the future (it's very unlikely, but stranger things have happened), but this the now and here. And these days, creative people have an unalienable right to control how their creations are used by others. It's called copyright.

Any person who violates that unalienable right is not simply "being nasty" or "abusing a loophole in the system". You can't put the blame elsewhere. Under the current set of international laws, if you copy anything without explicit permission of the creator, you're committing a crime.

Again, my point is not to lecture on the merits of the copyright system, or discuss if there aren't better systems that allow people to share their creations, or if Linden Lab is protecting copyrights adequately (or the reverse)... it's good to talk and discuss about it, and we might even be the last generation living under the 122-year-old Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works (again, we can discuss if that document, signed in 1886, is still adequate for our modern, digital world or not).

But the mere truth is that we can't wave that complex item of international law away. It's not something that you can simple ignore for your convenience, or saying "oh, who cares, I'm not doing anything illegal anyway, it's not as if someone dies if I copy a texture". We can invent whatever excuse we wish to convince ourselves that we're "right".

The plain and simple fact remains: if you copy anything — anything at all — without explicit, written permission of the author, you're a criminal.

What does this mean? If the content creator is willing to get some advise from a lawyer and file a DMCA request, and is serious about it, you're liable to pay them compensation. In some cases (if you're extremely unlucky), you might even go to jail (this being specially true of people in Second Life that make a few thousands of US$ monthly distributing textures copied from others).

The very naive petty digital criminals have no clue about the laws. For them it's just a "game". They feel "secure" in their anonymity (when they forget that Linden Lab can, with a court order, reveal all their data — and IP addresses and their use are logged by LL). And one day they might get a visit from the local police to answer in court for what they have been doing. Trust me, pleading "but it's only a game!" won't get you far with the judge — specially if you're making a lot of money out of stolen content.

And the truth is, the petty criminals are usually gangs/groups that target a lot of creative artists, and redistribute, under their own name, lots of cheap copies of stolen content. It happens all the time, but the ones that are seriously making money with stolen content are organised. They're not really "kids with CopyBots" any more — they might even become classified as organised crime and be charged with that on court. They just think that the risks are worth the price.

Well, are they? Indeed, often they are. Filing a DMCA claim with LL is hard and complex. Following up in court is difficult. You need a lawyer and pay expenses; you need to be willing to go to court, present your claims, and go through the inherent complexity of the whole system. You might try for moderation/arbitration (alternative dispute resolution) if the "texture stealer" is really clueless and wasn't really making a lot of money (most aren't), but if that person is not willing to come to ADR (most will laugh at the idea), going through the motions of a full-scale lawsuit is hard.

Recently, a few top content creators joined forces and did exactly that. They obviously won the case (through a settlement). If you read that post, you'll see that the values involved are small — so, yes, people are willing to sue others for a few hundred US$, because it's the principle that is at stake. And with a few lawsuits under way, all successfully won by the content creators, it's time to spread the message around: kids, don't play with CopyBot — now you know you can be sued in court, and will almost certainly lose.

To help content creators out — specifically by giving legal advice in how to file a DMCA claim and pursue it in court — a group of content creators have joined forces and created the Content Creators Association (CCA). Take a look at my friend's Gwen Carrillon's post on how she was affected and how she is dealing with copyright theft with the help of the CCA.

Several similar organisations already exist(ed) in Second Life before, of course, but this one is a bit different. Its purpose is to help content creators to enlist the help of real life courts, real life lawyers, and real life lawsuits against criminals. It's not a "black list" system to blackhole/ostracise texture thieves, like so many different SL-based organisations in the past. No, it's a group of people that are standing up for their legal (real) rights and helping out people to fight for them — in real life courts.

The message should be getting out, loud and clear: copyright violators, your time is up. Cease and desist on your free will, while you still can.

Or face the consequences in court.


  1. In some countries, there are some cases where copying something is not a crime. For example, if I copy a line from your above blog post in my blog (i.e. I quote it) and give you credit, then I'd probably be okay under a fair-use exemption.

    Copyright law also varies from country to country, so it's a bit more complicated than your post lets on, but in many cases (e.g. in the USA) you're right: copying SL textures and selling the copies is something you can be sued for doing.

    Here's one way Linden Lab could prevent texture theft: they could render each frame on THEIR servers, then send those frames to you over the Internet. You'd never get the texture files (encrypted or not), so you'd not be able to copy them. Of course, this "solution" is nuts. It would be way too slow. But it would be possible :)

  2. Personally I think the moaning and arrogance of succesfull creators/sellers in SL is the real issue. I bet most of them would not be able to hold a shop or company in RL. SL will grow up. Today most succesfull creators/sellers are mainly succesfull because they were the first. The aftersale of a product, how to run a brand or store will be next. In the real world everything gets copied and still the good ones survive. I am not saying violations of copyrights should not be punished. I only say that it is so easy to point to others. Self evaluation is a term most SL creators/sellers do not really know yet. A hint: Keep coming with new products, be sure your product, service and custemor relations is perfect and you will win despite copiers. Just don't expect to makes money easy. Making money is never easy. If it was for you? You just had beginners luck. Now it is time to grow up.

  3. @troymc. Even if SL was rendered on the server, I could apply a texture to a prim, zoom in fullscreen and press printscreen.

    @Sylvia. I believe Gwyneth opened with saying that a successful business is one that keeps coming with new products.

    Even if you are successful, should you just roll over when someone tries to earn money on your hard work? Or should you stand up for your rights?

  4. Please my attempt to utilize this technology in a constructive and useful manner with a permissions protected use of it in a tool called SL2Blend that will allow SL content creators to take their models out of Second Life and market them in other platforms like the emerging Multiverse platform.


  5. @troymc, two things... while individual country's copyright laws might differ, they all subscribe to the Berne Convention. So details might vary, but the principles may not. The major difference, in fact, is on the transferability of content ownership. There are two schools of thought on this, Anglo-Saxon (lead by the US and UK), and Continental (lead by France and Germany). Most of the world follows closely the Anglo-Saxon model, where ownership of the copyright is a commodity that can be sold and transferred, and the original author might not even be credited for her work. The Continental model, by contrast, allows "full licensing" (ie. you can acquire the rights of content and do with it whatever you wish), but the author will always have the right to claim she has created the content.

    The rest are small details really, like the amounts of fines applies when copying content without permission of the authors; or what happens to an organisation that takes content without permission and resells it for a profit. The latter might mean jail in some cases, while the former, in some cases, might not even be illegal "for personal uses" (or educational; or reviewing; etc.). That's where the differences are.

    @sylvia — indeed, as Frans pointed out, successful content creators are constantly being creative and rolling out new products all the time. They have no choice. A book writer, for instance, rarely can survive on writing a single book during her entire life, no matter how successful they are; even J.K. Rowling needed to write seven to become the most rich person in Britain. Indeed, as you hinted, a successful content creator (in the sense of making a profit out of content creation) has to bring out new things regularly with the same quality. If they don't, they will be scorned by their own peers first (while there are exceptions, most artists in the world never make just one masterpiece — they might be incredibly lucky and manage that, but the vast majority of them requires a lot of content production to develop a reputation).

    This obviously also applies to SL (yes, I was talking about RL only :) ). People mistrust the clothes designer that has just ever done a single outfit and grumbles because it was copied. Obviously — someone that has been able just to design one outfit is not an "artist". They just got lucky perhaps. Or copied it from somewhere else. Who knows. People like Gwen Carillion (mentioned in the article) are RL artists — in her case, she designed jewelry and now does sculptures and radio shows (she's definitely not limited to a certain medium to express herself creatively!). She told me it was funny for her to do the same things in SL, too. But she certainly has all the qualities of a professional artist. Obviously that, overall, medium-term, she won't have any problem: she can shut her shop down, design everything from scratch, and reopen with a whole new set of content before the "copiers" are back with their tools. The "copiers" will always lag behind. And by successfully introducing her content regularly and often, she establishes herself as an original high-quality artist — the rest is quickly seen as low-quality copies. From a business perspective, that's all it takes.

    From both an ethical and legal point, however, things are naturally different. What people often fail to understand is the intrinsic difference between content production and, well, say, manufacturing. A plant just sells manufactured goods (bottles of wine, cars...) based upon a specific production method, that is patented. If you buy the patent, you are able to replicate the process; if you don't have the patent, you don't have the specifications to design the product. The patent, in effect, is what protects your ability to manufacture a certain good, and, like everything else, you can sell that as well and allow other people to build the same cars, bottle of wine, etc. as you do.

    An author writing a book has a problem. She just has an "idea", and that idea, of course, is also "manufactured" and sold in conveniently packaged. However, unlike a car or a bottle of wine, there is no way you have control over your work. Anyone can copy your book pretty easily (or, for that matter, your music), and thus, unlike what happens when buying a car (which is not easily "copyable"), there goes your revenue...

    One might argue that the whole revenue model for copyrighted items is wrong. In fact, most "copyrighted" work is actually differently employed: copyright ownership is transfered when you're paid to do some creative work. This means content creators will only be able to sell their work once. There are several examples of this kind of work: someone hiring an actor to give her voice to an ad, for instance. Or a digital artist getting hired to do the background image on some packaging. Finally, you have magazines, newspapers, and all sort of media where the authors are usually just paid once — or paid a salary — to develop their content. You get paid in full, just once, no matter how many copies of your work are distributed.

    The only issue happens with the "multiple sales" model, or the licensing model, where the artist basically gets a small royalty fee each time a legitimate copy is made of their work. The best example, of course, are books and music. In Second Life, however, we have a plethora of examples, since everything is digital content and pretty much distributed that way. But as soon as you have to define what is "legitimate" content copy (basically, all content that is copied for a fee that reverts to the author) and what is not, the problems arise. With digital copies, you can pretty easily "starve out" a content creator, if someone is able to completely undercut the whole distribution network by spreading an immensely huge number of cheap copies, much faster than the original author is able to sell their own "legitimate" content. Thus, something that is immensely popular — and copied millions of times — might not earn the artist enough to be worth their trouble, no matter how quickly the artist can create new content. That is ultimately the issue here. It's not "moaning and arrogance" — it's survival. An environment that is unable to guarantee that an artist is able to sell enough legitimate copies to at least provide them with compensation for their work (before the illegitimate copies flood the market) is an environment that will effectively lock out the best artists, since they'll be basically just wasting their time — which could be better employed doing other things.

  6. This is of some concern to me, so, I would like everyone's opinion. I have developed a tool that uses this technology. But, it is way more robust than the current tools being used to "steal" textures. It gets the whole model with the geometries and textures correctly mapped to meshes and exports it as a Collada DAE model into Blender where it can be taken to any other modeling tool and then on to basically any other game platform. I have been taking them to Multiverse.

    I built this tool mostly due to my frustrations in Second Life due to it's proprietary nature and the limitations of their modeling tool. I also felt that it would give Second Life Content Creators an ability to get their models out of Second Life into the bigger 3D model marketplace. So far the reaction to my tool has been complete apathy.

    I went to a great deal of trouble to add permissions security that would ensure when using the tool that the Second Life permissions were honored meaning that you could only export the model from Second Life if you had Modify, Copy and Transfer rights to the model. In other words, if you could sell it in Second Life, you could sell it in the bigger, more general marketplace of 3d Modeling.

    I wonder about the use of the tool now, seeing the kind of comments on the blog. I was thinking I was doing the content creators a big favor by creating such a tool. But, I beginning to come to conclusion that whatever this tool does it will be considered a threat rather than a useful tool. I certainly don't think a person should get sued if they own the content of a model and could sell it in Second Life and they decide to take this model to another virtual world or 3d marketplace.

    And just in general all the remarks about how Linden Labs could and should secure this for the Content Creators is just a waste of conversation. This is not a brag, but, it is a fact. Someone that has the right skill set (like me) can steal anything they want using any current technology (Open GL, DirectX) and there is nothing that can be done about it. I am sorry to say as long as you need to have the power of a graphics card GPU as a processor to render complex 3D worlds it is fair game to people that program at that level of detail for a living. People that program rendering engines all have this skill set.

    In any case, you can read about my legitimate attempt to use the technology in a way that is BENEFICIAL to the Content Creation community at http://www.mymultiverse.com/.

    While I would like everyone's opinions, I expect a general apathy about this partially because this isn't really about legitimate 3D modelers and artists. This whole controversy is about the Second Life platform and the frustration with the Lindens of residents. Instead of complaining why not branch out like I am doing as a content creator first and Second Life resident second by worrying about the quality of the model you are building and then trying and market to as many potential customers as possible (Second Life, Multiverse, Realmworld, etc).

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  8. What a delusional way of putting out right THEFT, Sylvia. People who use their own imagination/creativity and then spend the time actually putting these items together (hours and hours and hours) only to have some stranger come along and copy it, slap their name on it and make a profit is somehow the "arrogant creators" fault? Its no different than a RL sole propeiter spending money on a shipment of clothing and once its delivered a theif waltz into the shop and snatches it! They contributed nothing! No time! No money! Nothing! Oh Sylvia Sylvia Sylvia, U cant be serious.