CopyBot Challenge to Linden Labs

Pirate FLagThere is no technology protection that can stop determined people from copying intellectual property, in real life or virtual.  This was true when BETA tapes were released by Sony in 1975, and continued with VHS, CD, DVD, and virtually every videogame media known to man since.  Even back in the 60’s people were copying records onto reel-to-reel tapes and then cassettes (can you say “Old School”?). 

This is not a new phenomenon.  What is relatively new is virtual property and intellectual property rights under the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA). The DMCA was signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1998. To quote Wikipedia: “The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is a United States copyright law which criminalizes production and dissemination of technology that can circumvent measures taken to protect copyright, not merely infringement of copyright itself, and heightens the penalties for copyright infringement on the Internet.”

Rob Linden has been quoted as saying that people who feel their IP rights have been violated in Second Life “have the option of using the DMCA process to file a complaint. It’s a difficult process, but it is one that we’re willing to pursue on your behalf because we agree that copying is a disincentive to creation.”  Is this the best action for Linden Labs to take in trying to stop this threat to the Second Life economy, and the Linden Exchange?

First, I think we need to know what CopyBot does, and how it works. CopyBot installs on a user computer and allows the computer to capture an avatar or object in Second Life, even those that are marked “no copy”. It has been reported that the copy is often incomplete and missing components, like internal scripts. There are really only two legitimate reasons a person could have for using a program like CopyBot.

The first use of CopyBot would fall under “educational use”, and when you pick yourself up off the floor and stop laughing, think about it for just a minute. For those who were on the Internet in the early 90’s, how did you learn to write HTML code? If you were like me, you saved the source HTML from pages you thought were good examples of web page design, and you looked under the covers to see how they were built, and in the process you “learned” how to do it yourself. Kind of like the time I took apart my favorite portable AM/FM radio when I was 10 years old to see how it worked. Although in that case (literally, a pocket sized case), the radio did not survive my attempt at reassembly, and I never was able to build my own radio with the knowledge gained from that exercise. 

The second use of CopyBot is for exploitation. This could manifest in a variety of ways. The “bit-legger” could run around the world of Second Life dropping copies of a business owner’s most popular creation, leaving unprotected copies for anyone to take and distribute again. While dropping copies of a house all around the world may draw a lot of attention, dropping copies of small intricate items, clothes, jewelry or other items might not be so obivious to the casual avatar. A profiteering “bit-legger” could actually attempt to undercut the creator of an object, and sell illegimate copies of items in remote areas of Second Life. How many copies of an item would have to spread across the world before the owner/creator realized that the market for their unique item had been destroyed?

Anytime a closed economic system is compromised, the system has a probability of collapsing. If the internal economy of Second Life collapses, the universe of Second Life will collapse. If the universe of Second Life collapses, the company of Linden Labs can be put at risk. Game and virtual world companies need to aggressively protect their game systems and economies. I could spend pages and pages going over historical examples of game worlds that collapsed from breached code, or compromised in-game economies. Instead, let’s look at a company that aggresively enforces their user agreement for a best practices approach to protection of virtual rights.

Blizzard, the makers of World of Warcraft (WOW), have made it the foundation of their virtual world to aggressively pursue and ban ANY player that violates their user agreement, or that exploits the game system or in-game economy. In any single month Blizzard bans more people from WOW than some MMO’s have as subscribers. Gamespot has an article up now, “Blizzard bans 59,000 WOW accounts” that states that they banned 59,000 accounts in a single month and removed $22 million in gold from the in-game economy.  And this pattern repeats every month in the World of Warcraft.  The game has enjoyed a steep increase in subscribers since the opening of the game, at least in part from this aggressive enforcement of their user agreement. This aggressive ejection of violators from the World of Warcraft universe has effectively protected the in-game economy from potential threats to the game universe, and financial loss for Blizzard.

With the floating Lindex exchange, there is even more of an urgency to enact this sort of agressive action in Second Life. Players have a legitimate and simple method of converting L$ to US$. This raises the reward of exploiting the Second Life world with programs like CopyBot to a profitable level. The smell of easy money will draw exploiters for profit to the Second Life world in droves. Anyone who thinks that CopyBot is the first and last program of this type is sadly mistaken. The source code has already been released into the wild. Programmers are most likely already fine tuning and improving the code. A program that can make perfect copies with scripts in tact is probably not far off. And the worn out excuse that these programs have the positive application of making archival backups of your items is about as likely as all those backups of game software that are stored “off site” in friends computers (remember, CopyBot makes imperfect copies).

Linden Labs controls the source code of Second Life. They can tag user created items, as is already being discussed, and track them through the game world. They can set a tag to identify the creator of the item. They can embed a hash code derived from various components of the object to track changes to that object, and changes in ownership. They can come up with a variety of methods to determine creation and ownership, and immediately put a stop to the exploitation of this type of code for profit or mass distribution. They also must adopt an aggressive policy of banning those residents that exploit the Second Life universe for personal gain. Of any MMO on the market today, Second Life has the most to lose from a free fall in L$ value.

How likely is Dell Computer to stay in-world if their computers are copied and distributed across the world. How long will Adidas keep their virtual doors open if their shoes are “ripped”, and copies start showing up all over Second Life. How many independent businesses are going to keep their doors open while they pursue action under the DMCA? How long will Second Life survive if people stop doing business in-game, and resident leave in frustration if their bank of L$ suddenly has no cash value? The time is now for swift and stern action by Linden Labs to take control of this situation, and to start banning those who would use this technology to exploit the game world. 

A delay in enforcement of the Second Life User Agreement, and the intellectual property rights of their users, will likely cause irreparable damage to the Second Life universe. 

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3 responses to “CopyBot Challenge to Linden Labs

  1. The situation is more complicated than you are implying in your comparison with World of Warcraft, which is a game run by a gaming company. Linden Labs have expressed their intention to move SL into being an open source system which users can host on their own servers, and then link to the rest of the SL universe. Parallel to this a group of “residents” formed libsl and (with the indens explicit permission and encouragement) began to reverse engineer the system with a view to finding new things to do in there. None of this activity would ever have been allowed (as far as I am aware) in WoW, or many other online worlds.
    One of libsl (and the Lindens) aims is to move as much as possible of the client/server activity to an XML based protocol with the specific aims of (among other) making the client interface completely customisable and making full communication between SL and the rest of the net possible.
    My understanding is that copybot was developed as a debugging tool to facilitate this kind of activity and “escaped” through carelessness or oversight.
    All of this suggests that the scenraio that we are facing in SL has much to do with the Lindens unusual aims for their world, and their apparent uncertainty about how to get from here to there.
    My reading of some of Philip Rosendale’s remarks suggest that he (and Linden Labs) see their ultimate job as building the de facto standard for online worlds (a 3d pdf, if you will) and see SL as a living experiment in developing that standard. That too is a very different perspective from the creators of WoW, and a complicating factor in deciding what reaction they should have to copybot.
    Oh, and to finish: a third legitimate use would be backing up all the stuff that disappears from my own inventory, especially the buildings I have made 🙂

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