The Soul of the Stream
I made a mistake calling yesterday’s entry “As the Smoke Clears“. Apparently this whole Copybot issue is just getting warmed up and the smoke isn’t clearing at all. It’s turning up on internet news feeds and blogs all over the place outside of Second Life as well as inside it.. Now that the Lindens have banned its use officially, for whatever good that will do, and some of the 100-odd merchants who closed their shops in protest have re-opened their stores we have more exciting news and some food for thought to go with it.
The libsecondlife team has now kicked Baba Yamamoto off the project (under the guise of “reorganization”, which sounds like saying “redeployment” instead of “retreat” in reference to Iraq) after an IRC chat log was posted over on SL Universe which displayed a smirking, reckless, cavalier attitude on the part of several individuals toward the damage they knew ahead of time that copybot would cause to Second Life. It’s a bit late for damage control now, but at least we know who our friends are.
The Sellers’ Guild is still up in arms and held an impromptu meeting with the libsecondlife team to talk about the team’s goals and what can be done to limit damage for now. I’m still waiting to hear the outcome of the guild’s meet-up with Philip at the Town Hall — last I heard, Philip scheduled the town meeting for 11:30 AM my time, and I do have a real-life job I’d like to keep. It affords me some things I enjoy, like eating and sleeping indoors.
Of keen interest to me this morning, though, was Raph Koster’s blog entry on Copybot. For those of you who don’t know Raph, he’s been a major player in MUD and MMOG design for a long time and is one of the visionaries of virtual communities. I was a long-time Ultima Online player (Lake Superior shard) where he was the lead Dev, known as “Designer Dragon”. After he left that project, he was then creative director for Star Wars Galaxies.
One of the common threads in both of those games was Raph’s vision of virtual community dynamics. In UOL, he believed that user communities could be self-policing if given the proper tools. The tool he had faith in at that point was the complex and easily-griefed reputation system. Whatever his lofty ideals, the system was revamped at least three times and ultimately, Ultima Online failed when rampant player killing and griefing could not be controlled (and, to be fair, a better product came along in Everquest).
In SWG he wanted players to be able to advance through non-combat professions as well as combat roles. Thus were born the Entertainer professions – Dancers and Musicians for the most part. The problem in that game was that most of the users joined in order to shoot ray guns, fly spaceships and play Star Wars, not macro dance steps while they went to the living room and watched Friends. So over time, the Entertainment professions were ignored or hurt by changes, the combat system was revamped drastically and over half the player base left the game.
Raph doesn’t bear all of the responsibility for that – in fact, he condemns what happened on his own blog. His condemnation includes these pearls of wisdom:
Some have since decided that it was listening to the players too much that caused some of the design problems with SWG. I am not sure I agree. If anything, I think that many subsequent problems came from not listening enough, or not asking questions in advance of changes. Walking a mile in the players’ shoes is a difficult trick to pull off even if you have the best of intentions.
I digress. I think Raph’s comments on the Copybot issue need some focus here. Here’s the link again if you lost my train of thought.
The salient point to remember in all this is that he’s right about streaming content never being totally protectable. But in Second Life, it’s all we have. There are too many possible permutations to a prim’s size and shape and texture to store all of them on your client. SL’s content has to be streamed or we’re faced with pre-programmed stuff like World of Warcraft, where the developers paint all the textures and encrypt them on your client. The data going back and forth to the servers is just pointers – itty bitty 1′s and 0′s that tell your client which piece of armor or which weapon to load. Maybe that helps you to understand the epic rash of lag we’ve been feeling since the concurrent user numbers topped 10,000 per night.
He also has a good point about the parallels to the old Star Trek replicator story -
…after such a machine was invented, currency as we knew it ceased to be function. Since everyone had the capability to create (replicate) anything they desire, capitalism as we knew it died, and the new dawn of perfect Marxian philosophy was adopted by the Federation.
It’s true that if copying prims and textures becomes easy, the entire economy on which Second Life is based will collapse. We will be reduced to a world where everyone has copies of everything, IP rights are irrelevant and as a result the creativity and innovation that makes the world stand out will die. Marx and his imitators were wrong about human nature in a very large, important way: it is the promise of incentives which encourage innovation and creativity. Without those incentives, there IS no innovation and society (and technology) stagnate.
So we’re caught in a dilemma here. Free information sharing is an impossible ideal, but at the same time it is a reality because nothing is invulnerable to being captured as long as you’re streaming content. And on the other side of it, creators have a right to the fruits of their labors and must have some assurance that there is recourse if their creations are stolen.
The comparisons we’re hearing to the music industry’s long copyright war with Napster and others is an appropriate one. As much as the music companies would love to stop all illegal file sharing, it’s just not going to happen so long as Suzie has her Yahoo! IM hooked up with her friends. However, that doesn’t mean that the music industry has to throw up its hands and stop trying. Legal actions, lobbying for legislative regulation, and mass education are three of the means they’ve used to try to choke off the theft of their property.
In Second Life it’s not practical for a shopowner like myself, who deals in small volumes and mostly sells simple prim skirts, to hire an attorney or pursue DMCA every time I see another prim skirt with my textures on it. That’s not to say it isn’t an avenue for someone whose work is much more unique and complex, but I think the vast majority of SL merchants are more like me than they are like Francis Chung or Cubey Terra.
I see two avenues that could benefit the little people like myself. One is group action. It’s why I joined the Sellers’ Guild — a group that is prone to its own panic states and rumors at times, but which does have a core of responsible, mature members who understand how to get things done. Group action will always be superior to individual action, and on this issue I think the Guild is able to command some attention from the likes of the Lindens and libsecondlife team.
We could do more, though — if a problem arose that was so egregious and damaging that it had to be answered, I think groups like Sellers’ Guild make a good starting point for class action suits. We cannot command the legal resources of the Music Publisher’s Association, but we should be capable of pooling our resources and testing the DMCA laws in a court of law.
There’s another avenue, though, that is more naturalistic. It’s almost Darwinian in its approach. That is, the creators and innovators in Second Life can cope with this challenge to their domains by becoming even more innovative and creative. Objects, textures, and scripts will always be stealable. But the majority of customers are honest and they’re the ones who deserve to be offered fresh content regularly. No longer are we merchants competing against each other. Now we are competing against the lazy rip-off artists who will never innovate, never offer the kind of customer service we offer and whose whole focus is making a quick buck before they move on to the next theft. We can best them by doing what we’re already doing, but doing it better and doing it more often.
Raph claims we’re being “hoisted by our own petard”, but I submit that he’s using the wrong metaphor. We can hoist the thieves by their petards and demonstrate that we, the merchants of Second Life, ARE in fact the “soul of the stream”. We are the source of future content, innovation and imagination. Those form the core of the Second Life community, not a 256×256 digital texture file. You can clone my texture but you can’t steal my imagination.
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