Creative Common Sense

You have, in front of your eyes right now, Intellectual Property. Some anonymous page designer put together the CSS to generate the layout of this blog. Google, doing business as Blogspot (or Blogger, take your pick) offers it and others — for free — for people like me to muck it up with words and pictures. That makes this webpage, in a way, a derivative work.

Most of the words in this blog are authored by me. They are my Intellectual Property — though, to be honest, the degree of intellect they exhibit is not mine to determine, but my readers’. The words in this blog which are not mine are quoted from others’ Intellectual Property, and attributed in what has become the default method for non-scholarly Web publication: a hyperlink to the original page published by that author (or that author’s employers). The portions of my words which are based on their words — my interpretations, comments, extrapolations, etc. — are also derivative works.

I am permitted to quote others by a basic principle of what you might call “common law”, and by a specific license granted by those other authors. The first instance is known as Fair Use; the second is the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike license which also governs this blog, as you can see by scrolling to the bottom. I am enabled to do this easily by a simple feature of the technology through which their words, and mine, are published: copy/paste.

In short, I am a Content Creator. I join the millions of other Content Creators alive and writing now, and the tens of millions who came before, and the uncounted numbers who will come after. Like most of them, I will never receive a penny in compensation for the hours I spend in this effort. Like most of them, I won’t care. The work is done for its own sake, for the pride of accomplishment, for the satisfaction of having said something I felt was important at the time in a manner comprehensible (if not also pleasing) to my readers — if I have any readers; yet that, too, is less important than having said what I wanted to say — and yes, partially in hope that someone will say, even if only to themselves, “Y’know, that Lalo guy is pretty good at this…”

“Like most of them…” Yes, in every age there are those who have managed to receive compensation for their creative effort, and there are those others who, seeing this, think “Hey, I can do that too!” Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand of market forces determines who succeeds and who doesn’t — which is another way of saying that talent is no guarantee either way (for contemporary example: the Left Behind series). And yes, in every age you will find a tiny but stridently vocal minority of content creators whose expectation — or delusion — of success has not been met to their satisfaction and who blame their failure on any and every thing except their own bad choices.

I am also a photographer — that is: using another simple tool of the technology which brings the content of virtual worlds to my computer screen, I capture images of the work of other Content Creators. Why? For the same collection of reasons that people have expressed about taking snapshots since Kodak invented the Brownie: because the work is aesthetically pleasing; because the work is historically significant; because I want in future times to see it again and recall that I was there… et cetera. And, in the case of virtuality (though this might also be said of the organic world), by “work” and “creative content” I also mean the effort of individuals to make their avatars unique among the tens of thousands concurrently logged in.

Note, in passing, that those avatars by and large create their unique appearance through the use of others’ creations — more “derivative works”, as it were.

I “publish” a great deal of the images I capture — that is, I post them online. A few find their way to the pages of this blog; most, by far, wind up in my collections at Picasa (another Google product, incidentally). Why? Partially, again, because I hope someone will say, even if only to themselves, “Y’know, that Lalo guy is pretty good at this…”, but mostly because I’m saying “Look! Isn’t this cool?”

Now, we come to Second Life, and their new policy on snapshots and machinima, which in retrospect I believe they should have called the Image Capture Policy. I thought I was done addressing it in my last entry… silly me. I thought that a simple common-sense reading would confirm that what has always been understood as the liberty to capture screen images in and of the world, and publish them elsewhere, had now been codified. Well, I was wrong. After writing that entry, I went out into the meta-cyberspace about Second Life to see what others were saying… and I made the mistake of attempting to talk common sense to some people who, I honestly believed, were simply misreading the new policy.

Take a couple of minutes to read this exchange of comments between Cube Inada and I in New World Notes. I hope I sound to you like the voice of Common Sense, but what concerns me is Mr. Inada sounding (to me) like the voice of Fear, and my suspicion that he may not be alone in his opinion. When I boil down his comments, what remains, once again, is “it’s all about the money.”

He uses the phrases (bereft of their capital letters) “devalued”, “images have commercial value”, “revalue or resell without the Copryright owners permission and or renumeration.” [sic] Obviously, he’s not talking about the intrinsic or aesthetic value of a creation, which is a personal judgment of each mind that beholds it. Neither is he talking about the extrinsic value of a creation, such as its usefulness to the purpose for which it was made. It’s clear that his consideration here is its monetary value, which at first analysis is an arbitrary sale price a creator might put on an item, but finally is an expectation of future income, which resides solely in the mind of the content creator. As best as I can tell (and I sincerely hope he will tell me if I am incorrect), he is saying two things: [1] The mere fact that someone’s created content appears in a captured screen image will negatively influence — “devalue” — the sale of said content… presuming said content is for sale in the first place; [2] The primary purpose of image capture — snapshots and machinima — is for the photographer or videographer to sell the results, and that therefore the original creator of the items in the image should be compensated for what is, essentially, an accident of placement in the image.

In the first case, I offer a counter-example: my blog entry about soror Nishi’s sculpture exhibit, and the further images I captured on the day of its opening and published in my online collections (with emphasis that they were not merely the background of those images, but the subject). Many of Ms. Nishi’s items are for sale, and thus have a monetary value in addition to their striking aesthetic value. The images I captured cannot be used to duplicate the textures she applied to her work in order for anyone else to counterfeit them, so there is no question of “lost sales” due to cheap knock-offs. How, I ask you in my common-sense way, have they been devalued? On the contrary, I may well have increased Ms. Nishi’s subsequent sales by helping to publicize, in whatever small way, both their beauty and their availability. (I happen to have also been thanked privately by her for my presentation, and I gave her copies for her own use, one or two of which she then published in her own blog.)

In the second case, my common-sense counterexample is posed by these questions: Do you have to pay to read blogs? Do you have to pay to look at images collected at websites like Picasa, Flickr or Koinup? Do you have to pay to watch machinima posted on YouTube? Quite simply: there is no commercial market of the kind Mr. Inada fears he is being cut out of. I will grant exceptions, of course: Life 2.0, which I must assume is intended for commercial release once it finishes the festival circuit.

However, consider this: Up until now, I could not understand why the new “permission denied” clauses of the policy were written one way for snapshots and the opposite way for machinima. Without re-quoting the policy, the difference is: to deny permission for snapshots (or to force the photographer to ask first), you must say so in the Land Covenant; to deny permission for machinima, you need not say anything at all, and the videographer must ask first. Looked at another way: regarding images for which there is no potential commercial market, permission is the default condition; regarding images for which there someday might be a potential commercial market, permission must be sought.

Makes sense to me.

One more thing: Mr. Inada is concerned that permission can only be granted or denied by the owner of the land the content sits on (or floats above, or whatever), and not by the original creator… and once again, his concern seems to be about losing a potential revenue source. Gods forbid, one of his buildings (which are pretty damn cool, after all) should appear in the background of a machinima scene, or one of my photos, without proper compensation!

Mr. Inada, and any who agree with him, would place restrictions on image capture in Second Life (and other virtual worlds?) far in excess of those which exist in the real world. To create a capacity they do not have now to squeeze the last possible perceived dime from their Intellectual Property copyright, they would gladly stifle two other entire — and equally valid — branches of virtual art under a ridiculous tangle of red tape in the form of cascading permissions. They may call it “protection”; in my dictionary, it shows up as greed.

Tell you what, Cube: If I discover you’re the creator of anything that finds its way into a snapshot I take after 30 April 2010 (when the policy we all already agreed to goes into effect), I’ll send you L$ 25. That’s about a dime in US currency, and is one more dime than I’ll ever see from my work.

~

Oh, and the extra notice (and possible sales) you get as a result of my linking to your profile and website? That’s on the house.

~

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Loose Ends

A lot has been going on in and about Second Life, and I’ve been posting photos while trying to wrap my brain around things… things which develop and change faster than I can get a grip on them. It’s like the motif of the “Wizard’s Duel” from mythology, folk tunes, and the battle between Merlin and Mim in Disney’s treacly version of The Sword in the Stone.

But it also seems that, by not jumping in with all four paws, I’ve inadvertently allowed a couple of issues to settle down and become easier to grasp. So here’s some (hopefully) brief comments.


The Big Ripoff?

Twice, I’ve started posts about the content rip-and-redistribute issue. One of them rambled its way onto these pages as the “Goon Squad” post. The other — never finished because it was too damn long — tried to relate the creation of virtual-world 3D content to the authorship of literature on the 2D Web, and how the technology that makes creation possible includes within it the capability to copy and redistribute without permission. Meanwhile, the tsuris continues in the blogs and forums; most recently to new heights of hysteria in this New World Notes entry.  So, here’s my attempt to summarize:

  • Plagiarism, counterfeiting, whatever you want to call it, is wrong, prima facie.
  • The ability to copy, with or without permission, is by necessity inherent in the code. Open-source or closed, 3rd-party or LL’s default — makes no difference.
  • Trying to defeat the technical ability to rip unauthorized copies either (a) causes an “arms race” of exploits vs. hole-plugging, or (b) breaks the code altogether.
  • The only class of content creators who appear to be up in arms about this issue are the “fashionistas” — the people in the skin/clothing/shoes/accessories business.  Have the pre-fab housing makers been hit?  Are sculptures and other one-of-a-kind works of art being copybotted?
  • The actual economic effect of rip-and-redistribute on the vendors who have been victims of it is not quantified.  Why?  The vendors are shoestring operations — “mom-and-pop” stores, if you will — who have neither the time nor the staff to investigate… and how do you count a “lost” sale you never learn of?
  • There may be an irreducible fraction of the population who have no compunction against taking what is not theirs, but most people are not thieves.

Of the wide range of comments appended to that NWN post, the one from Astrid Panache made the most sense to me.  My advice to the fashionistas (as if they’d listen to a common consumer of their goods…):  Bite the bullet, accept the loss you can’t measure anyway as a cost of doing business, and market your wares to the vast majority of honest people on the Grid.
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The Nebraska Archipelago

“Second Life Enterprise: The next frontier… to seek out new markets and boldly go where no avatar really wants to go: to work.”

So now we know: All of the preliminary hints and hype, and the rumors — and, in some notable cases, paranoia — about avatar names, dress codes, “look codes” (whatever t.f. that’s supposed to mean), and the speculation about interaction between corporate gulags and the wild wide-open Grid is all for naught.  Thanks especially to Dusan Writer and Massively, we’ve learned that “Nebraska” is not on the Grid at all.

It’s a clone. It’s mounted on its purchaser’s server rack, not on Linden Lab’s. It contains pre-packaged sims that can be brought online or taken down as needed, and a pre-selected variety of available avatars (sorry, no furries) complete with flexi hair and “appropriate” clothing with an identity protocol that is entirely the decision of the end-user’s management. It has no connection to the Main Grid whatsoever.

There’s one immediate effect of this total separation: XStreetSL will not recognize avatar names from an Enterprise installation as valid accounts. Not only will an Enterprise user not be able to open an XStreet account in that name, they won’t even be able to “buy as gift”, with an alt created on the Main Grid, for delivery to their counterpart on the desert island.

So, what if a company with a “SL in a Box” installation wants to expand their choices — and those of their employees’ avatars — beyond the inventory that comes in the box? That’s where the SL Work Marketplace comes in. Ian Lamont of The Industry Standard, in his article about the Enterprise release, quotes an email from Justin Bovington, CEO of Rivers Run Red about the Marketplace:

“It has be less Xstreet, more Wall Street. It has to reflect relevance, rather than drowning us all in deluge of content: clothing, furniture and avatars,” [Bovington] wrote, adding “if [Linden Lab] attracts the right people to develop these apps, this could be the tipping point.”

According to the Linden Lab press release linked above, “the right people” (for now) are “Gold Solution Providers and Recommended Application Providers”.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Nothing.

Which brings me — “Finally!” I hear you saying in exasperation — to Loose End #3.
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Alarmism!!!

I’ve already mentioned above (and illustrated, if you follow the link) one particularly prolific commenter’s knee-jerk reaction to something that was initially misread, and then misquoted, and finally turned out not to pertain to the Main Grid at all. (The “Goon Squad” post began with a similarly alarmist note about “NeilLife”, too)

Predictably, the “usual suspect” has posted a venomous hysterical screed (probably one of many to come) about the forthcoming Marketplace, who’s in, and who isn’t. OMG, elitism!!!

Since when do we have economic rules in free enterprise liberal democratic *America* that can creates closed Soviet-like stores where only the elite can sell to other elites, and also make public calls to stop “flooding” the market?

Since when? Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Since the establishment of sainted laissez faire free-market capitalism itself, which allows corporate management to make their own internal rules and their own purchasing decisions. The suits who make those decisions — such as the one to purchase and install an instance of SL Enterprise on their server racks — have the right to not merely expect but demand quality in what they buy, and trust that it will work the way they need it to. The schlockmeisters who are the bulk of content purveyors on the Main Grid and XStreet not only won’t get in, they shouldn’t.

Please, people… get over yourselves. And while you’re at it, get over Ayn Rand, too.

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We are the Goon Squad…

…and we’re coming to town
beep beep*

In the last few weeks, certain channels of comment about Second Life (and, one infers, channels within SL) have been flooded by the issue of content theftThis thread at SLUniverse, where I first ran across the topic, has grown to at least 47 pages in two weeks!  (I’ll get back to that in a minute…)  Meanwhile, anyone who pays attention has at least heard of the suit against Linden Labs filed by Nomine and Eros LLC (a.k.a. Munchflower Zaius and Stroker Serpentine).  The latest piece of news, only two days old as I write this, is the Lab’s clever exploit to identify and bust (i.e., permaban) 50 people using something called “NeilLife”, a poorly-hacked copy of someone else’s 3rd-party viewer, to illegally copy content.

As I combed through that 47-page thread at SLU, I found two things of particular importance.  One of them was the alleged source of the third-party viewer that was the cause for alarm which began that thread.  As the discussion developed, a lot of attention was paid to a griefer group that calls themselves “Patriotic Nigras” (PN).  We furries are very familiar with that particular bunch — they’ve got a real hate on for us, for reasons I can’t quite fathom, but if you’ve ever wondered why “Yiff in Hell, furfags!” shows up so often from those particle-spewing replicator cubes, they’re to blame (or maybe their copycat wannabes).

In the aftermath of that bust, and lining up my sources for this blog, I re-read Post #3 in that thread (also by the original poster, Jesse Barnett) which says:

This isn’t ThugLyfe as that is in closed beta. This was built by someone who had been accessing the ThugLyfe subversion and using bits of code.

“ThugLyfe”, by the way, is a viewer that the PN has been working on — I guess to invent features to make it easier for them to cause trouble.  And it turns out that NeilLife is a copied and poorly-hacked version of the ThugLyfe beta.  QED, as far as I’m concerned… and we’re left with 47 pages of “OMG!” over — what?

Good question.

The second important aspect I noticed about the tsuris over content theft is: Who’s making the most noise?  I didn’t count instances, mind you… but it sure looked to me like the people doing the most panicking are all SL fashion designers… more significantly, fashion sellers.  In their “worst of all possible world” scenarios, the NeilLife/ThugLyfe viewer will be come widespread, people will be copying their creations left and right and wearing them, selling — or *gasp* giving them away! — and pull the prim rug out from under their market.  Many of them claim to make a significant chunk of RL income from cashing out Linden dollars, converting them to real-world currency, and they see any challenge to the status quo as threatening their individual livelihoods.  Many of those, at least in the early pages of that thread, played the “drama quit threat” card.

Oy, weh ist mir! Whatever would we, the common folk of SL — human, furry, or otherwise — do if the high-end, high-priced purveyors of clothing and accessories had to abandon the grid because their profit margins (after paying tier or rent) shrank back to the level of providing them with a little in-world cash for tipping DJs in the clubs they go to to show off their must-have creations?

[OK — obviously, I’m a guy.  One hairstyle and a handful of jeans and shirts is all I need to look how I want to.  And I’m a furry, which for me means I don’t wear shoes.  So I’m not into the fashion scene anyway.  Granted, a furry avatar itself is an “outfit” consisting of a skin and prim attachments worn over a human shape, and there are plenty of furs (mostly female, big surprise) who collect avatars the way their human counterparts collect skin, hair and shoes.  But we’re a minority and a niche market… and I was one of only two furs who posted on the never-ending thread in SLU, the other being Argent Stonecutter.]

Synchronicity time:  While all the ohmygodding is being raised about protecting intellectual property,  Pixels and Policy is asking “Is Virtual Consumerism Built on Social Pressure?, and Mahala Roviana is answering the question in her blog Second Slice with a resounding “Well, duh…”, and Santino Pintens started up a Virtual Consumer’s Union, which has some other people (see the comments to that post) saying “Huh?”

I’m saying “Huh?” too.  But I’m saying it for a different reason.

Santino Pintens uses shoes that cost L$1000 as an example.  Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it?  You can get a full furry avatar for less than that!  To someone who engages with Second Life on the “no payment plan”, it looks positively prohibitive.  But let’s put it in what I believe is the proper perspective: not Linden Lab’s version of “Monopoly money”, but real-world currency.  I generally use a conversion ratio of L$250 = $1 (USD) — yes, I know it fluctuates, and it’s slightly better than that, but it makes the math convenient.  This means that those “expensive” shoes cost a whopping $4.  As Ari Blackthorn seems fond of saying:

Wow.

Just, wow.

Unless SL borks your inventory, you have those shoes forever; they don’t wear out on virtual dance floors.  Not bad for 4 bucks, eh? So, here’s some friendly advice: You want the look? Bite the bullet, cough up the cash, buy the monopoly money. Pay to play.

It’s true: stuff does go “out of fashion”  Why?  The important reason is: technical improvements in how things can be constructed.  For example, there are a lot of furry avatars that just plain look “old tech,” because they are… which is why Luskwood Creatures, for one, is systematically going through their entire avatar line and redesigning each to the latest state of the art.  The same thing applies to clothing.  The introduction of sculpties has vastly improved the realistic look of pants, sweaters, hoodies, you-name-it.  In footwear, the latest innovation I’ve seen is open-toed shoes and sandals with sculpted toes built in, so now your feet can look like real feet, instead of whatever that is at the end of a avatar’s leg.

The unimportant reason things go out of fashion is: Somebody said so.  Which brings me back to Mahala’s Second Slice post (link above), and the reason I’ve re-written this TLDR post three times while blundering through the maze of issues relating to virtual content.

In our quest to create things more realistic, we’ve stumbled and instead made them more like reality. I thought that’s what we were trying to escape.

Right on!  And with all of that, we brought the goon squads: vandals trying to disrupt it “for the lulz”, shoplifters trying to steal it, shop owners screaming for the cops and/or threatening to sue when the cops don’t come, whiners demanding clearance sales… and, gods help us, the self-appointed Fashion Police.

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* “Fashion”, David Bowie (1980)