UPDATED! Editorial: Why I Want to Leave My Second Life Avatars to Other People When I Die

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Meeting the Angel (screen capture from Second Life of me and an alt; picture taken in 2007)

Don’t misunderstand me…I plan on living a long and healthy life and dying a very old man. But when I do pass on, I want to leave some of my Second Life avatars to other people in my will.

Over the past eleven years, my passionate hobby has been creating and outfitting SL avatars. I have created many avatars over the years, and it has been a creative and deeply satisfying endeavour:

Some avatars lasted only a couple of days before I deleted them; others have been with me since the very beginning of my adventures in Second Life. Witches and wizards and wolves, pirates and painters, sergeants and satyrs, barbarians and ballerinas, harlequins and hippies, gladiators and geishas… my hobby has given me endless hours of pleasure and escape. Some were exclusively for role-play purposes; others were just a means to live inside somebody else’s skin for an hour while strolling the grid. Others were created specifically to evoke reactions from passers-by. I could be whatever I wanted, and I was: an angel, a fairy, a goth girl, Elvis, Queen Elizabeth the First, Lady Gaga, Santa Claus, a supermodel, a hobo, a spaceman, a Na’vi from the movie Avatar, a medieval minstrel.

Here is a photo mosaic of all the avatars I had created during my first five years in Second Life. (I created this photo mosaic back in 2012, as a sort of ceremonial way to wean myself off SL and move on. Of course, that didn’t really happen! I took a long break and came back in 2016.) Many, if not most, of these avatars I have since deleted, but I have kept the rest of them.

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I understand that it is currently against the Linden Lab Terms of Service (TOS) to give your SL avatar to another person. I believe that we need to make an exception. I would take great pleasure from knowing that some of my Second Life avatars, on which I lovingly spent so much time and money, would live on after I die. It would be a kind of digital immortality.

Of course, I understand that Linden Lab does not want avatar accounts to become a commodity, something that is bought and sold on the marketplace. I was surprised to find that there are even some places online where people actually sell their old avatar accounts, especially those legacy accounts created with a proper first name and last name; this might even be one of the reasons why LL is bringing back avatar last names.

I would never want to sell one of my avatars; I find the very idea repugnant. But it would give me great pleasure to be able to freely give one of my avatars as a gift or a legacy to a friend or family member. And I want Linden Lab to explicitly allow this.

Second Life is soon turning 15 years old. I’m certain that this sort of thing has happened in the past. And I’m quite certain that some of the people driving an avatar in SL are not the original creators. As more of SL’s original userbase starts to die off, this will be a perfectly natural thing for some avid SL users to want to do.

And no, I don’t think it’s creepy at all. The people to whom I would leave my avatars would be free to do as they please with them, redesign them, or give them on in turn.

This is my heartfelt plea to Linden Lab: please allow this (if you don’t already), and update your Terms of Service accordingly. Thank you!

UPDATE 5:48 p.m.: Well, what do you know? Ask, and ye shall receive! Somebody just told me that Linden Lab already has a posted policy on exactly this topic on their user wiki:

How do I bequeath my Second Life account and its assets in the event of my real life death?

In your will, you must include the legal (real life) name of the person who you want to inherit your Second Life account and assets in the event of your death.

Pursuant to Section 4.1 of our Terms of Service:

You may not sell, transfer or assign your Account or its contractual rights, licenses and obligations, to any third party (including, for the avoidance of doubt, permitting another individual to access your Account) without the prior written consent of Linden Lab.

I need to notify Linden Lab of the real life death of a Resident; what documentation does Linden Lab need?

The Second Life support team requires the death certificate and may require other additional testamentary letters or orders, as may be required by law. Additional verification of any party’s identity, including the deceased, may also be required.

In general, the team requires:

  • Copy of the death certificate
  • Copy of the will
  • Copy of a government-issued ID sufficient to identify you
  • Testamentary letter or other appropriate order (as appropriate)

If I die in real life, can you let my Second Life friends know?

Maybe. Linden Lab can only act on instructions that are part of a legally-recognized document such as a valid will. You would have to specify in your will that you want this action performed (for example, notifying everyone in your friends list), and we would need a copy of the will and any other verifying documents we deem necessary.

You can read the whole page over on the Second Life wiki for more questions and answers. This page was last updated on February 12th, 2016, so the policy is up-to-date.

Well, I guess I better start drawing up that list of names and contact information for my will… thank you for alerting me, Oobleck Allagash of the Second Life Friends group on Facebook!

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UPDATED: Intellectual Property and Copyright Issues in Social VR Spaces/Virtual Worlds

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Image by AJEL from Pixabay

My recent interview with Ghoster got me thinking about the issue of intellectual property (IP) and copyright regarding avatars in social VR spaces/virtual worlds. VRChat is already infamous for having a multitude of avatars ripped from innumerable video games, TV shows, and movies. High Fidelity has decided to take a page from VRChat’s playbook (and, I assume, try and attract some of that VRChat crowd) by allowing people to set up a few domains where you can select from a wide variety of popular characters, owned by Disney and other companies, as your avatar:

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Now, the creator of this particular domain skates around the legality of this by offering these avatars for free; no money is being made from this. A prominent disclaimer sign posted in the Avatardz domain states:

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So, this user doesn’t advocate “piracy from independent and small artists.” What bothers me about this statement is the unstated implication that piracy from Disney or another large corporation is somehow O.K. (maybe because they can afford to swallow the losses more easily?). Also, they seem to justify this blatant IP appropriation as a sort of fan art, a “fan-operated source for pop culture avatars as a tribute to our pop culture legends”.

(Note: High Fidelity is a distributed open-source platform, allowing users to host named domains on their own servers or on the cloud. This means we should not automatically assume that the Avatardz domain is officially sanctioned or supported by High Fidelity.)

I came away from my interview with Ghoster of VRC Traders a little troubled by the copyright and IP issues involved in selling custom avatars to VRChat users that are wholly or partially based on characters owned by somebody else. I did a little research and came across this recent article on IP issues in virtual worlds, from the website Intellectual Property Watch (a non-profit independent news service), which states:

In the virtual world, people appear through their avatars. If they design the avatars themselves, they could be subject to copyright and trademark lawsuits, Lemley and Volokh said. Fictional characters’ images together with their unusual character traits are protected by copyright, so users who copy enough of the visuals, character traits or both to be copyrighted expression and not simply an idea might be infringing. If the use is non-commercial and the copyright owner isn’t distributing licensed avatars, the use might be fair use, but selling such avatars without rights owner approval would likely not be fair use, they said. It could also amount to a trademark infringement.

Rights holders might choose not to go after individual users or small avatar sellers, but to sue the AR or VR operator for contributory infringement, the paper said. The operator might be immune under the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act, but only until someone sends it a notice-and-takedown request that isn’t quickly acted upon, it said. Established case law sets out the limits of intermediary liability under the DMCA; there’s less clarity about intermediary liability for trademark infringement on the internet but the law is developing, it said.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is a process often used (and, in a few cases, abused) by vendors in Second Life and other virtual worlds who claim that someone has stolen their intellectual property. The process is laborious, tedious, and probably could be improved. Many large corporations don’t seem to think that it’s worth their time and money to go after people who are stealing their IP in social VR spaces/virtual worlds. For example, Warner Brothers probably doesn’t care much that dozens of people are selling Superman-themed items on the SL Marketplace, even though they fought (and won) a protracted legal battle to cement their copyright to Superman. They probably are reserving their lawyer firepower for the bigger and more egregious cases of copyright infringement.

I have said before that VRChat may get into serious trouble if people continue to flout the copyright laws so shamelessly, particularly if they are starting to making healthy profits at it, as seems to be the case with the community that has sprung up around VRC Traders. We could be in for some interesting legal cases in the years ahead.

UPDATE 3:34 p.m.: Obligatory link back to the VRChat Events website (because I promised them I would do it if I cross-posted over on their Discord server, and I forgot!): www.vrchatevents.com

Also, Second Life and Sansar blogger Inara Pey made such a great comment on this blogpost that I wanted to add it in full here. She said:

IP infringement and the “it’s OK to flout IP of big companies ‘cos they can afford it” is a source of heated debate in SL. In 2012, I reported on the CBS / Star Trek situation. There’s also been the Universal / Battlestar Galactica situation.

Both of these focused more on props, models, and costumes from said series than avatars, but the attitude towards their IP was the same. It was further coupled with the view that “well, we’re fans and so they should be grateful to us for our support”. However, both attitudes not only falsely justify infringement, they also overlook the importantly equal matter of licensing.

In short, major studios – Marvel, Disney, CBS, Universal, et al, generate millions in revenue by issuing merchandise licenses to manufacturers and commercial concerns. As such – and no matter how large or small the unlicensed market or how small the turn-over / profit made by those actively engaged in selling unlicensed goods – the license owner has a legal obligation to project the licenses they have sold, as well the right to protect their IP.

This was as much behind the Universal / CBS situations vis BSG and Trek as anything else – a point many of those railing at both companies at the time, and citing (in Trek’s case) non-binding “arrangements” which may have been offered by prior rights holders, seemingly failed to grasp.

The idea that offering something “for free” is equally a slippery path. As you point out, it’s only a short step from offering “for free” to then offering items for sale. This has been demonstrated (again) in SL with both the Star Trek and BSG situations.

In both cases, Universal and CBS backed away from legal action on the understanding that virtual goods relating to their IP investment in both shows would not be made with the intent to sell for profit. As a perusal of the SL Marketplace will demonstrate, neither agreement has been adhered to by virtual content creators. Ergo, there is still a potential ticking bomb on this subject in SL, should the legal departments of either studio swivel back towards virtual environments and virtual “goods” … which the slow rise of VR might actually encourage.

Also, there seems to be a broader view that because specific understandings were reached by some (again, I’ll use the CBS / Universal agreements, as those are the two I have direct knowledge of) are somehow a “blanket OK” from all IP holders to allow copies of their IP to be offered for free – which may not actually be the case. Again, that’s actually down to the individual studios to decide; just because X has gone that route, doesn’t mean Y will – or is obliged to even consider it.

Just as a point of reference, my own (slightly long-in-the-tooth) articles on this subject can be found at:

https://modemworld.me/2012/11/02/of-copyright-ip-and-product-licensing/ (Star Trek)

https://modemworld.me/2010/11/29/bsg-universal-dmca/ (Universal / BSG)

https://modemworld.me/2011/02/08/bsg-limited-roleplay/ Universal / BSG)

FreeWee Ling also had a great comment when I cross-posted this blogpost to Drax’s 114 Harvest community on Facebook:

People have been screaming about IP issues in SL since the beginning. Several years ago there was a series of open talks in SL featuring attorneys with expertise in IP who examined the LL TOS. Not much was resolved other than a statement from LL that their “intention” was not to steel user content, but that they needed certain rights in order to allow people to use the Marketplace and just to generally present the content on the platform. A lot of artists were not satisfied and you’ll find many of them still working in OpenSim grids where they have more control.

Disney and others are vehement about controlling how and where and by whom their IP is presented. There was a Disney themed fan sim in SL some years ago that, if memory serves, got notice to remove their content of face legal consequences. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation closed down a sim full of great Wright model homes in SL, even after the owners contacted them and at least got tacit permission to do it. (I.e., I think they had been told the foundation wouldn’t endorse it, but also wouldn’t stop it.)

Ultimately, I’m pretty sure any copy of virtual content without permission is theft. Whether there is money involved or not.

UPDATE Nov. 19th: I have posted a follow-up editorial here.

My Predictions For The Next Two Years

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Photo by Wyron A on Unsplash

I’ve been hanging around virtual worlds of one kind or another for over a decade now. I’ve seen them come and go. Some were spectacular failures that provided lessons for other companies. Others just kind of meander along, not attracting very many users or ever becoming very big (like the multitude of OpenSim-based grids).

What usually happens in today’s hyper-competitive computer applications marketplace, is that one or two players in a particular market segment get big (e.g. Microsoft, MySpace, Facebook, and yes, in its own way, Second Life), and then continue to grow like a juggernaut, based on the network effect, while the smaller players in the marketplace fight each other over the leftovers. The ones who get big are usually, but not always, the early entrants into the field (Second Life is a prime example of that, although there were notable virtual worlds which were founded before it, like ActiveWorlds).

But social VR and virtual worlds are not a zero-sum game. Many consumers are frequent visitors to a number of different metaverse platforms, and many creators build and sell products in various virtual worlds. Right now, success in one VR-capable virtual world (e.g. VRChat) generates interest in other social VR spaces. As they say, “A rising tide lifts all boats”.

It’s still not clear where all this is going, but I’m willing to polish my crystal ball and make a few predictions of what will happen over the next two year period, from now until April 2020.

What I predict will happen, over the next two years, is that one of the Big Five computer companies:

  • Alphabet/Google
  • Amazon
  • Apple
  • Facebook/Oculus*
  • Microsoft

Is either going to launch their own social VR/virtual world/metaverse product, OR is going to buy one of the Big Four metaverse-building companies:

  • High Fidelity
  • Linden Lab (Second Life and Sansar)
  • Sine Wave Entertainment (Sinespace)
  • VRChat

(We’ve already seen this happen with Microsoft’s purchase of AltspaceVR.) We could also see a company buy out a virtual world, just to grab the programming talent, and then shut the world down completely (as Yahoo! did with the promising Cloud Party).

Now, there’s no guarantee that any of the Big Four companies WANT to be bought out by the Big Five. Perhaps instead of a buyout, a strategic partnership deal will be inked. But I bet you anything that it’s tempting for the bigger companies to buy their way into the evolving metaverse marketplace, rather than design something from scratch.

I also predict that a LOT of the new virtual world/social VR startups we see popping up are going to fail over the next two years. There’s a lot of virtual-reality-related (and especially blockchain-related) hype taking place, and some people are investing in startups that are risky. Some smaller companies have jumped into grand virtual-world-building projects without realizing the sheer magnitude of the work involved in creating a fully-featured, viable metaverse. I’m afraid that some investors are going to get burned.

I also predict that Sinespace and VRChat are going to pull ahead in terms of features, simply because they decided to build on top of the popular Unity game engine, and they can use all the cool Unity development tools that are popping up. By comparison, feature development on Sansar and High Fidelity will be slower, as they continue work in-house on their own engines.

And finally, I expect that Second Life’s 15th anniversary celebrations will entice some former users to dust off their old accounts and revisit the platform to see what’s new. It may well herald a renaissance for SL! At the very least, it will help stave off a slow decline in SL’s user concurrency figures.

*Sorry, but as I have said before, Facebook Spaces is not a palatable social VR/virtual world product. It can’t even come close to competing against what High Fidelity, Second Life, Sinespace and VRChat are currently doing. But I bet you anything that Facebook has other plans up their sleeve. They can still try to leverage off their 2-billion-plus Facebook network (not to mention 800 million Instagram users) to become a potential major disruptor in the evolving metaverse marketplace. I’m not counting them out yet!

Editorial: Twelve Things I Want to See BEFORE a “Consumer Launch” of Sansar

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What does Sansar need to attract consumers with cash? Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Ebbe Altberg, CEO of Linden Lab, has gone on record that he wants to have a consumer launch of Sansar sometime in the first half of this year, 2018. By “consumer launch”, he means a serious advertising push, a media-savvy, well-funded promotion of the platform to end users, shoppers as opposed to creators. People with cold, hard cash, the people who pay the bills of Linden Lab and its employees and keep their lights on. People who visit experiences, socialize, play games, shop for their virtual homesteads, and dress up their avatars. People who don’t know one end of Blender from the other.

My fear is that, if Sansar has a consumer launch too early, people are going to come, kick the tires, declare themselves unsatisfied, and leave, never to return. (We’ve already had this to some extent when the “open creator beta” launched last July 31st, 2017. I’m quite sure that a troop of eager Second Life folks signed up, visited once, shrugged, and never came back. Of course, only Linden Lab has the actual statistics on those one-time visits.)

I have some things that I really, really want to see in Sansar before a major push to consumers is attempted.

What would I like to see BEFORE a consumer launch of Sansar? Twelve things.

  1. Better avatar customization features. Having lots of clothing options is nice, but it’s not really enough. How about some body sliders so we can adjust our height, weight, etc.? How about allowing people to design and sell their own avatar skins?
  2. More and better avatar animations: everything from being able to sit down, to having more options for dancing than just one measly dance for men and one for women. There’s just too few animations in Sansar right now, and we need to fix that. And none of the /command animations works in a VR headset.
  3. Particle effects: Fire. Water. Fog. Smoke. You already have WindLight for Second Life; how hard would it be to port it over to Sansar?
  4. More interactive content: HoverDerby, the Accuracy Training Module, and Gindipple’s Bowling Alley are wonderful starts, but we need more than that to attract and retain people. A lot more. Adding more scripting abilities is a good start.
  5. One or more community hubs: A few gathering places where you can pretty much expect to run into other avatars are important to establish a community feel. Create a hub or two. All the other virtual worlds have them, and frankly they’re a good idea, especially for a virtual world that is just starting out of the gate.
  6. Greeters: Other virtual worlds like Sinespace and High Fidelity have paid greeters whose job it is to welcome guests, answer their questions, and make them feel comfortable. It’s a business cost. You can’t just rely on volunteers. Hire people. Put them in your community hubs. Pay them (in Sansar dollars, if you prefer).
  7. The ability to pay an avatar directly: For tipping of performers, awarding of prizes in games like HoverDerby, etc. High Fidelity launched this feature and it’s fantastic.
  8. Paypal support: Many people still do not have, or refuse to use, credit cards. Second Life already supports Paypal; what’s the holdup with Sansar?
  9. More functional and attractive user forums and blogs: Seriously, ditch Zendesk. It makes you look bad. The Sansar blog is especially unattractive and boring as hell. Again, you already have a great solution in place for Second Life, why not use that for Sansar too?
  10. Better communication and collaboration with livestreamers and other potential promoters like bloggers and vloggers: These are the people who can make or break your product; you need to attract more of them and make it easy for them to cover your product.
  11. More contests: the contests that Linden Lab has already had in Sansar have been great, and have resulted in innovative products for sale in the Store and fun places to visit. But there’s been nothing since Hallowe’en. Why not have more contests, including some for consumers as opposed to creators?
  12. More regular events: We’ve got some events, but we need more! Fashion shows, game shows, theatre, etc. The Events calendar still looks pretty bare sometimes. AltspaceVR and VRChat are just killing it with regular and one-off events.

There are other things I want to see, like a complete, coherent, fully functional permissions system for items sold on the Sansar Store (which is why several potential creators have said that they are holding back from releasing content for sale). But I am focusing on the consumer-oriented things in this particular list.

I reserve the right to update or change this list as other ideas come to me or are suggested to me by others. Ebbe has often said that he wants to focus on building those features in Sansar that increase user attraction, engagement, and retention. Do you have any ideas of what you’d like to see in Sansar before a big consumer rollout? If you have thoughts about what Sansar features would improve consumer attraction, engagement, and retention, then please feel free to leave a comment on this blogpost, thanks!