Did you know that Draxtor Despres (Bernhard Drax in real life) has been hard at work on a documentary about how people with a disability use virtual worlds like Second Life, High Fidelity, and Sansar? The title of the documentary, which will be released free to YouTube on May 18th, is Our Digital Selves: My Avatar Is Me. Drax describes the film as follows:
Our Digital Selves: My Avatar Is Me tells the story of 13 global citizens and their avatars as they transcend their various disabilities by making a home in the VR metaverse.
Filmmaker Bernhard Drax travels all over the world, from California to rural South England, to explore why a diverse group of people ranging from 24 to 92 years of age find solace, inspiration and deep friendship that in a user-created digital wonderland that only exists inside their computers.
Drax sends his intrepid documentarian avatar Draxtor Despres into the virtual universe of Second Life as well as next generation VR platforms like High Fidelity and Sansar and – among many other adventures – he finds out why a 40-something Chicago native feels best represented by a colorful gecko complete with superhero cape or why Cody LaScala – confined to a wheelchair his entire life – feels his avatar should look exactly like him. The film follows researchers Tom Boellstorff and Donna Davis as they lead discussion groups and facilitate deep connection between real human beings in virtuality through artistic expression.
We follow along as they travel to Silicon Valley to find out how leading technologists design the future of online communication with disability in mind.
As Boellstorff and Davis finish up their 3-year study, made possible by a grant from the National Science Foundation entitled Virtual Worlds, Disability and New Cultures of the Embodied Self, the film presents a compressed compendium and visual guide to a seemingly unlimited array of possibilities for borderless human interaction.
Unique in its narrative approach, Our Digital Selves weaves together physical and virtual cinematography as the protagonists backstories are re-enacted via Machinima technique – real time animation – in the virtual world and next generation VR platforms.
The film will be available for free on YouTube come May 18th and has been submitted to film festivals around the world for the 2019 season.
Here’s a preview of the documentary Drax put out on YouTube about six months ago:
And here’s a great screen capture from the video (of which I saw an advance screener) of Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg sitting in front of some Sansar Studios concept art for avatar outfits.
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:
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:
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.
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:
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.
Philip said that currently, the High Fidelity company consists of 55 people, and about 20,000 people have created user accounts so far in High Fidelity. He said, in response to a comment from Drax that most High Fidelity users are probably American, that British/European users actually make up the largest block of HiFi users.
Philip talked about a piece of code you can add to your HiFi client, called Mirror Mode, which allows you to see a copy of your avatar in-world, to see what you are wearing, etc.
The group started at the Zaru domain, and from there they went on to visit the following domains:
Each HiFi domain runs on its own server; High Fidelity is a distributed open-source virtual world. Philip said that they built the architecture so that anybody who wants to can put up their own server, which means that it can scale upwards much more easily than a centralized system. He also hinted that you might be able to access High Fidelity on your phone someday soon!
Here’s Strawberry’s livestream of the tour (she was experiencing some technical issues with lag, and she did crash at one point):
Drax also did a livestream of Philip’s tour (one of the cool HiFi features he demonstrated was the ability to befriend another avatar simply by shaking their hand in-world):
How do you find out what’s going on in the various social VR spaces/virtual worlds? Often the best way is to consult their upcoming events listings. In this blogpost I am going to link to all the various event schedules that I have been able to locate for each of the major metaverse platfrorms.
First, let’s start off with Second Life. The Events listing in the Second Life client (under Search in the Firestorm client) can be a bit overwhelming due to the sheer magnitude of events listed (there’s also a lot of store advertising spam mixed in). You can use the handy drop-down menu in the upper right-hand corner of the Search window (under the General, Moderate, and Adult checkboxes) to limit your searching to, say, live music events. There’s also an events page on the Second Life website, which doesn’t appear to have as many events listed as you can find using the client. There’s also a Featured Events listing in the Destination Guide, which can direct you the major events happening around the grid.
Sansar has an upcoming events calendar within the client software, displayed prominently on the right-hand side of the screen when you first log in. There’s also a Rolodex icon labelled Events in the upper right-hand corner of the screen, which you can click at any time to see the events listings:
High Fidelity has an upcoming events page in pinboard, agenda, or calendar month views. Unfortunately, there’s no events listing within their client, on their tablet user interface, so you’ll have to rely on the website to get your information before you go in-world.
(Update: I just discovered that there is an in-world display board of upcoming events in High Fidelity’s Start domain, which you can search for on your tablet UI under the “Go To” icon:
Sinespace has an Events section on their official blog, but it’s not updated very often. You’re better off loading the Sinespace client software and getting information from the Upcoming Events section on the left-hand side of the log in screen:
There’s also an upcoming events board located near the spawn point at the Sinespace Welcome Centre:
VRChat actually has a VRChat Events website with links to their Discord server and to an online calendar of events. This is a separate Discord server from the very busy main VRChat Discord server, with different channels for each of the regularly scheduled events happening in VRChat, including the popular Endgame talk show. There’s simply no better way to stay abreast of everything that’s happening in VRChat! There’s also an official events calendar on the VRChat website. (Surprisingly, there is no upcoming events listing within the VRChat client, a glaring omission.)