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:

Avatardz in High Fidelity 28 Apr 2018.png

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:

Avatardz in High Fidelity 2 28 Apr 2018.png

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.

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Why Second Life Users Haven’t Been to Sansar

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Draxtor Despres, in his Facebook group 114 Harvest, asked the following question:

Second Life friends: have you been to Sansar? Why not?

Because both Second Life and Sansar are made by the same company, Linden Lab, it seems possible that many curious SL users would want to at least visit Sansar. (Linden Lab has made it very clear that the two products are separate platforms with separate development teams, and that Second Life will continue to be developed over time.)

Many SL users answered Drax’s question. To summarize the responses:

  1. I’m a Mac user, and there is no Mac client for Sansar. (I have addressed this issue here.)
  2. My computer is not powerful enough to run Sansar.
  3. My Internet connection is not fast enough to run Sansar.
  4. I prefer to build using the in-world tools in Second Life, rather than use external content creation tools like Blender.
  5. “There’s nothing to do in Sansar.” or “There’s more to do in Second Life.”
  6. Second Life is more fully-featured than Sansar.
  7. There are not enough avatar customization options in Sansar.
  8. I can’t bring my SL inventory over to Sansar.

It was interesting to read through all the comments!

Second Life Infographic: Some Statistics from 15 Years of SL

Both Daniel Voyager and Wagner James Au have posted an infographic that Linden Lab shared with them, giving some statistics on the occasion of Second Life’s upcoming 15th anniversary. (Somehow, I seem to have been left off the list of bloggers to receive this graphic…. hello, Ebbe? Remember me? I’m over here! *waves frantically* I know you read this blog! Could you pull some strings and get me on the secret blogger mailing list?)

Anyway, I thought I would share it, and a similar graphic from SL’s 10th anniversary for comparison purposes (both of which I took from Daniel Voyager’s blog, which I do recommend you follow):

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Keep in mind that of those 57 million accounts created since 2003, Wagner James Au estimates that only about half a million accounts are active users. He says:

Despite 57,000,000 total accounts and 350,000 new registrations per month, the active Second Life userbase remains around 500,000-600,000:  Over 10 years ago, SL’s active userbase reached a plateau of around 500,000 monthly active users, and despite continued new user sign-ups of around 350,000 every month, the number of returning users stubbornly refuses to grow much more than that — and just as mysteriously, stubbornly refuses to shrink much, either.

And here’s the infographic from the tenth anniversary of Second Life:

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Second Life Fashion Portfolio: Six Gowns from Silvan Moon Designs by Bee Dumpling and Solas NaGealai

I wanted to show off all the beautiful gowns I recently bought from Silvan Moon Designs (SL StoreSL MarketplaceFlickr), both the special designs available at their booth on the Aetherea sim of the current Fantasy Faire, and at their regular store on the Emerald sim! Bee Dumpling and Solas NaGealai, the owners of Silvan Moon Designs, do such outstanding work that I wanted everybody to see them!

Here’s a couple of pictures of Vanity Fair in the wonderful Le Carnivale Baroque gown in blush I bought at Aetherea (please click on each picture to see a larger version):

And here’s Vanity Fair in the Relay for Life special I also bought at Aetherea, called the Lady of Shalot in sapphire blue:

Vanity Fair in Lady of Shalot Sapphire Gown 19 Apr 2018

Here my medieval roleplay avatar, Scarborough Fair, is wearing the lovely Lady Ariana gown in white (click each picture for a larger size):

And here is the beautiful Daphne of Mistborn gown in green, which comes with a matching vest:

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And in this picture, Scarborough is wearing the Light of Sarin gown set with matching hat, in slate blue:

Scarborough Fair The Light of Sarin Gown 21 Apr 2018

Finally, Scarborough is wearing the Windsor Palace gown in gold (this last dress is also one of the special Relay for Life designs available only at the Silvan Moon Designs store on the Aetherea sim):

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I’d like to thank Solas NaGeala for so generously giving me the Linden dollars to purchase these six exquisitely made gowns. As you can see, I spent the money well!