Intellectual Property and Copyright Issues in Social VR/Virtual Worlds: A Follow-Up Editorial

Apparently, Ghoster (whom I interviewed previously) is quite peeved at me for, and I quote, “bashing [his] server and VRChat”.

I didn’t even realize he was upset with me until I started chatting with him today on his new Discord server, Hi-Fi Traders, which is set up much the same as his previous server, VRChat Traders: a forum where people seeking a custom avatar can connect with avatar designers, creators, and riggers. The services are quite popular, and some people likely make a good side or full-time income from custom avatar creation for paying customers.

Ghoster probably has a right to be angry with me, after what I wrote about intellectual property and copyright issues in virtual worlds. He might feel, and not without some reason, that it was a personal attack. (It certainly wasn’t, but I can understand where he’s coming from.)

And it would appear that I have now been banned from Hi-Fi Traders, and probably VRChat Traders, too. I was still on the Hi-Fi Traders Discord channel when I found myself suddenly kicked out.

Before I was unceremoniously booted off his server, I told Ghoster (twice) that I would gladly give him a guest blogger spot to post a detailed rebuttal of my original blogpost, but it would seem that throwing me out was the preferred approach. I still stand by my original blogpost, and the argument I am making today. Also, I am not singling out VRChat, either; I have also blogged about IP infringement on OpenSim-based virtual worlds, and what I have to say here applies to all metaverse platforms, not just VRChat.

All I have done is point out that people charging money for the creation of custom avatars, where they do not own the intellectual property, are operating on sketchy legal grounds. Ghoster told me today that the high number of concurrent users on VRChat makes it difficult to police this sort of thing. That’s true. But frankly, that’s not an excuse for clear-cut cases of copyright infringement.

Custom avatar creation is a sort of cottage industry, much like those peasants who did piecework on their weaving looms before the Industrial Revolution came along. That’s fine, and I fully and completely support that work. (Many people still make a living creating and selling content on Second Life after 15 years of operation, for example.)

And creating a custom avatar inspired by someone else’s intellectual property is okay. For example, Roger Rabbit in the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit is based on a mash-up of Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, and Goofy:

Roger is a slender, white rabbit with large blue eyes, pink nose, a tuft of red hair who wears red overalls, yellow gloves, and a blue yellow polka dot bow tie. He is an amalgamation of various classic cartoon characters; taking Bugs Bunny’s cartoon rabbit form, Mickey’s gloves, and Goofy’s baggy pants. Animator Richard Williams described the process of creating him like an “American flag” with the red overalls, white fur and blue bow tie and American audiences would enjoy him subliminally.

But, if you make an exact copy of Mickey Mouse as a custom avatar for somebody and charge them money for it, don’t be surprised to find the Disney lawyers breathing down your neck (or, more likely, going after VRChat, High Fidelity, or whatever virtual world is hosting that avatar). Even worse, if you create a Mickey Mouse avatar modified in some X-rated way, you’re really skating on thin ice if someone reports you to Disney Inc. They don’t look kindly on that sort of thing.

And I do know that Linden Lab (for example) is monitoring items placed in the Sansar Store, to ensure that no copyright-infringing items are placed up for sale. (They do have Star Trek items up, but it is with the explicit permission of the Roddenberry estate.) In fact, very recently, a lovingly-detailed, fan-made recreation of the Enterprise from Star Trek: The Next Generation was pulled offline following a cease and desist from CBS.

As far as I am aware, VRChat is still not doing that sort of checking. (And giving it away for free isn’t an excuse.) They are opening themselves up to a possible lawsuit. So is any other social VR platform or virtual world that is allowing people to recklessly copy somebody else’s intellectual property without permission. And if the company owning the IP comes after a virtual world platform, they have no choice but to comply.

And kicking me off your Discord server, because you don’t want to hear that, isn’t going to change that reality one bit.

DisneyCopyright
You might not agree with it, you can protest it, but it’s the law.

Sorry, Ghoster. I hope you can forgive me over time. But it doesn’t change the facts. Your beef isn’t with me; it’s with the system. If you disagree, then put your efforts into copyright reform, not into a personal feud with me. Don’t shoot the messenger.

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UPDATED: Earning Money Creating Custom Avatars in VRChat: An Interview with Ghoster

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Although VRChat does not (yet) have an in-game economy, there are many people who are already earning hundreds, even thousands, of dollars by designing and creating custom user avatars for the platform.

Here’s a recent episode of the Endgame talk show, where the topic of discussion was how people are making money by creating and selling 3D avatar models for VRChat. I find it interesting that many of the various other ideas for earning money within VRChat that were being thrown about are very similar to what people do for money in older, established virtual worlds like Second Life (e.g. tour guide, performer, etc.)

There is another very recent interview with Ghoster, the operator of the VRC Traders group (one of the most popular venues for avatar buyers and sellers), on the popular Gunters Universe show in VRChat. I can’t embed that video here, but you can watch it on Twitch at this URL: https://www.twitch.tv/videos/250896991

After watching these videos, I interviewed Ghoster, and asked him some questions about VRC Traders. Here is a transcript of that interview.


Can you tell me when and how you got started in the business of creating avatars in VRChat?

I believe it started back in September, I was looking to have a model of a DND character I was playing as, made for me so I could wear it during the DND session. That’s when I realized it’s really hard to find a VRChat user who is good at modeling and rigging and not already busy. So after thinking it over, I contacted a coder for a custom bot and possible website host. And that’s how VRC Traders got started.

What kind of technical/computer background do you have? How did you get attracted to social VR and virtual worlds?

I work as a CNC setup/operator and that requires me to know a bit of basic coding. I’ve also been an avid gamer for many years and have been working on worlds and Avatars for about a year. As for social VR, well, gaming is fun but I have always been interested in what other peoples ideas and thoughts are like, and when I saw all these clashing, yet causally talking, personalities in one space, I was blown away.

What experience have you had in previous virtual worlds (e.g. Second Life) before you started with VRChat? Are you active in other social VR spaces/virtual worlds?

So a good friend of mine, who goes by the name of JTravelin, showed me VRChat shortly after its Steam release. But before that, I was in AltspaceVR (maybe eve Rec Room). I’m still active in Altspace as a cameraman for a few shows still to this day. When I was heavily active in Altspace the one thing I liked about it was performance and how a simple color was all that identified you and you would meet people that are disabled, and you would know, self-conscious, and more importantly from different regions. This led to a kind of unspoken understanding or be respectful and have a good time in VR especially for those with the Rift or Vive since the upfront cost was big.

When did you decide to set up VRC Traders and the Discord server? What kind of work have you had to do to organize and promote VRC Traders? 

I belive it was early September that I had plans to set it up and by the end of that same month I went public. Rather recently though, I have been on two talk shows along with word of mouth promotions, spreading VRC Traders (VRCT) around as a viable option to make money in virtual spaces. Before that, though, it was a word of mouth in VRChat to spread it and as VRChat grew, so did VRCT. Being a Discord server on the main VRChat Discord helped a lot in these times, along with some of the dev team referring people to the server. There are plans to advertise in VRChat more, but I can’t tell you about those.

What different types of work/expertise do you offer to consumers (e.g. animators)?

Well as avatars are the main focus, everything avatars. And I mean literally anything you can think of or need done, the commissioners of the server are able to make it happen. In addition to anything and everything avatar related, there are sections for 2D artists, world creation and fixing, shader technicians (people who create custom shaders) and, soon to come, audio engineers (people who work on various elements of sound mixing, making and setting up).

How does a new VRChat user actually request a commission?

To many people’s dismay, the server has a 10 minute explore period, where new users are supposed to take a look around and see how the server is organized. VRCT has a guide channel near the top where people can find out a standardized way to post commissions so others can easily read and understand the commission. While we don’t enforce any said rules on what to post, we do prefer a new user to place as much info as they can, so interested commissioners can contact them directly to get the work done.

How do you deal with the intellectual property issues that arise when a user wants an avatar that belongs to a company (e.g. Disney)? Are there any avatar commissions that VRC Traders declines as a matter of policy?

Well, that’s a hard question to answer, since I don’t think VRChat has determined its view on the matter. All I can say is, the only commissions we don’t allow are NSFW models, and for obvious reasons. I recommend that people make commissions for original character models or large edits to existing models, but like I said, it a very hard question to answer since it’s the internet. (These are my opinions and may not be representative of the VRC Traders server or VRChat in the future.)

Where do you see this industry going in the future? Where do you see VRC Traders in a year from now?

As far as the industry of 3D avatars and world creation goes, I see this type of business becoming a viable marketplace and job for many users. In the talkshow Endgame, I said that 10-15 years ago, game asset creators took years of practice with highly expensive tools on computers about as advanced as the computers of today, and it was a highly restrictive field because of that. But with better PC components that are faster and more powerful, alongside cheaper or even free modeling software, 3D modeling has gone from a highly skilled restricted class of people to now a more accessible [job] but still very difficult. Not only that, but as more games, especially sandbox style games, come into the community, you want to have something you can call yours and no one else’s. [This] will only grow as more and more people turn to the internet and gaming to relax and have fun. For VRC Traders, I would love to see direct integration with the VRChat service, where you can go in-game on to the server and request something. Not only that, I hope in that time to make VRC Traders not only a service server, but a great sub community within VRChat with various events and tournaments happening or being sponsored by the server.


If you are interested in VRC Traders, you can join their Discord server.

UPDATE April 28th: 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