Taking Ownership of the Problem
November 1, 2009 1 Comment
In an intriguing footnote to the Burning Life festival, reports have emerged that a person or persons unknown distributed a mysterious box around the site, said box allegedly containing a virtual cornucopia of ripped-off items. Outraged commentators immediately cited this as yet another example of Linden Lab’s woefully negligent approach to protecting IP rights. Interestingly, and I’m sure entirely coincidentally, the alleged super-crime was brought to the world’s attention by none other than Stroker Serpentine, who of course is currently suing the Lab, claiming in his action that, among other things, the Lindens have had a woefully negligent approach to protecting IP rights. If that wasn’t enough to get the conspiracy theories going, Stroker’s rather ham-fisted attempt to pin blame for the alleged offence on (apparently) well-known open-source advocate Damen Hax further fanned the flames. Throw in the whole third-party viewer controversy, and the scene is set for another skirmish in the long-running war between the forces of DRM and the open-source guerillas.
Godless communist that I am, in my ideal virtual world all items would be free to transfer and copy, and content creators would contribute their talents without material recompense, their reward being the knowledge that they had helped build a better experience for everyone. I guess that’ll have to wait until after the revolution. In the meantime we’re stuck with some sort of copyright protection system, though we clearly need something better than the current unsatisfactory model.
The lesson from the music industry is that there is no future in ever-more-complex DRM – making customers jump through hoops to access content that they have purchased just pisses them off, and it’s never long before the pirates crack it anyhow. It’s much better to make paying for stuff so painless that people won’t go to the bother of seeking out stolen goods – some sort of micro-payment or subscription system seems to be the favoured model.
How might that work in Second Life? The first step would be to establish a central content inventory, run by Linden Lab directly, or some semi-autonomous surrogate. Upon payment of a subscription residents would gain access to this inventory, and would be able to rez up a set amount of prims. The exact number available concurrently could vary depending on the level of the subscription – free accounts could be limited to, say, 10, with a sliding scale up an unlimited quantity. Continued access to the items would be dependent on keeping up the payments. Content creators who wanted their items to be included would have to register, and once they had they would get a cut of the subscriptions, based on the relative popularity of their stuff.
I’m sure that it wouldn’t take too much tweaking of the permissions system to make this function. The key would be to set the subscription (tax might be a more descriptive word) low enough so that evading it by picking up pirated goods was more trouble than it was worth, but high enough to generate enough revenue to keep the designers happy.
A scheme like this is much more likely to succeed in a virtual world than in real life, where a lot of work would have to be put into prediction of demand, and planning resource and capacity allocation. This doesn’t always work out well in practice, though I’d argue that it is possible to run a successful planned economy if enough information is available. In a virtual world however, items can be manufactured instantly, with practically no resource implications, so it’s perfectly feasible to have no advance plan for production, and to just react to demand.
The biggest hurdles to overcome might be cultural, psychological and political. Designers would have to accept that they were essentially employees, or at least subcontractors, of a big state-owned corporation, and residents would have to be happy to pay the tax to support it. Somehow I can’t see either of these things, especially the former, coming to pass, and I doubt Linden Lab, grounded as they are in the free-market spirit, would have the appetite to run such a system anyway.
If the public option isn’t palatable, there might be a private alternative – designers could band together in consortia to offer a smaller subscription service. I think it would really need the scale of a grid-wide operation to make it practical though, so over time the trend would be towards a private monopoly, which has a lot less to recommend it than a public one.
I’m sure that someone has thought of this before, done the sums, and worked out that it wouldn’t be profitable. I don’t see that as a valid objection though, since the aim I have in mind is improving Second Life for everyone, rather than making money for anyone in particular.
The broader point is that it’s no good pursuing technical solutions to what are essentially cultural problems. It’s very difficult to make people do things that you want them to do on an individual level, even harder to get them to stop doing things you don’t want them to do. A better approach is to try to construct a psychosocial milieu in which the desired behaviour is more likely than unwanted actions.
The solution to the content theft problem lies not in stronger encryption of content, nor with harsher penalties for breaking the TOS. What the Lindens must do is engage in some social engineering, to foster a stronger sense of collective ownership, to build a community that believes that an offence against one is an offence against all. Give everyone a chance to own an equal share of everything, at a price that seems fair, and no one will feel the need to steal, for they would only be robbing themselves.