O Superman

The JLU saga rumbles on, and has jumped from Second Life into the real world, on the way losing much of its lustre.

I may have exaggerated a little when I implied that the wannabe superheroes were some sort of virtual Freikorps, but they do seem to be doing their best to make themselves look like a thoroughly sinister outfit. Their latest stunt is to try to censor the Herald’s exposé of the secret JLU database by threatening the paper’s web host with the DMCA. The Herald, to their credit, are not taking this lying down, and have counter-filed a complaint charging JLU supremo Kalel Venkman with intentionally lodging a false DMCA report, which, I understand, is not a trivial offence.

(A side-effect of this process has been to reveal the real-life identity of Herald editor Pixeleen Mistral, who, rather impressively, turns out to be internet legend Mark McCahill.)

The whole story was quite fun when it was confined to the grid and the SL blogosphere, but I suspect it is about to become rather less amusing for the participants now that everyone is getting lawyered-up. A well-connected academic like McCahill can probably look after himself – I’m sure he’ll be able to hit up Lawrence Lessig for some free legal advice – but Venkman, who, the internet tells me, is really a technical writer from Los Angeles, may be having second thoughts about the potentially expensive escalation of hostilities that he has initiated.

Why has Venkman done this? He had a perfectly good role-playing scenario set up, with heroes and villains, intrigue and espionage, skulduggery and back-stabbing, confidential dossiers and secret deals, topped off with open conflict between the forces of good and evil across hundreds of worlds – all the ingredients for a gripping narrative, with Venkman himself right at the centre. He’s trading that for a dull tale of dreary lawyers exchanging dismal arguments in dusty courtrooms, a story that seems likely to end in unhappiness for Venkman and his lycra-clad cohort.

This seems to me to be a case of incomplete immersion, or perhaps over-augmentation; either way Venkman appears to have lost sight of the boundary between the virtual world and the real. The role of “Venkman” has become so important to his self-image that he is unable to see the Herald‘s story for what it is –  a chance to build on the mythology he has already established, an opportunity he should welcome – and instead regards it as a threat to his real-life identity, one which must be countered with a real-life action, regardless of the fact that such action risks destroying his existence, both virtual and real.

The story reminds me of cases we’ve covered before – the tale of another virtual superhero, Twixt, and the Stroker v. Linden lawsuit. Both of these involved people acting in ways that made no sense when seen in the context of the virtual world alone, but became more comprehensible when one thought about the interaction between virtual and real identities, particularly the unconscious aspects of the latter.

Is it possible to be a complete immersionist, to live one’s virtual life in total isolation from the conscious and unconscious influences of one’s everyday personality? Would such a thing be desirable? Probably not, for what is interesting to me about living a Second Life, and recording my thoughts about it, is the way that it casts light on corners of my consciousness that I may have been only vaguely aware of. While projection of real-life neuroses into the metaverse may be illuminating, I’m much less convinced that allowing in-world dynamics to leak out and influence one’s external behaviour can be anything other than harmful. This may be a lesson that Kalel Venkman, or at least his mortal alter-ego, is about to learn the hard way.

Because when justice is gone, there’s always force.

The killer awoke before dawn

I’ve been caught up with work and social engagements recently, and so completely missed the latest big Second Life story; Stroker Serpentine’s lawsuit against Linden Lab over the thorny issue of IP rights, and the Lindens’ efforts, or lack thereof, to protect them.

The details of the case, and its merits, have been well covered in the Alphaville Herald and New World Notes, and there’s no shortage of comment around the SL blogosphere (like here, here and here). In such circumstances any opinion I care to offer is bound to be superfluous, as well as being thoroughly uninformative, seeing as how I have no knowledge whatsoever of contract and copyright law as it is applied in the state of California. But what kind of blogger would I be if I let ignorance of the topic or fear of repetition stand in the way of weighing in with my two cents worth?

Everyone agrees that content theft is an issue; Stroker’s case revolves around the question of whether the Lindens are mere providers of the framework in which the criminality occurs, and thus not responsible for it, or if the fact that the Lab profits from copyright infringement by collecting dues from the malefactors makes it part of the evil enterprise. The precedent that is being quoted is the case of Louis Vuitton Malletier, S.A., v. Akanoc Solutions, Inc., et al., where the luxury goods maker was awarded $32 million damages against a firm that hosted websites selling counterfeit Vuitton items. The Taser case seems relevant too, as well as the Lab’s previous actions in banning in-world gambling and banking, which presumably stemmed from a realisation that the US Department of Justice was likely to regard hosting illegal activity as an offence in itself.

The Lindens’ defence will probably rest on the “safe harbor” provision of the DMCA, but they may be on shaky ground there, since any claim to be at one remove from the murky business of SL commerce would be rather undermined by their ownership of XStreet, and their record of assisting aggrieved creatives with DMCA filings is allegedly very poor. There is some speculation that the Second Life Terms of Service, specifically the sections prohibiting residents from suing the Lindens, might be the Lab’s get-out-of-jail card, but it seems unlikely that any court would enforce a contract containing such obviously unfair terms.

All these legal questions are mildly diverting, but what is much more interesting is the underlying psychology. It reminds me of a gritty crime movie, the part where the heist has gone wrong and the thieves have started to fall out. One can only imagine that Stroker’s sex-bed business must have hit the skids before he would pursue the nuclear option of suing the Lindens. I’ve no doubt that having his designs ripped off has at least partially contributed to this, but I suspect that the inherent limitations of the virtual economy (which we’ve previously discussed here and here) have had a more significant impact.

It feels as if there is more to this than mere financial considerations though. What Stroker and other designers want is not just money, but respect, due acknowledgement of their creative talents. Unfortunately, outside of a small subsection of the SL population, being a virtual clothes/hair/whatever producer just doesn’t count for very much, in terms of cash or kudos. This may or may not be unfair (I tend to think it is some way off being the worst injustice in the world), but it’s a fact, and no amount of complaining on the internet or suing Linden Lab is going to change it.

Looking at it more analytically, there also seems to be an Oedipal theme to this lawsuit. By all accounts Stroker was a Joe-the-plumber type before Second Life gave him the chance to reinvent himself as a virtual pornography mogul; it seems ungrateful, to say the least, that he should set in train a process that could theoretically ruin the company that made his good fortune possible. The Lab may have begat Stroker, but he has good reason to think that he is not Philip’s favourite son; the sex business of which Stroker is the most prominent public face is often cited as the biggest threat to the Lindens’ future prosperity. Stroker would not have to be particularly paranoid to see the regulation of adult content on the grid as an attempt to castrate him (figuratively and literally; ridding SL of penises seems to be one of the prime objectives of the new rules). Perhaps the case represents Stroker’s unconscious desire to kill his virtual father before he himself is annihilated by paternal rage.

What would be the most desirable, or least undesirable, outcome of the case? Should Stroker prevail it would surely be a Pyrrhic victory. The suit is a class action, so every frustrated shopkeeper who ever had a texture pilfered would be able to jump on the bandwagon, exposing the Lindens to potentially unlimited liability. Even if this doomsday scenario didn’t come to pass, an adverse judgement would force the Lab to radically change the Second Life retailing landscape, probably by introducing some sort of merchant registration and approval system, shutting out the small scale entrepreneurs who are, everyone says, the lifeblood of SL creativity.

And what if Stroker loses? There has been the usual Atlas Shrugged-style posturing from various bloggers, with talk of how an exodus of talent will leave the rest of us wailing and gnashing our teeth, bereft of prim hair and erotic animations. In reality, of course, little would change, since any designers who did flounce out would be quickly replaced by others with equal skill and a rather more realistic estimation of the value society places on virtual creativity. It would be for the best in the long run, since Second Life can only benefit from a population that is more interested in enriching the collective experience than amassing personal wealth.

So I’m hoping that the case goes to court, and that Stroker loses. I doubt that this will happen though; the Lindens’ corporate lawyers will want to avoid the uncertainty of going to trial, and will push for a settlement, which I suspect is what Stroker has had in mind from the start. Even if they don’t admit liability the Lab will have to introduce more regulation to avoid facing similar actions in the future, and the nature of Second Life will change forever.

Whatever happens, it feels like a chapter, if not the whole book, is drawing to a close.

It’s the end of our elaborate plans…

Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment

Bloomberg are reporting that Taser International Inc. have filed a trademark-infringement lawsuit against Linden Labs, alleging that the sale of virtual copies of the corporation’s stun-guns in Second Life is damaging the firm’s reputation.

What’s interesting about this is that it is Linden Labs that is being sued, rather than the creators of the knock-off weaponry. Anyone who has ever shopped in SL will know that there are plenty of fake Gucci bags and other designer merchandise in circulation, but until recently there has been little incentive for trademark owners to go after the counterfeiters, since the chances were that they wouldn’t have enough money to pay any substantial damages.

That’s all changed now that Linden Labs has taken over XStreet, and, as Tateru Nino notes in her coverage of the case over at Massively, effectively become the retailer of the dodgy goods. Suddenly the lawyers have a profitable corporation in their sights instead of some penniless hackers, a corporation that will probably settle out of court to avoid the nuisance of ongoing litigation.

This could open up a whole new career path for SL entrepreneurs; virtual patent troll.

Whatever, here at SLS we’re still happy, happy, happy, all the time.

Unreliable anonymity

A while ago now I purchased a door for my little house on the slopes of Heterocera, to preserve my virtual privacy. This was, as I noted at the time, completely illogical, and also somewhat hypocritical, since I am not entirely adverse to trespassing myself. At least my door is relatively polite, unlike the security systems that brusquely inform interlopers that they are on private property, before violently expelling them from the area.

The door is a scripted object that can only be opened by nominated avatars, and which also records unsuccessful attempts at ingress. This latter function had never previously been triggered, but when I logged on yesterday there was a message from the door waiting for me,  containing the name of my would-be visitor.

Curious, I searched for the profile of Ms X, as I shall call her, which contained a picture of her avatar, a photograph of her real self, and a link to her blog. A few clicks later and I was in possession of her real name, more photographs, the rough location of her house, the name of her workplace, and a link to her Facebook page, which no doubt would have provided me with more of her personal details.

I stopped at this point, aware that my actions were becoming more than a little creepy, but also surprised that anyone could so casually share such information about themselves with random strangers, especially on Second Life, which I’m sure has more than its fair share of potential stalkers. (I’ll admit I have no evidence to back that up, but it’s not much of a stretch, is it?)

It set me thinking about how easy it would be to link my avatar to my real-life identity. I don’t think it can be done directly, unless of course someone had access to the details of my user account, which contains my real name and address. I guess Linden Labs would have to reveal that to anyone with a court order – in fact I know they would, since they’ve done it before (to other people, not me, yet). It wouldn’t shock me to learn that the Government (which one? any one) has secretly passed a law giving the secret police all the SL user information too. An ordinary resident couldn’t make the connection though. What they could do is relate my av to this blog, or, more likely, associate this blog with my av, and there is just enough biographical information in these posts to identify me to someone who knows me quite well. It’s an unlikely enough scenario that I won’t be worrying too much.

Enough of my paranoia though. The really intriguing question is this: why was Ms X knocking on my door? I suppose I could IM her and ask, but the answer would most likely be something boring like “I was just passing”. Better that I keep it a mystery, and wait to see if she comes back.

Hot Chicks with lawyers

In my high-minded discussion of the ethics of blogging I overlooked one obvious hazard of casually appropriating the private details of other people’s lives; getting sued.

That truth has found Jay Louis though, now that he’s on the receiving end of a lawsuit in connection with the book of his blog “Hot Chicks with Douchebags“. It’s interesting that he wasn’t sued over the website itself, presumably because potential plaintiffs need a defendant with some serious money, like publisher Simon & Schuster, before they can persuade a lawyer to take on the case.

I can’t see the suit succeeding, since even someone like me, whose knowledge of the US legal system is entirely based on watching “LA Law” and “Ally McBeal“, knows that the First Amendment protects the right to shower ridicule on your fellow citizens. I guess the claimants – who allege that their appearance in the book has left them needing medical treatment and psychological therapy – are hoping that S&S will settle out of court to avoid the bad publicity. (Or perhaps not; I had it in my mind that Simon and Schuster were a classy operation, but they do publish literary gems like the “Douchebag” book and “Hooking up with Tila Tequila“, so I may be mistaken).

I don’t think anyone could seriously claim that their real-life reputation was damaged by their Second Life activities appearing online, and, even if they did, I believe that Linden Labs have been doing their best to establish that Second Life disputes fall under the jurisdiction of the US courts, so I’ll be able to assert my Constitutional rights. I’m sure that James Madison would approve.

Lost in MySpace

The jury in the Megan Meier cyber-bullying case has found Lori Drew guilty of gaining unauthorised access to MySpace accounts, but cleared her on the more serious charge that she did so with the intention of causing emotional distress to Meier.

The verdict leaves open the question of who or what was primarily to blame for the tragic outcome of the affair. The jury obviously felt that Drew was culpable to some extent, but perhaps didn’t think that she could have foreseen the consequences of her actions.

This raises the possibility that the operators of social networking sites like MySpace or Facebook carry some responsibility for the actions of their users. On one level this seems ridiculous, like blaming the postal service for abusive letters. On the other hand it is well recognised now that there are aspects of computer-mediated communication that are potentially toxic, and it can be argued that the networking sites should be aware of this, and take steps to protect their subscribers from malicious users, and also from their own bad impulses.

My view is that, on the internet as in the rest of life, it is impossible to guarantee a risk-free environment, and probably harmful to try to do so. There should be some technical safeguards, like reliable age-verification, but the most effective protection will come from equipping people to look after themselves when they are surfing the net. Maybe a tutorial on what constitutes functional (and dysfunctional) online behaviour, and the potential for emotional damage, should be compulsory for everyone who signs up for a social networking site.

SLart attack

I remember being a bit worried when Linden Labs announced their crackdown on unauthorised use of their trademarks. Since then though I’ve observed numerous other blogs brazenly flouting the regulations, some, like Your2ndPlace, breaking several rules at once without suffering any consequences, so I figured that LLabs weren’t going to be stupid enough to alienate their user base by suing the very people who were publicising their product.

Once the trademark issue had been raised though, it was only a matter of time before lawyers got involved. I hope that this case will establish that LLabs’ attempt to appropriate two of the commonest word in the English language is doomed to failure.

Virtual misbehaviour

Three stories have caught my attention this week; two tragic, one less so, but still a bit sad.

First, the story of Dave Barmy and Laura Skye, two av’s who met and married in Second Life, before their real-life counterparts did the same. Now they’re getting divorced (in RL), after Laura caught Dave cheating on her in SL. I saw a TV documentary about SL around a year ago which featured the couple, and I remember thinking back then that the marriage looked a bit precarious, based as it was on projections of their idealised partners. Dave apparently can’t see what he did wrong, since there was no real-life infidelity. That would fit with research that shows that women tend to take a dimmer view of such activity than their male partners.

Much darker is the story behind the trial of Lori Drew on charges of conspiracy and computer fraud, which opened on Thursday. These bland charges conceal what Drew is really alleged to have done; driven Megen Meier, a 13 year-old classmate of Drew’s daughter, to suicide, by bullying her via a fake MySpace account. Strip away the new technology and it’s a sadly familiar story; a vulnerable adolescent is overwhelmed by sudden exposure to the reality of just how unpleasantly people can behave towards one another in the adult world, but, if the allegations are upheld, the case will illustrate how computer-mediated communication, stripped as it is of humanising context, can be extraordinarily powerful. The medium disconnects a cyber-bully almost completely from any possibility of empathy with the victim, thus increasing the risk of abusive behaviour. In turn the victim can experience the bully’s aggression in almost pure form, amplifying the damage caused.

To round off a depressing post I’ll note that a Florida teenager has killed himself live on the internet. Reports say that up to 1000 viewers of the website Justin.tv watched as Abraham Biggs lay dying. I have no idea why Abraham felt he had to do what he did, but it may be significant that his death has become noteworthy in a way that, in his mind (we can speculate), his life never could. It raises the question of whether the ease with which private pain can be made public via online outlets like Justin.tv, or YouTube, or indeed WordPress, is a good or a bad thing. I’m sure that for some people it can be a relief to think that someone out there may be able to understand what they are going through, but for others the opportunity to seek validation for what feels like a meaningless existence might push them into extreme behaviour. As for the people who just watched him die without doing anything to help, again the distancing effect of the medium must have transformed what should have struck them as a human tragedy into something that was just another sensation to be consumed.

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