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  Who Really Owns Your ‘Second Life’?  
 
 
Posted 2006-06-29 by Tony Walsh
 
 
     
 
As with most services, usage of the virtual world of Second Life is governed by a Terms of Service agreement (also known as a "Terms of Use" agreement). Second Life's maker and maintainer, Linden Lab makes periodic changes to its Terms. In 2003, it allowed users to retain ownership rights for content created in Second Life, a move that is arguably responsible for the virtual world's steady growth.

Somewhere along the line (recently, I suspect), a clause was added to Linden Lab's Terms asserting the company's ownership over user accounts:
"3.3 Linden Lab retains ownership of the account and related data, regardless of intellectual property rights you may have in content you create or otherwise own. You agree that even though you may retain certain copyright or other intellectual property rights with respect to Content you create while using the Service, you do not own the account you use to access the Service, nor do you own any data Linden Lab stores on Linden Lab servers (including without limitation any data representing or embodying any or all of your Content)."

On the one hand, users retain ownership over created content; on the other hand users don't own the means to access that content. This not only seems contradictory to me, but also counter to the idea that Second Life is "Your World" as stated in Linden Lab's marketing tagline. Some content in Second Life is exclusive to that virtual world--for example, the client software doesn't facilitate exporting user-created 3D objects. Users can be denied access to content "for any reason or no reason," according to Linden Lab's terms. That's like having a bank account you can put money into but be locked out of on a whim. Not the kind of bank I'd do business with.

Many users of Second Life invest dozens of hours into their avatars--from naming and customization, to developing and joining intricate social networks, to building up a reputation. One's account (avatar) can be a very valuable thing. This value is created by the user, and by interactions with other users. One's identity, in my opinion, has at least as much value as user-created items like 3D objects, textures, and programs--one's identity in Second Life is arguably not much different than one's real-world identity. When I first discovered Second Life, I declined to become involved, since users did not at that time own their intellectual property--why invest time creating original items one doesn't own? When the ownership policy was changed, I joined up. But now that I have become aware of Linden Lab's ownership over my entire account--my data, my identity and my valuable investment--I couldn't possibly recommend Second Life to anyone looking for serious involvement in a virtual world.

Having ownership over its users accounts could allow for some unfortunate moves by Linden Lab, like the recent division of user accounts into a three-tiered system based on a user's willingness or ability to pay the company. This information is part of a user's public profile. Not only is there currently no option for a user to make this information private, but a user will apparently be able to be filtered or distinguished by custom scripts based on user account status. This means that a third-class citizen can be barred from entering an area through a software program enabled by the Second Life system, or "killed" by a bomb that filters by account status (virtual genocide, anyone?). It's bad enough that users can't opt out of a privacy invasion, but Linden Lab has put system-supported discrimination tools into the hands of its masses.

I had been eagerly anticipating a move under consideration by Linden Lab to allow users to register their own surnames (currently registrants must choose from a limited list of pre-determined surnames, which is why my avatar is named Zero Grace and not Tony Walsh). Now, I could care less. What good is staking out my own name if I don't own my own name?

Imagining a future scenario, it seems to be within Linden Lab's rights to co-opt popular avatars for their own purposes. The virtual world has its own cyber-celebrities, and there's nothing but bad customer relations standing in the way of Linden Lab borrowing a user's hard-earned reputation. This is a pretty far-fetched idea, but it's not impossible. What concerns me more is not so much Linden Lab bodysnatching avatars, but what might happen if Second Life is purchased or licensed from the company. Who owns your avatar then? I think a buyout is not unlikely, considering how hard Linden Lab is working to increase its database of registrants by any means necessary in order to make itself attractive as a business platform.

It might not be productive to dwell on worst-case scenarios, but it's worth noting that legalese really means something. I often deal with contracts, and it's fairly standard for the other party to tell me "I know it says X, but we would never really do X." To which I respond "then you should have no problem striking X from the contract." I'm hoping this whole Linden-Lab-PWNZ-J00 clause gets changed to something friendlier towards Second Life users and their identity-investments.
 
     
 
   
 
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  6 Comments  
 
   
 
Comment posted by Prokofy Neva
June 29, 2006 @ 2:53 pm
     
 
Tony, on the one hand, everything you're concerned about is true, and this is how "to GOM" has even been able to enter the world's lexicon as a verb meaning "to co-opt Second Life residents' creative products and services". What's often overlooked about GOM is that as a private currency exchange outside of ownership of LL, the "state," it was vital to the whole concept of independently-owned property and money outside the state's potential clutches. So LL, "the state," put them out of business by essentially reverse-engineering GOM into a state-run currency exchange.

Of course, GOM could have tried to stay in business as an off-shore bank of sorts, "the gnomes of Zurich" of the Internet storing the wealth of people banned "for any reason or no reason," but their mule avatar required to be in good standing to move money back and forth from SL servers to third-party sites was obviously vulnerable to seizure or closure by LL.

Only through emigrant-type banking could you continue any kind of independent banking ("I'll give your brother-in-law $5000 in New York to pay for his hack license if you get your mother in Moscow to pay my sister in Vorkuta $5000 to buy her state-owned apartment, etc.) -- and this is extremely limited even for cross-game deals.

On the other hand, this is an evolving medium, and one that is tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine, and lurches from one self-induced and externally-induced crisis to another. That's why I can never understand the ultimatums you and other tekkies periodically issue to these software engineers in California -- "You're not serious, you didn't do X, I'm not playing, I'm taking my marbles and going...somewhere else."

It's good that you hold up the bar for what professional requirements are required so that these game-makers and game-gods can understand what they need to do to turn their Pinocchio into a real boy. However...it's also important, I feel, to stay engaged with them, critical, but engaged, to try to shape what they are doing, or if nothing else, to bear witness to the *consequences* of what they are doing. What they are trying to do is *hard*.

Clearly, they were once all ecstatic and swayed for a time by Lawrence Lessig who basically preached to them that they shouldn't be evil white corporate guys and steal everybody's content from their sweat equity but they should free the People's content and let the kids sell it, whether kids from Brazil or Addas or Bishkek -- of course depending on their broadband LOL.

The reality however is that the kids in SL are more likely from Portugal or Seoul or Wichita , and they don't have the same third-world liberation celebratory politics of Lessig and are more pragmatic about emulating the West. That means that they tended to see the enterprise of Second Life more to be about partnership as selected partners with LL, than any kind of independent or even antagonistic role.

So in part under pressure from forces whether Anshe Chung or Hiro Pendragon, LL conceded IP and more importantly, the right to *make money from IP and labour in virtual worlds* but then imposed what you might call "reciprocity" or "recognition of our mutual interdependence" or what you might even call "mutual assured destruction".

Seeing just how much this content and land development was worth in terms of new customers and media coverage (media coverage as news is always understood by marketers as merely the early phase of advertising as revenue) -- and seeing the masses pouring in with dollars to pay for it -- AND under pressure from their venture capitalists who wanted to see less airy third-worldism and more financially-accountable first-worldism -- they began to put Ginsu Linden to work cleaning up the TOS. If you saw the TOS of more than a year ago, before GOM, it had basically given away the store, and also had illogical and unlawful aspects to it -- until his ministrations in the last year modernized it and kept it from the revolutionary excesses of massive wealth transfer (wealth transfer in this case meaning cash from venture capital required to keep the world afloat spent feeding the remittance economy of thousands of kids making money from this world and taking it out into RL).

See?

But it's not over yet, by any stretch. There will be a continued dance as the VCs become aware that they have to leave the kids with at least some power and money; the kids will realize they don't have the money to invest to keep servers and infrastructure running, etc. etc. So...it is about mutual assured destruction and that's why it's not over yet!

The recipe now is to have the realpolitik types investing or watching the bottom line to be impressed with the power of kids, especially non-Americans, entering the globalized economy on more equal footing AND to have the kids stop griefing if they don't get their way (collecting hash marks from their computers, possibly IP collection to, to make sure they have the threat of ending up on the game-gods' master international shit list (dreamt about at times on Terra Nova)to have their IT careers ruined forever unless they keep buying new computers or find new work stations.)

And also working on bonding and questing missions together to ensure loyalty -- at the company picnic, which is SLCC, and the Second Life Views program which will bring the groups of 8 selected people to SF for chats about the future of SL.

As for the identity issues, they've been all over the place, closing accounts that multiple people used, but also closing a griefer's account trying to use Anshe's name called "Anshe Trenchmouth" but that's because anshechung.com is a registered company.

When I complained that my famous (infamous) name "Prokofy" was now used by 4 people in the list to do griefing attacks, including one at the birthday party, I was flatly told by a Linden that I should trademark my name. I'm not likely to do that. Are they going to laugh at me when I show up at the trademark and patents office with a petition to legalize my inconsequential pixels which depend on these other guy's servers anyway?

And like you, I'm not likely then to put my first-life name into a situation where it, too, will have no rights unless it registers as a trademarked business itself, as distinct from inworld company names.

One of the reasons the Lindens were ostensibly so neuralgic about people selling accounts or giving away account passwords or switching them was due to the IP use and the rights to the content. But you have to wonder why they are so rigid now that anybody can make a thousand alts and disappear into their laptop, college campus, workplace, whatever computers to keep griefing even with the hashmarks -- and given that the more people there are, the more they naturally share accounts.

And in fact Anshe Chung buys accounts to take over brand names to sell, as do others, and in a certain sense, you could say the Lindens aquired the account Torley Torgeson because they literally converted this account and all its created content and persona and renamed it "Torley Linden". In reverse, Hamlet Linden took the brand name he had and was given in a sense a severance package that included his refashioning of Hamlet Linden into Hamlet Au.

You might argue that some of the big companies coming in and working with figures like Aimee Weber or FlipperPA Peregrine are making those kind of company spokespeople, contracted inworld figures with personas -- but we see no evidence that the Lindens wish to buy or sell those persons' accounts. If they were seen to be doing that, these people and many others would probably refuse to work under these conditions. So they straddle the fence on this issue by basically controlling the media -- they promise and deliver on access to RL media and opportunities to get consulting contracts in exchange for a kind of unofficial non-disparagement agreement. These kinds of arrangements, informal as they are, are "normal" to make in this creative business.

So what do you want of LL? Why do you require them, in a rapidly changing and evolving medium, to cut any of this into stone today?

The models we have for this are things like existing computer software and the Internet. Obviously I can use my licensed copy of Windows XP and my subscription to my Internet account to create a work for hire and bill for it and have my copyright on it so that it cannot be reprinted without permission, as can you. So could the relationship with LL and SL be similar, that they cannot intrude on my ownership rights within the realm of my given activities within the terms for use of Windows XP's equivalent, which is the client of SL, and within the TOS ISP's equivalent, which is the world of SL? Could we not understand their insistence on ownership in this regard to be similar to Microsoft's ownership of the software code of Windows XP, or Verizon's ownership of the DSL line it provides for subscription?

Is it only because we are dealing with representations of people with avatars in a 3-D world that we believe this is any different than the example I just gave?
 
     
 
     
   
 
Comment posted by rikomatic
June 29, 2006 @ 4:17 pm
     
 
LL's policy seems more generous than the other MUVEs and MMORPGs I briefly surveyed. The owners of WoW would laugh heartily if you claimed any ownership of your character or its data over there.

I'm unclear on how they can take away the accounts of griefers and other badguys unless they assert ultimate ownership of the accounts. It just seems like a necessary pre-condition to managing their services.
 
     
 
     
   
 
Comment posted by Secureplay
June 29, 2006 @ 9:49 pm
     
 
Ah, the glorious tension between real and virtual. Rikomatic makes a superb point. If LL accepted any resident ownership of the account or assets in the account banning would be impossible .. or LL would need to compensate the individual for the value of the account and its assets.

This may mean that companies are going to have to move beyond banning (which may make sense as banning is not very credible in many ways).

It may actually make more sense to not delete the account but to forbid the player from playing. They would be allowed to sell their account and its assets at their leisure (the virtual world equivalent of "We reserve the right to refuse service" in many restaurants).
 
     
 
     
   
 
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
June 30, 2006 @ 9:21 am
     
 
Argh, I was halfway through a detailed reply when my browser crashed. I'll have to summarize my replies to Prok

- I don't think I've issued any ultimatums. I did say I couldn't recommend SL to serious investors, but I've said similar before. Hardly an ultimatum :)
- I feel I'm sufficiently engaged with LL, given the time I have. Admittedly I'm an armchair critic, but at least I've upped my SL time to a few logins a week. Because I consult professionally, I'm not so interested in giving my time to LL in that capacity by being a highly-involved "citizen." Instead, I write about SL here.
- The selective policing of names by LL is exactly the reason the company shouldn't own the names. If LL is prohibiting users from registering a name with "Anshe" in it, it's at the same time facilitating the entire knock-off U2: Bono Vox, Adam Clayton, The Edge, and Larry Mullen. It's not likely that anyone will mistake Anshe Trenchmouth for Anshe Chung, but what happens if the real U2 wants to sign up for Second Life accounts? Linden Lab owns their names in Second Life, regardless of who actually registered the names. The sensible thing to do would be to make the registrant responsible for the legality of the name and stay out of policing altogether.

Ok, onto riko's comments...

LL's policy seems more generous than the other MUVEs and MMORPGs I briefly surveyed...

No doubt. But Second Life isn't a game, it's a platform. I don't expect a game to let me own my data (although it's a pity most don't). But I expect a tool or platform to keep its hands off my property. My name is user-created content. My identity is as much property as any 3D object I might have worked hard to create in SL. If Second Life is moving towards open standards, or open source, or to portable avatars, Linden Lab shouldn't be trying to own accounts. There's got to be another way to manage griefing (Steve has suggested this, too). Perhaps more granularity in defining what parts of an account LL owns or can control would be in order.
 
     
 
     
   
 
Comment posted by rikomatic
June 30, 2006 @ 10:01 am
     
 
Well beyond MUVEs and MMORPGs, I don't think that you can assert ownership over your accounts on any online discussion boards either. If the board administrators choose to discontinue your account, you usually can't assert a right to all of your private messages and personal data.

I'm just not clear on what "account ownership" meaningfully represents in this context.
 
     
 
     
   
 
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
June 30, 2006 @ 10:19 am
     
 
I think if LL defined "the account and related data" in a more granular fashion, it would make this discussion a lot easier ;) What exactly constitutes an account, and what exact data are we talking about here? (those are rhetorical questions, but it'd be great if LL answered them definitively).

Looking at it from a service-provider's point of view, I don't claim to own the accounts set up here at Clickable Culture. I have no qualms denying a registrant access to this site, but I doubt I could rationalize ownership over anyone's account. There's got to be a reasonable way to suspend or cease service without involving ownership issues, I just can't think of a solution right now :)
 
     
 
     
   
 
 
     
 
     
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