In Second Life, those on 'Candid Copybot' aren't smiling

A CopyBot tool that replicates in-game assets has some Second Life users in an uproar. But is the best solution to ban such tools or, as with real world copy machines and digital media, let them find their place in the Second Life economy and intellectual property framework? Linden Labs' answer to this question will say much about how its in-world IP system will mirror or perhaps improve on that which exists in the real world.

Marty Schwimmer tipped me to the controversy swirling about use of a CopyBot tool in Second Life.  (Go read Marty's terrifically headlined post: CopyBot Terrorizing Residents Of SecondLife, Caught On Video.)  Marty thinks this is an indication Linden Labs will have to bake more protective measures into its virtual world if it hopes to preserve and foster the economy:

[T]o the extent that it wishes to continue to be the host to an exchange, it will find that successful exchanges must offer security not only to buyers but to sellers. If copyrightable material is going to be bought and sold on Second Life, then I'm not sure that the real world copyright regime is fast enough to solve problems like CopyBot. I think that SecondLife is going to have to get into the copyright enforcement business.

I disagree.  Marty emphasizes the potentially disruptive nature of this copying technology on the still relatively nascent virtual world, but the fact is all copying technologies are and have been disruptive, in part by making it easier to infringe intellectual property rights:  cameras, photocopiers, audio and video recording devices, and all manner of digital media fall into this category.  In the real world, economies thrive in part because copying technologies exist — in other words, because those technologies themselves are economic engines.  Deciding that such technologies are bad per se and must be squelched or hobbled isn't good policy in the real world, and I'm not sure why Second Life, which is in the enviable position of creating in-world copyright policies from scratch, should adopt a different approach.  As Linden Labs CTO Cory Ondrejka pointed out in his related blog post, there is one aspect of the real world copyright regime that is literally built for speed:  the notice and takedown provisions of the DMCA.  I think my CNET colleague Daniel Terdiman, who wrote about this in his piece 'Second Life' faces threat to its virtual economy, missed the thrust of Cory's DMCA point.  It's not necessary "to file a Digital Millennium Copyright Act complaint — in the real world — against offenders" to achieve the removal of infringing material; it's only necessary to notify Linden Labs that you contend something is infringing and the removal process proceeds rapidly from there.  The asserted infringer has to make his or her case to Linden Labs in order to keep up the activity, before the question of real-world litigation necessarily even comes into play.

For now, Linden Labs has chosen to appease concerned users and police the technology by making use of CopyBot a terms of service violation.  But they've also, I think wisely, indicated that "using the Terms of Service is not a permanent solution," and that tracking and licensing services and data are keys to the approach-in-progress.  As in the real world, I think the smart and appropriate policy will be to find a way to let the analogs of snapshots and copy machines continue to exist, and let legal code rather than machine code primarily govern infringement situations.

[Update, 11/21/06 2:40 a.m.]  Jennifer Granick, Second Life will Save Copyright:  "The idea that innovation can flourish in the absence of copyright enforcement is not as heretical as it might seem."