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Aeron chairs in 'Second Life' rights showdown

Maker of the iconic chair attempts to address the issue of fake Aerons in Second Life as it opens its in-world store.

If you've ever sat in an Aeron chair, you know what real office comfort can be like. Plus, they're just great-looking pieces of furniture.

That's true whether you're talking about a real-life Aeron or an Aeron in the virtual world Second Life, where there are plenty of copycat chairs available for sale at reasonable prices.

But now, according to Wagner James Au over at the blog New World Notes, Aeron manufacturer Herman Miller has launched a store in Second Life and is attempting to address the issue of illegitimate knockoffs through an interesting two-pronged approach.

For a limited time, Herman Miller is offering SL residents free trade-ins on any fake Aerons--or on some of its other iconic products--for an authentic SL Aeron. If you don't have a fake, you can buy an in-world Aeron for a small price.

Herman Miller is attempting to address knockoffs of its famous Aeron chairs in 'Second Life.' Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

But the company is taking a much harder, albeit polite (so far) approach to the makers of the knockoffs.

"We've contacted those parties and informed them of our trade dress protections, copyrights and trademarks they are infringing, asking politely but firmly that they cease and desist," a Herman Miller spokesperson told Au. "Some have complied, others have countered with proposed partnerships and some have yet to respond."

It's an intriguing dynamic, all around. The trade-in offer is an innovative way to reach out to the SL population, which appreciates being reached out to, as well as a thoughtful way of doing business on the part of real-world companies. It helps that the company's SL products look good. If they didn't, the whole question would be moot, as people wouldn't buy them.

As for Herman Miller's cease-and-desist demands of the knockoff creators, the result is an open question.

There are all kinds of real-product knockoffs in Second Life and other virtual worlds. One legal case everyone was watching that might have provided an answer to the question of whether such activity was kosher, Marvel v. NCSoft, was settled before a judge or jury could make a determination. In that case, Marvel sued City of Heroes maker NCSoft because the game's players could make avatars that looked like famous comic book heroes like Spider-Man or The Hulk.

Many experts had predicted that Marvel would lose its suit, so the settlement disappointed those in the virtual-world community who are interested in intellectual property issues because it deprived everyone of a final answer to the question.

For its part, Second Life publisher Linden Lab allows rights holders to file Digital Millennium Copyright Act takedown notices in situations like the one Herman Miller is attempting to deal with.

But that process is slow, and Herman Miller is clearly trying to confront the situation head-on by attempting to scare those making Aeron knockoffs into compliance. Whether it will work is a question that remains to be answered, particularly because the burden of enforcing its IP rights would surely be huge if there are SL content creators who defy the company's demands.

For now, however, it's just interesting to see how Herman Miller is approaching the matter. My take is that the company is being smart. For now. We'll have to see what happens next.