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'Second Life' faces threat to its virtual economy

A program making the rounds of the Linden Lab's digital world allows users to copy whatever they like, even if they're supposed to pay for it. Images: Storming the virtual gates

Groups of Second Life content creators were gathering digitally Tuesday to protest the dissemination of a program they worry could badly damage the virtual world's nascent economy.

The controversy gathered steam Monday when Linden Lab, which publishes Second Life, posted a blog alerting residents of the virtual world to the , which allows someone to copy any object in Second Life. That includes goods such as clothing that people purchase for their in-world avatars, and even the virtual PCs that computer giant Dell announced Tuesday it is going to sell in the digital world.

Second Life users can purchase virtual items with a pretend currency called Linden dollars--named for game creator Linden Lab. But they use real-life currency to acquire that virtual coin. In fact, there's an exchange rate between the two: One U.S. dollar will buy 271 Lindens, enough to buy a basic outfit for an avatar, which is the digital representation of a person.

Problem is, it's not clear yet if there's anything Linden Lab can do to stop people from using the bot. Linden Lab said Second Life content creators who had their wares stolen had few immediate options for stopping the thefts and that the best recourse for them could be to file a Digital Millennium Copyright Act complaint--in the real world--against offenders.

Some virtual entrepreneurs now worry their livelihoods are at stake, and some are threatening to shut down their in-world businesses before they get fleeced.

"The problem with the DMCA is that it takes many weeks," said Jim Mallon, a Second Life content creator who has been in the virtual world since its 2003 beta. "By that time, someone's work could be (copied and stolen) and distributed all over the grid. I am so surprised Linden Lab did not see this coming and stop it."

Second Life is an open-ended, 3D, digital virtual world in which members can create nearly anything they can imagine, and in which anyone owns the intellectual property rights to what they create. As a result, there are hundreds of businesses selling clothing, vehicles, furniture and the like, all for Linden dollars. A complex and stable economy has sprung up around such commerce.

"I am so surprised Linden Lab did not see this coming and stop it."
--Jim Mallon,
a Second Life
content creator

The reaction to CopyBot is not the first virtual revolt. Many Second Life residents recently complained when Linden Lab announced it was raising the price for the in-world "islands" it sells. As a result, the company said it would delay the price hikes for two weeks.

Residents have also complained about other issues, such as problems with the user interface and previous issues related to the security of created content.

On Tuesday afternoon, even as the controversy raged, Linden Lab posted a second blog entry addressing CopyBot and the resulting fallout.

Titled "," the post by Cory Ondrejka, Linden Lab's chief technology officer, attempted to ease concern that in-world merchants were at risk of having valuable goods stolen.

"Second Life needs features to provide more information about assets and the results of copying them," Ondrejka's post began. "Unfortunately, these are not yet in place. Until they are, the use of CopyBot or any other external application to make unauthorized duplicates within Second Life will be treated as a violation and may result in your account(s) being banned."

To "Baba Yamamoto," the Second Life name of one of the members of the group that created CopyBot, the uproar over the software is understandable but disappointing.

Yamamoto told CNET News.com that CopyBot was created as a tool for testing and demonstrations and was never intended to be used for illegal theft. But because the tool was created using an open-source license, some Second Life users have gotten hold of it and are now freely using and distributing it.

"It's not that the code is some kind of exploit," Yamamoto said. "It deals with legitimate client data that every client receives, but it takes that data and converts it to a packet and sends it back to the servers, duplicating the appearance of objects and avatars. It acts like an import/export tool."

LibSecondLife, the group that created CopyBot, lists as its mission statement being "an open-source effort to create a stable platform for third-party Second Life development." However altruistic its motivations may have been, the group appears to have lost control of its tool.

And many residents are very unhappy about that.

"The essence of the creativity in this world is largely because of creators and their work being protected," Mallon said. "This tool defeats all protection. So if you labor to build a business like we all have, your work can be stolen."

Another resident, Isabella Lazarno, agreed.

"Everything that everyone has worked for in here is now affected," Lazarno said.

As an example, resident Damanios Thetan demonstrated how easy it is to use CopyBot to copy objects.

Thetan showed News.com that copying an in-world car took no more than a few seconds. Similarly, Thetan created a quick copy of the author's avatar.

"My (alternate avatar) is run by CopyBot," said Thetan, explaining the process. "It copies the complete car, or everything I have attached. After it's copied, (I have) full permissions, meaning I can make as many copies as I want."

Other residents think that the fear of CopyBot may be overblown.

Eric Rice, a blogger known in-world as "Spin Martin," said that he has long seen Second Life content as digital artifacts that could be replicated.

"Their (businesses are) in the digital space, which may or may not have been obvious in the sense (that) data (has always been) copyable from day one," Rice said. "We just live with that truth."

But Rice added that he understands why content creators are worried the rug may be pulled out from under their businesses.

"I'm fascinated about the RIAA-ish angle--content people protecting their stuff passionately," he said.

Meanwhile, as content creators continue to meet throughout Second Life, Linden Lab is trying to put the controversy in context.

Ondrejka wrote in his blog post that anyone who feels their content is being stolen using CopyBot should inform Linden Lab in addition to filing a DMCA claim. Presumably, the company will take action on behalf of such content creators.

But Ondrejka also tried to explain why Linden Lab isn't able to immediately halt the use of CopyBot and other such tools.

"Like the World Wide Web, it will never be possible to prevent data that is drawn on your screen from being copied," he wrote. "While Linden Lab could get into an arms race with residents in an attempt to stop this copying, those attempts would surely fail and could harm legitimate projects within Second Life."