Solving Content Theft in SL


I don't fully understand the technical or legal issues which make content theft in virtual spaces so difficult to solve. Like most people I have read that "if you can see, you can steal it" on the Internet. In order for us to be able to see all the wonderful things SL offers, the textures have to be rendered on our computers and once the information is on our computers, clever people can find a way to keep that data. Once the data has a price tag as virtual goods do, there is a powerful incentive for dishonest people to claim the content and attempt to redistribute it.

Again like most people, I hear about talented content creators having work stolen in flagrant ways and I wonder "why isn't Linden Lab doing something to stop this crime?" I have heard about DCMAs being filed and nothing happening. I see stolen content all over the grid and wonder what is it going to take to stop this theft? I figured it was time for me to try to understand the issues a bit better -- content theft has been going on for a long, long time but it sure seems to be spiraling out of control lately.

Yesterday, I was invited to a talk Bettina Tizzy organized on the frustrating and difficult subject of content theft. The speaker was Ben Duranske who wrote "Virtual Law: Navigating the Legal Landscape of Virtual Worlds," and I was so interested to hear what he had to say that I rearranged my RL schedule to be there. Duranske's talk was fantastic and for a great summary I suggest you read Phaylen's blog. She has done an excellent job of summarizing the presentation and highlighting the issues.

Duranske suggests content creators make sure they register their copyright with the government because in the US doing so increases the ability to sue for damages and recover legal costs. When content theft becomes international, despite the Berne Convention, prosecution becomes difficult. Duranske said the best thing to do if your work is stolen is to file a DCMA with Linden Lab. He went on to suggest that, in his personal opinion, Linden Lab's response to content theft has been insufficient. (I think any reasonable person would strongly agree with this assertion.) Duranske said he is a "big fan" of the class action suit as a tool. He remarked that the class action suit recently brought against Linden Lab regarding content theft was very well done. I guess we will see the results of that action eventually, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Later in the day I attended "Asked & Answered: All you ever wanted to know about third party viewers and content theft." This event was a panel discussion produced by Rezzed.TV. Stuart Warf was the moderator and his guests were Rebel Hope a content creator who has had her entire store stolen by a copybot, Tenshi Vielle a blogger and member of 'The Artist's Voice' a group working to find solutions to content theft, and two of the developers of the Emerald Viewer Lonely Bluebird and Fractured Crystal. You can download the podcast here. The venue was packed demonstrating the incredible amount of interest in this subject. To be honest the best discussion happened in the audience after the end of the show. Rezzed.TV plans to continue the discussion in a series of similar events over the coming weeks.

Later in the evening I passed on a few Halloween parties and instead chose to listen to Kazihiro's talk about the creative process, which I blogged about a few days ago. Kaz walked the audience through the use of Maya to create sculpties and baked shadows, then shared the process used in Photoshop to create detailed textures. I will say listening to an artist talk about all the work that goes in to one single sculpted prim really capped off my day of learning about content theft in an appropriate way.

Solving content theft is just not going to be easy. Saying "Linden Lab should stop it now!" is way too simplistic. Frankly, I think Linden is somewhat limited in what they can do. Once that lovely object is viewable on a thief's computer they can technically steal it. The question is what legal and social pressures can Linden Lab and individuals use to prevent the theft. If prevention is not possible, how do we prosecute effectively? I really don't know the answers, but it seems lots of people are engaged in the discussion and hopefully something positive will happen soon. I don't even want to think about the future of SL if content theft continues without restraint.

ETA: Duranske's slides can be found here.


Botgirl Questi said...

IMHO the fear of content theft causes much more harm than any actual net loss created by unaurhorized sharing.

chestnut rau said...

That is a very interesting thought BotGirl. A quantification of the impact of content theft is not something I have seen anywhere. Individuals have personal stories to tell, certainly, but real data with an N greater than one is hard to come by.

Botgirl Questi said...

Yes. It is possible to spin existing data to support any position.

That said, the cost created by the fear is another story. The time and money used to fight social sharing is immense, cripples the functionality of content through DRM-related encumbrances and creates a feeling of antagonism between creators and consumers.

I had been tinkering with a post on the topic last night and woke to quite a few tweets pointing to links related to content theft and digital rights-related issues. The tentative title is "The Sacrament of Social Sharing."

chestnut rau said...

I am intrigued. I really look forward to reading what you write on the subject.

Bettina Tizzy said...

Thanks for blogging this, Chestnut. It inspired me to have a conversation with members of the Content Creators Association and Step Up, too. What came of it was fantastic. JB Hancroft is going to create a database that will carry hard numbers that industry analysts, investors in Linden Lab, and journalists can understand.

caliburnsusanto said...

I don't comment generally on this issue because a) I'm not a content creator and b) it's an emotional issue for many (like religion, or politics, or who the best football team is) and getting embroiled in comment-drama is not worth my time. This post is a thoughtful one and inspires me to comment, however.

Firstly content theft is not, IMO, spiralling out of control. It has always been the case. There always have been and always will be people are lazy, dishonest, and without talent who steal. What is spiralling out of control is the *attention* being focused on the issue, not the acts of theft. This is a good thing to a large degree because it makes honest people more aware that they may be aiding and abetting criminal activity by not being diligent about the source of their acquisitions.

Which is the point. You cannot legislate against, punish, or threaten to punish thieves (you should try, of course, but it only works marginally). Especially in this pseudonymous environment. They don't care; in fact people getting inflamed about it is the dessert to their meal. They have no integrity or self esteem so they seek to wield power over others (that is, feel important) by creating turmoil and hurt. It's like someone waving a knife in your face and daring you not to "respect" them (gag).

What you *can* do is raise consciousness and appeal to the basic morality of thou shalt not steal. The fact is that people are inherently good. If this was not the case then the human race would be extinct. Educating people on how to recognize stolen property in Second Life is the best (and the only, as far as I am concerned) defense against those who are amoral.

Imagine a shifty-looking creature selling car stereos out of a car trunk on the street. Most people will sneer and walk by, a few will call the police to investigate, but a few will also stop and say, "How much?" Those potential buyers make the thievery worthwhile. Reduce their numbers and the thief will be out of business (and pausing to say "Shame on you" to the person handing over some cash to the thief can work wonders).

chestnut rau said...

Thank *you* Bettina. The talk you organized yesterday was extremely helpful to my understanding of these issues.

What great points you have made CaliburnSusanto. I think it is very popular to blame Linden Lab and look to them to solve this problem. I also agree with your suggestion that education and awareness are more likely to get the results people desire. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Botgirl Questi said...

I think it would clarify thoughtful discussion to differentiate between:

- Defeating DRM to extend use of purchased items for personal use

- Acquiring items for personal use through copybot or other pirate tech

- Peer-to-Peer distribution of pirated work

- Sale of pirated work

Anthony Hocken said...


You say content theft is not spiraling out of control. Do you have any data or stats to back this up or is this a subjective opinion? Over the last 12 months I've noticed friends/associates complaining of content theft and copybots regularly frequenting their venues, much more so than previous years. While my anecdote may not be statistically valid it does make me suspect that theft is more rife than it used to be. A possible reason for this is that the copying tools are more effective and readily available than before. Especially if the exploits for stealing scripts are true, which would by itself explain the issue growing faster out of control. Given that there are viable possibilities I'd like to see hard info before dismissing it subjectively.

While your philosophy is well intended, we have to accept many hold different values and objectives. The younger generation put little value on soft goods now. Others want easy money at whatever cost and that is their only goal.

I'm more interested in technical solutions to this plus accountability. Firstly I'd like to see permission exploits fixed. So the more pressure put on LL, rather than dismissing the issue, is what we need. Secondly I'd like to see new passive DRM implemented. Not sure exactly what this would involve but for example they could fingerprint uploads like textures such that the asset can not be reuploaded by anyone other than the original creator, even if modified superficially. So when the thief grabs the asset from their cache and tries to reupload it for their own purposes, the server generates the hash number, which is searched for in the asset database, and when a match is found it could optionally do a closer comparison to account for hash collisions (false positives) or maybe even just flag it for the attention of the content creator or LL employee. The more red flags raised for a given account the more likely it is to be brought to a LL employee's attention, similar to how user blocking works on Twitter by bringing suspect accounts to their attention. That kind of thing.

Or how about tying content creators with paid accounts, such that to sell over a certain value of goods you have to have a paid/verified account. This could in part counter all the issues free accounts brought about by bringing back accountability. Or maybe even only allow assets to be sold if uploaded by a verified account. Have a verified flag for assets. The core issue is unfettered access by anonymous users and the more to make misuse impractical the better.

Ultimately the only real solution to content theft in VMs is to wait 10 years until we have 64 core systems and universal net access capable of reliable HD streaming. Then each core on the server could render the world for a given user and stream it to their computer. All assets would remain server-side and thieves would be left with poor half-assed rips of individual textures from flat faces to fumble around with. Bring it on!

Troy Mc said...

Anthony mentioned some good ideas in his comment.

I don't think we'll have to wait 10 years until Linden Lab can do the rendering on their servers and then send us the rendered world as video (a process known as "server-side rendering"). OnLive has a working system to do just that. It's in beta testing and will be launching broadly next year. Blue Mars has said they've been looking at using OnLive. There are other companies that plan to do the same thing (e.g. OTOY).

Linden Lab's blog post on August 4 was reassuring. For example, they said they'll be creating a "Content Seller Program" so when you buy from specific places, you know you're supporting the creator and not a copier. It's not a total solution, but it will be helpful.

Botgirl Questi said...

The "Sacrament of Social Sharing" post had a mind of its own. Here's what I came up with: