A storm in Second Life

2ndlifesmallRemember Second Life? It’s still around, apparently. Ten years ago, it was the thing, the ultimate reality disrupter. We were all going to shed our skins, turn into glamorous, or at least skanky, avatars, and flit about Second Life’s transplendent virtual reality. Liberated from our workaday lives, we would fulfill our destiny as . . . merchants and consumers. 

“In one important way, this virtual stuff isn’t imaginary at all,” reported Business Week in a 2006 cover story. “Second Life residents [can] retain full ownership of their virtual creations. The inception of property rights in the virtual world made for a thriving market economy. … In January inside Second Life alone, people spent nearly $5 million in some 4.2 million transactions buying or selling clothes, buildings, and the like. That can add up to serious change.”

But then, in November of 2006, the CopyBot invaded Second Life, and suddenly virtual reality found itself embroiled in a very down-to-earth controversy about copyright and piracy. The incident seemed to reveal something of ontological importance about us and the worlds we create. At the very least, it was funny. I reported on the CopyBot attack in two posts: “Knockoffs Roil Second Life” and “The Dingo Stole My Avatar.” I reprint the posts here.

November 15, 2006:

The commercialization of Second Life has hit a speed bump. A new software program, called CopyBot, allows residents of the virtual world to make exact copies of other residents’ creations. The knockoffs threaten the livelihoods of the many entrepreneurs, as well as big companies, that have set up shop selling clothes, trinkets, and other goods in the popular fairy land. As an irate Caliandras Pendragon writes at Second Life Insider, “Those people who are living the dream that is promoted in every article, of earning a RL [real life] income from SL creations, are now living a nightmare in which their source of income may soon be worthless. That’s not to speak of big commercial companies who have paid anything up to 1,000,000 dollars to have their product reproduced in loving detail, who will discover that every Tom, Dick or Harriet may rip off their creation for nothing – and then sell it as their own … If someone wanted to destroy the economy of SL I don’t think they could have found a better way.”

The furor took an ugly turn late last night when, according to the Second Life Herald, a “seething mob” surrounded a CopyBot operation run by Second Life resident GeForce Go. The mob shouted that Go was “ruining their Second Life.” Fearing for her safety, Go closed down her shop and sold her land. In a subsequent “tumultous meeting with dozens of angry and fearful residents all talking at once,” Second Life official Robin Linden “sought to allay fears of any further concern about mass copyright violations.”

Now officially banned by Linden Lab, the company that operates Second Life, CopyBot was, according to reporter Adam Reuters of Reuters’ Second Life bureau, “originally created by libsecondlife, a Linden Lab-supported open source project to reverse engineer the Second Life software … Amid increasing criticism, the group moved to pull the CopyBot source code, but on Monday evening CopyBot was put up for sale on the online marketplace SLExchange, raising the prospect that it could become widespread.” The resident who is selling the bot, Prim Revolution, demonstrated the machine’s ability by making a precise clone of Adam Reuters himself. Revolution defended the use of CopyBot, saying, “I think the idea of clones and bots is very cool, and I’ll be adding more new features for things like automated go-go dancers at clubs.”

Second Life watcher Kevin Lim, of the University of Buffalo’s School of Informatics, compares CopyBot to the revolutionary Replicator in Star Trek, which “can create any inanimate matter, as long as the desired molecular structure is on file, but it cannot create antimatter, dilithium, or a living organism of any kind.” Lim notes that “after such a machine was invented, currency as we knew it ceased to function. Since everyone had the capability to create (replicate) anything they desire, capitalism as we knew it died, and the new dawn of perfect Marxian philosophy was adopted by the Federation.”

The CopyBot controversy seems to herald a deeper crisis in Second Life, a struggle over the identity, the very essence, of the virtual land. Will it remain a freewheeling utopian community operating by its own rules, or will it follow the pattern of the web itself and become an essentially commercial operation, a virtual shopping mall filled with advertisements and staged PR events? Is CopyBot a ripoff machine that threatens to destroy Second Life, or is it a sharing machine that would save the community’s soul?

November 16, 2006:

An uneasy calm hangs over Second Life this morning after two days of protests over the appearance of the CopyBot replicator. Yesterday, as many as 600 shopkeepers closed their stores in protest, demanding that the online world’s owner, Linden Lab, take action to protect the integrity of their virtual property. The striking merchants, according to Information Week, waved signs scrawled with slogans like “Stop Buying. Stop Selling. Start Protesting” and “Linden Lab once again did hurt our world.”

Meanwhile, outside agitator Cory Doctorow, of Boing Boing, raised the specter of an outright revolution in which residents would seize control of Second Life from Linden Lab. “Second Life’s management is doing an exemplary job of coping with this,” wrote Doctorow, “but benevolent dictatorships aren’t the same thing as democracies. If a game is going to declare that its players are citizens who own property, can the company go on ‘owning’ the game?”

Raph Koster, too, sees the CopyBot dispute as signaling a larger struggle: “what’s happening is a small-scale social crisis that brings into sharp relief the split between the hacker-ethic-libertarian-info-must-be-free ethos that underpins much of the technology of virtual worlds, and the rampant commercialism that has actually enabled its embodiment. What we have here is a case of bone fighting blood.” He concludes, darkly:

As long as Second Life creators are relying on creating content like textures and models … they will continue to face the same dilemmas as any other content industry. They will be copied. They will be ripped off. They will find their market prices falling. They will agitate for DRM. They will form lobbies with the analogue to a government, and argue that they are in fact the primary cultural contributors in the system. They will, in the end, come to embody everything about the broader, commercial Web that they fled to Second Life in order to escape.

But the arrival in Second Life of the CopyBot replicator hasn’t just produced a commercial and a political crisis. It’s brought an existential crisis as well. Because CopyBot can clone entire avatars as well as their possessions, people fear losing their virtual selves. Their sense of what I’ve termed “avatar anxiety” is deepening. Writes resident Harle Armistice in a comment on the official Second Life blog:

I’m sorry, but this isn’t just about sales … I have a unique av that I made for myself. It’s me, it’s my work, it’s part of my persona. I’ve been wearing it for ages and I will be wearing it likely until the day SL either goes down or I can’t log in anymore. Or I would be, under normal circumstances … I am terrified to wear my own content because there’s a script out there that any random user can run to steal my stuff if I do.

Business Week is reporting that “savvy CEOs” are beginning to “hang out in Second Life,” “orienting themselves around what could emerge as the corporate environment of the future.” IBM chief Sam Palmisano, for instance, proudly declares, “I have my own avatar.” In fact, the magazine notes, Palmisano has two Second Life avatars, “a casual Sam and a buttoned-down one.”

What’s going to happen, one wonders, when a CopyBot-armed anarchist comes up to one of the “real” fake Sams and replicates him? It may be a dream of CEOs to be able to clone themselves for posterity, but would they be happy about being cloned by someone else, someone who might then inhabit their virtual identity and use it to spread mischief and confusion? I can’t imagine a captain of industry being sanguine about seeing a copy of himself flying through the air wearing only a g-string or emerging from a virtual sex shop bearing a mammoth Steely Dan. I would recommend that, until the situation becomes clearer, any CEO entering Second Life bring along bodyguard avatars to fend off any possible replicator attack. No company wants to find itself saying, “An imposter avatar did hurt our world.”