January 9, 2007

Linden Labs, Free Software, DRM and the state of the world

Jacked in yesterday and saw that Linden Labs had GPLed the source to the Second Life client. Via Luis Villa, I meandered over to sogrady's take on the subject and started musing. I'm not a Second Life fan, mostly for the reasons that others have articulated with much more clarity than I could - it bores me, it crashes, and I refuse to put all my eggs in someone else's basket. But there's something here which does interest me.

Linden may be running up against something which I and several of my friends spent a great deal of time thinking about.

If you have a virtual environment, that is, one which is compelling and pervasive - or if you're going to have one, you're going to need a draw. You're going to need a reason for it to be there, and a reason for people to come play there. The web came into its own not because it was technically sweet, not because it allowed people to share knowledge (which was its original purpose) but because of commerce. A persistent multiple user virtuality is a much more complex undertaking. I posit (and freely admit that indeed, my PoV is colored by my upbringing and background) that here, too, you will need commerce and value in order to bring people and organizations into this brave new world.

Linden knows that. That's why they have an economy, after all.

Here comes the problem. In order to have property, you have to have property rights. In order to have property rights in a digital environment, you need to have digital rights management. This is not news, zillions of other people have said the same thing. I am struck, though, at how few decent answers to this conundrum there seem to have been presented, and how many of the 'copyfight crew' seem to also be ardent pushers of the Second Life world. The take-no-prisoners fight against DRM as a technology, a concept and a practice runs directly counter to one of the most powerful motivating factors of there ever being a worthy persistent and pervasive virtuality that we can all play in.

It's fairly easy to rail against DRM on the Web, because the use of said information occurs in a space other than on the Web itself - consumption of digital media by a consumer occurs in a private space, usually, since 'use' on the web is akin to 'publishing' - there's no interaction. Plagiarism, after all, is much more clearly identifiable as 'bad use.' But in a persistent virtuality, a user might 'use' a piece of information in much the same way as they do in meatspace - by listening to music, or watching flat video - for their personal consumption, making the question much much hazier. In other words, the existence of electronic data inside this virtual environment is suddenly directly problematic, as opposed to the web, where it was mostly a publishing and transport problem. Now, it's not just publishing and transport (which is fairly easy to litigate, regulate, monitor and lock down either legally or technologically). It's the very existence and utilization of this material at the endpoint which matters.

So. Where does this leave me, in my rambling state? I guess what I'm trying to say is that while the uses DRM is being put to may suck just as badly as those decrying it say it does, and while DRM may be just as technologically futile in its present forms as they say, the very existence and goals of DRM may not be unremittingly evil (as it's being presented). I think what worries me is that at some level, the cry against DRM, and the copyfight movement in general, taken to extremes, can be seen as a cry against the notion of property rights in general when applied to electronic media. That's a problem for me, because in my vision of the future there is, in fact, a persistent and pervasive virtuality that I want to play in, and it's supported and built because various people and entities think there's value to be had there. That value is realized based on the notion of the existence of property rights in a virtual space. If the current fashionable trend of the decrying of copyright protection continues, those very property rights, which might attract the investment and effort required to make that playground a reality, may be threatened.

There are indeed, in my opinion, massive problems with how copyright law and DRM is being used and interpreted today. The DMCA is a prime example. However, trying to 'fix' the problem by attacking the very concept itself is, in my opinion, counterproductive. Working to fix the law, and working to fix the abuses, is better and safer; while using extreme responses to an extreme problem is always tempting, it runs the risk of creating situations just as hard to recover from later. If we end up with a world with no RIAA, but where no corporate entity is willing to invest in a virtual world because everyone using it thinks CopyBot is perfectly normal behavior, what then will we do?

Posted by jbz at January 9, 2007 10:56 AM | TrackBack


More on this next week, but I think there is some blurring here between the right to exclude (i.e., 'get off my property, dammit') and the right to constrain copying (i.e., 'don't steal my stuff'). The two are orthogonal- whether or not I have a right to keep you out of my SL house is a different question from whether or not you have a right to copybot my SL house. My sense is that you're worried here more about the first than the second, and conflating the two, but I may be misreading you.

Posted by: Luis at January 9, 2007 12:29 PM
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