Second Life and Law Teaching

Another great initiative coming out of the University of Western Australia:

A Second Life machinima has been custom made for the first time for one of the major units for a degree programme at UWA with the efforts of UWA Associate Professor Natalie Skead, former champion of the international UWA film challenges, Laurina Hawks of Berlin, and UWA virtual worlds founder Jay Jay Jegathesan.

The brilliant short film (machinima) “Equity & Trusts: Estoppel Tutorial”, was created by Laurina based on a script written by Professor Skead for the LAWS5103 unit, Equity & Trusts, which is a 2nd Year compulsory postgraduate unit for the Juris Doctor (law degree). It was shown to students during tutorials that were a trigger for discussions on the Estoppel principle of law.

Here’s the video:

Virtual worlds and the law: free e-book

Virtual Justice – the new laws of online worlds by Greg Lastowka, is a 226 page tome devoted to the emerging area of law and its application to virtual environments. I haven’t read it all, but it’s a pretty comprehensive treatise on the whole field, with in-depth discussion of key precedents, virtual property law and a whole lot more.

Download it for yourself here – Greg Lastowka deserves some major kudos for making this available.

A thanks to io9 for the heads-up.

Crime and virtual worlds: the Australian take

Earlier this month, the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) released an issues paper titled Crime risks of three-dimensional virtual environments.

Written by Deakin University’s Ian Warren and Darren Palmer, its focus is identifying the potential harms of 3D virtual environments, discussing best governance approaches and identifying areas for future research.

The foreword, as you’d expect, sums the paper up nicely:

Three-dimensional virtual environments (3dves) are the new generation of digital multi-user social networking platforms. Their immersive character allows users to create a digital humanised representation or avatar, enabling a degree of virtual interaction not possible through conventional text-based internet technologies.

As recent international experience demonstrates, in addition to the conventional range of cybercrimes (including economic fraud, the dissemination of child pornography and copyright violations), the ‘virtual-reality’ promoted by 3dves is the source of great speculation and concern over a range of specific and emerging forms of crime and harm to users.

This paper provides some examples of the types of harm currently emerging in 3dves and suggests internal regulation by user groups, terms of service, or end-user licensing agreements, possibly linked to real-world criminological principles. This paper also provides some directions for future research aimed at understanding the role of Australian criminal law and the justice system more broadly in this emerging field.

The paper overall is certainly well thought out and covers some ground as far back as the early 90′s with the now infamous Mr Bungle episode. As we’ve said in our own paper on policy and virtual worlds, establishing acceptable governance mechanisms is certainly key to future growth and success of virtual environments. Papers like this one from the AIC help to get the issue on the agenda, but even in my most non-cynical frame of mind, I doubt there’ll be much local progress in the near future. That said, kudos to the AIC for being at the forefront, no matter how glacial the progress may end up being.

Read the full report here.

Class action lawsuit leveled against Second Life’s Linden Lab

strokerzKevin Alderman’s Eros LLC, a Florida company devoted to mature content which started operating in Second Life way back when, has been the star attraction before. Alderman, also known as Stroker Serpentine in Second Life, has been well-known for his successful, adult business ventures, as well as two successful legal actions for virtual environment based copyright/trademark infringement (one vs Rase Kenzo AKA Thomas Simon, and one vs Volkov Cattaneo AKA Robert Leatherwood).

Alderman, in conjunction with Shannon Grei (known as Munchflower Zaius in Second Life) is now launching a class-action lawsuit against Linden Lab itself, alleging that (among other things) it profits from negligence and delay in dealing with trademark and copyright infringement issues, and that it also knowingly does so.

The plaintiffs’ case for willful infringement might seem a bit weaker in spots, but one area where it is on relatively certain ground is where Linden Lab is duly informed, and then fails to act or acts with egregious delay. In those circumstances, the Lab would be aware of the infringement, but continues to profit from it (directly or indirectly) until action is taken.

The complaint outlines four classes who may benefit from the suit:

  • The Trademark Owner Class: All individuals and entities in the United States who own, have owned, or otherwise have the right to enforce licensing rights to goods and services bearing trademarks or service marks registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, and who engage or have engaged in commercial transactions in Second Life associated with such registered trademark or service marks.
  • The Trademark Infringement Class: All individuals and entities in the United States who (1) own, have owned, or otherwise have the right to enforce licensing rights to goods and services bearing trademarks or service marks registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, (2) engage or have engaged in commercial transactions in Second Life associated with such registered trademark or service marks, and (3) whose trademarks and/or service marks were infringed in Second Life.
  • The Copyright Owner Class: All individuals and entities in the United States who own, have owned, or otherwise have the right to enforce licensing rights in connection with a copyright registered with the U.S. Register of Copyrights and who engage or have engaged in commercial transactions in Second Life associated with such copyrighted works.
  • The Copyright Infringement Class: All individuals and entities in the United States who (1) own, have owned, or otherwise have the right to enforce licensing rights in connection with a copyright registered with the U.S. Register of Copyrights (2) engage or have engaged in commercial transactions in Second Life associated with such copyrighted works, and (3) whose copyrights were infringed in Second Life.

(Obviously, participation in the suit appears to be limited to entities within the United States of America. The 430KB complaint document is available in PDF format.)

Overall, the plaintiffs assert that Linden Lab has not done all that is reasonable and expeditious to deal with infringement, and that it has profited from and continues to profit from its failure to do so.

While so-called ‘Safe-Harbor’ (or, in the USA ‘Common Carrier’) protections might generally apply to (for example) Web-site operators, Linden Lab has chosen to abrogate those protections by taking affirmative (and some might say editorial) action on content in Second Life and on Xstreet SL.

Linden Lab declined to comment, but Alderman was willing to discuss the complaint with us, “The complaint eloquently expresses the frustration of the ‘whack-a-mole’ situation many of us are faced with every day. It is very difficult to convey the disappointment you get when you work for weeks to release something you have poured your heart and soul into, only to have it ripped and placed into grid-wide vending systems within moments by an anonymous and expendable account.”

“You cannot effectively address the level of infringement and theft that takes place within a platform that does 1.2 million dollars a day in transactions with an amended TOS and an expanded Abuse Reporting System. The problem is systemic. Our hope is to initiate fundamental and effectual change in the way the Lab addresses the issue of rampant content theft, copyright and trademark infringement in Second Life.”

Finally, Alderman asserts his support of the platform, “We do not need ‘Nannies’. We need effective support. If we didn’t believe in the future of Second Life, we would have been gone years ago. Maybe, some of our disillusioned brethren (sisteren?) will return if they feel that their content once again has value. We’re all in this together. It is still our world and our imagination.”

Even if the suit is only partially successful, the implications stand to significantly change the way virtual world developers and operators deal with rights, trademarks and copyrights in every collaborative virtual environment, as well as raise both social and legal expectations of the behavior and conduct of those operators. This case is one to watch.

Brands under the hammer in Second Life

smolinaro-aug2009 The Second Life blogosphere is igniting with the news that the listing guidelines for Second Life’s marketplace, xStreetSL, have been tightened up.

Essentially, it’s now prohibited to sell any virtual goods that resemble a real-world brand. That’s no shock and probably reasonable. The contention is over the ban on avatars that resemble actual celebrities. It’s a pretty silly ruling that’ll be essentially unenforceable outside of the xStreetSL website. Admittedly, protecting brands is a balancing act for any company, but this appears to be an over-protective move.

Let me throw out another conundrum likely to occur in the future as a result of this decision. Let’s say an avatar becomes a celebrity in its own right. Its shape, clothing and skin may have been created from scratch or different aspects purchased from vendors. Could said avatar argue they are now a brand and prevent people creating avatars that resemble them? Avatars-as-brands well and truly exist now – it’s the policy developments like these that continue to push well beyond the traditional boundaries of intellectual property law. It’s going to take some serious legislative work in the medium term to create some solid ground under virtual world content creators.

Twinity: intersection of immersion and State

With a new round of funding in the bank, Twinity is on as firm a ground as it’s ever been. The development of virtual replicas of cities has proven a successful formula to date. Singapore is a Twinity stronghold and a virtual Orchard Road is on the way.

twinity-singapore

Two aspects of the Orchard Road announcement caught my interest:

Virtual Singapore was developed in consultation with the Media Development Authority (MDA) and Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA).

and

Twinity is tying up with AsiaOne – the interactive arm of Singapore Press Holdings – to seek retailers, brands and firms interested in promoting their products or space on the virtual ‘Orchard Road’.

Bear with me while I explain some of the intricacies.

The Media Development Authority (MDA) is a government agency that has two main purposes: “The first is to promote the growth of the media industry. The second is to manage content to protect core values and safeguard consumers’ interests“.

The Infocomm Development Authority is also a government agency with the roles of “infocomm industry champion, the national infocomm master-planner and developer, and the Government CIO“.

AsiaOne is a key business within the Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) stable. SPH isn’t government owned, but under SIngapore’s Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, no management shares can be transferred without approval of the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA). This is the ministry that oversees the Media Development Authority.

What this means is that the SIngapore Government has direct involvement in the development of virtual SIngapore in Twinity. Nothing wrong with that at all – Australia’s government has played a role in funding virtual world presences, as have a plethora of other governments. What interests me most is the AsiaOne partnership, which is likely to have an advertising revenue focus. If you’re currently a SIngapore business person, you’re likely to have advertised with SIngapore Press Holdings at some stage as it has nearly 80% of the over-15′s market.

What do you do when SPH’s sales team phone you to negotiate your next advertising package and mention you can now advertise in Twinity? If you don’t know that the government have funded the Twinity presence, the less well informed may see it as a gimmick and decline. This is where it gets really interesting: if take up of advertising in Twinity’s virtual Singapore isn’t as great as expected, what happens next? I won’t be surprised if Singapore becomes the first sovereign entity to have virtual world advertising as a standard option for its business owners. The initial acceptance may be limited but the incredibly close government involvement combined with substantial influence over SPH makes for one fascinating and potentially controversial case study of virtual worlds and business. There’s no criticism of Metaversum intended – they have operated as one would expect of a commercial entity. It’s wider issues of politics, media and governance that invite further discussion.

I fired some questions on the issue through to Metaversum’s Managing Director, Jeremy Snyder:

TMJ: Does Metaversum see the Singapore model of government funding combined with a media partnership to drive advertising as one it’s likely to explore in other markets.

Singapore really offered some unique opportunities for us. Their drive to stimulate and showcase innovative companies in the IDM (Interactive Digital Media) space. The media partnership that we entered here is a strong endorsement of our vision. We do see a lot of value in similar strategic partnerships for other markets.

TMJ: Does it see this model working as well as it may do in Singapore where SPH’s management has a close relationship with the government?

Twinity: The relationship between SPH and the Singapore government was not part of the decision process for entering that partnership. Negotiations for funding in 2008 & subsequent negotiations with SPH were entirely different excercises.

TMJ: Does Metaversum have any concerns that potential success in Singapore may be as a result of the unusually tight control on media in Singapore, which may ensure widespread adoption of virtual world advertising as indirect government policy, making it a case study not easily replicated in other markets?

Twinity: Singapore’s media policies in the Internet space really don’t have any affect on our business. Similarly, we do not plan to apply any different standards for content in Twinity’s virtual Singapore than in other locations in Twinity. We feel our success in Singapore and elsewhere will still come back to the core values of Twinity – the connections to real life, the content available, and the strength of the community.

What do you think: is virtual Singapore likely to provide a unique social experiment?

Proposed ISP filtering allows surveillance of journalists, citizens, politicians

Should Senator Conroy’s proposed ISP filtering come to fruition, it concentrates extraordinary powers on whoever is to actually run it. It allows the surveillance of the Internet activities of Kevin Rudd’s children, the journalists at News Limited, or the government’s perceived political opponents (or its own members), or of anyone.

At will. Without cause. Without warrant. Without oversight.

Whether or not you agree with the filtering plan’s goals, this one thing should give you pause: your web-browsing history, and the web-browsing history of every Australian is available to some as-yet-unknown party, from the moment mandatory ISP filtering is switched on.

Sure, the contractor who provides the filtering service, and who maintains the systems will doubtless have all sorts of NDAs. But if someone in Rudd’s family browses porn from The Lodge, for example, then there’s considerable potential for leverage and extortion, because the contractor could obtain that data at will, even if government officials themselves could not, by law, obtain it.

Because filtering systems are logged. Filtering providers are, in fact, very keen on logging. Whether a request is blocked or allowed, the fact of it is recorded. Filtering providers use it to assess how well the system is performing. Individual user addresses are at times monitored from the logs, and some of that data is processed by humans to identify new things that should be blocked, or to see how people are attempting to defeat the filtering.

Whoever is providing and controlling the filtering gains unprecedented political power. Want to know what the journalists at a particular newspaper are up to? Scan the logs for their network addresses and check out what they’re reading on the Web. Ditto for other politicians. Or for anyone of interest, from parliamentarians to cleaners.

The potential for abuse here is absolutely appalling.

All you have is the word of people that these secrets won’t leak or be abused. Won’t they? The preliminary filter lists have already leaked, and contain quite a number of things that are far beyond what we’ve been told would be there. Our trust has already been violated even during the trial phase.

It’s only a matter of time before someone uses this data for their personal or political advantage.

And we, as a nation, are making it all too easy for that to happen.

Net filtering and virtual worlds: reactions

After last night’s story on the Australian Government’s internet content filtering legislation and its potential impact on virtual worlds, the response has been astounding. Today has seen the largest ever traffic on The Metaverse Journal. Like any issue, there are a few camps of thought:

1. Those who have significant concerns that environments like Second Life will end up being banned.

2. Those who have significant concerns, but cannot believe the Australian government would be so misguided as to oversee such a ban.

3. Those who believe the whole idea is hype and/or scaremongering and that the Federal Government will not take such a scattergun approach.

4. Those who support the proposed legislation.

australia-sim

A resident of Australia sim in Second Life unhappy with proposed net filtering plan

I tend to fall in the second camp, because there are innumerable examples of governments making policy that has unintended consequences for individuals not intended to be targeted by a new law. In fact, most legislation does that, it’s just that this proposition particularly stands out for its gaps in logic and potential to harm some really good work going on within Australia.

There’s certainly a chance that the final legislation, if passed at all, will have taken into account the intricacies of virtual worlds. I’m not holding my breath on that though, unless there’s some concerted efforts by Australians on the issue. Telstra and the ABC have plenty to lose and it’s both those organisations that could make a difference in sanity checking the final legislation. The hundreds of thousands of virtual environment consumers in Australia also have a large voice, if there’s a timely response in the event a ban does seem embedded in the legislation.

There’s plenty of time for these issues to be teased out – determining the Minister’s willingness to do so is the biggest unknown. We’ve contacted Senator Conroy’s office but unsurprisingly there’s been no response. What are your thought? Is it all a storm in a teacup, a call to action or a big yawn?

An open letter on virtual worlds for Senator Conroy

Today’s coverage by Asher Moses in Fairfax newspapers on the latest saga with content filtering in Australia, alludes to virtual environments such as Second Life being added to the list of content not suitable for viewing in Australia. Essentially, the issue is that online ‘games’ like World of Warcraft and Second Life have not received an Classification rating and therefore under the proposed content filtering would be blocked.

abcisland-june2009

The government funded ABC island: collateral damage through bad policy?


It’s difficult to know where to begin to pick the flaws in the logic of the approach, but I thought it may be worth writing an open letter / tutorial to the obviously misinformed Minister in question, Senator Conroy:

1. Virtual worlds do indeed contain adult content such as sex of pretty much any type, simulated drug use and plenty of violence. That said, just like going to the R-rated shop located in most suburbs, in environments like Second Life you can’t partake of the goods unless you’ve provided proof of age. So Senator, are you going to mandate the Australian Federal Police to ensure every ‘bricks and mortar’ adult store customer has to go through a government check before entering? Will you also be closing down other social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, as they too are not rated and also contain graphic content?

2. Second Life, OpenSim grids and gaming worlds like World of Warcraft are three examples of environments that have highly valuable and empirically demonstrable educational benefits. Just talk to the dozens of Australian educators who have undertaken postgraduate research in the area. Can you explain what alternative means of immediate support the Rudd government will be providing to those people who utilise such environments for immediate health support around issues as diverse as mental health, physical disabilities and chronic disease support?

3. Given a range of virtual environments are used for the purposes of expressing free speech or engaging in activism in a much more visual way, does the Australian Labor party commit to not using emergent technologies for political purposes? Why should Gaza protesters not be able to get their message out via Second Life to Australians whilst the ALP spams YouTube with Kevin Rudd informercials?

4.On the child protection thing. Any normal person doesn’t want their kids exposed to undesirable influences – it’s called parenting. If parents cannot be trusted to screen virtual world content, then is the government also committing to a full ban on R-rated magazines in newsagents, a blanket ban on all legal drug consumption in public and zero tolerance on swearing or violence. And if so, how will this be funded and implemented?

5. Can the Rudd government outline how Australians will maintain their competitive advantage in a global economy where virtual worlds are increasingly adopted as a means of communication? Will books be distributed with vetted pictures of said technologies and will this be enough to make our children competitive?

6. This to me is the most important question of all: have you, Senator Conroy, received any substantive briefing on the opportunities virtual worlds provide for educators, health professionals and businesses? I don’t mean Steve Fielding showing you a picture of two avatars going at it in Second Life. I mean a real briefing covering demographics, trends, research and evidence-based success stories. I can point you in the direction of half a dozen great people locally off the top of my head. Hell, I’ll come too to report on your newfound open-mindedness. I promise I’ll behave.

Of course, Senator Conroy is no more likely to read the above open letter than he is to request the substantive briefing mentioned. To be fair, no definitive statement has been made by the government on virtual worlds but the signs certainly aren’t encouraging. Like the wider issues with content filtering, the baby looks like being thrown out with the bathwater, and we won’t know it until it’s too late. If this does come to pass, Australia will be up there with North Korea in developing its population to be tech-savvy competitors in a global economy. Now THAT’s an education revolution.

Postscript: this afternoon I spent some time discussing the issue with Tateru Nino (who’s written on the issue here and here) and she made a really good point: by creating its adult-only continent in Second life, has Linden Lab forced the hand of ACMA to provide a rating on Second Life’s content. Having everything conglomerated in one place makes a rating easier. The trouble is, under the proposed regime it could also spell the end of Second Life access for Australians, or at least some significantly pared down access to PG-areas only.

Content ratings, age-verification and secret words

tan-linden-lab-secret-keywordsLinden Lab is now in the final legs of adding a new content category to its virtual environment, Second Life. Being added to the existing PG and Mature categories is the new category, Adult, which permits some content which has hitherto not been permitted in Second Life. The new content category is anticipated to go fully live in July.

Of particular interest, though, are the keyword lists and also age verification. Linden Lab is going to be maintaining a secret list of keywords, the presence of any of which in any descriptive text will prevent that item from appearing as a search result to those who have not (a) undergone age verification, and (b) do not have Adult search results enabled. Accounts which have not undergone verification will not be able to access Adult regions at all, or to enable Adult search results.

That list is being kept a closely guarded secret. What that essentially means is that it’s pretty trivial to determine which words are on it, and some users have already done so. The list may change, but it is a matter of only minutes (and a little database pummeling) to determine the exact contents of the keywords list.

Linden Lab have chosen to keep the list a secret, so that people will not be able to work around it. Unfortunately, by its very nature, it needs to be about the worst-kept secret around. It would be kinder to the database just to publish the list, so that people don’t have to brute-force a solution — because they will. I fully expect to see a public and frequently updated list online that publicizes the Adult keywords list before long.

But hey, you’ve got to age-verify for that, right?

That involves either going through the Identity-Verification system that Linden Lab has engaged Aristotle for (which has proven to be unworkable for many, or of otherwise dubious utility), or putting payment information on file on your Second Life account.

Yes, it’s really that simple. So simple, a child could do it. Literally.

What payment methods, exactly constitute verification of age, exactly? According to a spokesperson for Linden Lab, “Any payment method we currently take. PayPal accounts used on XStreet SL will need to be Verified PayPal accounts.

Last time we looked, credit card providers expressly prohibited the use of credit cards as an age verification mechanism in their merchant and payment-processor agreements. That makes this somewhat of a dubious stretch, contractually. However, Linden Lab outsources payment processing, so while their payment-processor might be at risk of reprisals from card-companies, there’s probably no real barrier to the Lab using credit cards as an age verification mechanism.

Aside from the fact that possession of a credit card nowadays is independent of age, prepaid credit cards are available to all ages (some major card companies are issuing prepaid cards to infants), and regular credit cards are available to anyone old enough to hold a job flipping burgers or sweeping floors. In fact, there may be more minors with cards that are indistinguishable from traditional credit cards now than there are adults with them. But there’s always your mum’s purse if you’re hell-bent on tradition.

Linden Lab, however, is out of the liability loop on all of this, so long as they do not make public statements warranting the effectiveness of their age-verification system, or statements that the users are in a legally safer position than they were before. Either could land the Lab with some expensive and embarrassing lawsuits the first time little Suzy gets caught out with Adult content.

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