Who enforces copyright in a virtual world?

The virtual world Second Life is struggling with copyright. Cory Doctorow on BoingBoing:

“An open-source tool called CopyBot allows players to cruise around copying the objects sported by other players. Many SL players are upset by this, and demanding action. Second Life’s proprietors, Linden Labs, are trying to figure out what to do. They’ve ruled out eliminating third-party programs from Second Life, and they are on record as refusing to become copyright enforcers for their community.”

LindenLabs, the company behind Second Life, share some thoughts on the issue (and their terms of service) in their weblog.

But as Cory states,

“Second Life’s management is doing an exemplary job of coping with this, 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? (…) Linden Labs walks a fine line between ‘government’ and ‘owner’ (or, if you prefer, ‘God’). They’re pushing some hard boundaries.”

That’s a good point, and an important one. I posted some initial thoughts on the governance of this virtual world here and here. One of the Linden Labs people told me once that the “goal is to give our Residents the tools they need to handle abuse themselves. At a growth rate of 20% per month, there’s no way we can scale in-world policing.” I guess that’s true, but what kind of mechanism could work for the in-world governance and policing?

Well, I guess a democracy could. We’re not talking about a nation-state, though. Then again, we are, kind of. (And since there is plenty of actual currency transactions within Second Life, we can easily dismiss any “it’s only a game”-style arguments.) So far, we’ve only been talking about one particular online world, but I think we all agree that that’s only a beginning. It’s complicated. And it’s going to be really interesting to see what solution we can come up with.


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