Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Business Musings: Theivery in SL

I've noticed the topic of intellectual property theft, in particular, textures used for clothings and skins, has been quite hot lately. Between older instances, and newer ones that have turned quite nasty in recent times. While in secondlife it seems that a lot of designers are suprised and outraged, the truth is, "art theft" is quite old, and is just as much a problem in the world outside of secondlife as inside it. While it doesn't excuse what the theives are doing, it just highlights how an old problem has gotten a new twist.

As an artist IRL, I've had an interest in copyright and art theft/fraud for some time. Its not like forgeries and ripoffs are anything new. However, in previous eras, one actually had to have some kind of talent to make reproductions. With the digital era, its as easy as clicking a button and uploading it to a service provider. For artists who provide their work online for others to view, this has become an ever increasing problem. Some of the more popular artists around the web deal with daily reports from fans of ripped work. Deviantart has a whole section devoted to alerting artists to rips. I, myself had to deal with a really severe instance only weeks ago where a person from the UK was using my artwork to solicit commissions. She had taken my work from various galleries and posted it to deviant art after removing my signature and copyright information, then claimed it was hers. The sad part is she did sucker some people into actually paying her for work that she would never be able to do. I did my best to run damage control, contacting each of the people on her list personally to let them know that the work she was claiming she had done, she never had and that she never would. Unfortunately, some people had paid money upfront. It was quite a mess, and this is not the only instance I've cleaned up in the many years I've been showing my artwork online. So I am no stranger to having my work violated and it is the general consensus is that its only getting worse. This has lead to a search for ways for artists of all kinds to keep their work out of the hands of theives. Not only this, but also how to mark it for identification later to prove that it is their work, and get it removed.

It is notoriously difficult to enforce copyrights on the web and electronically. Most ISPs are fairly good about removing offensive or copyrighted materials if the original creator or viewers complain. However, you have to prove you are the original owner, and even then, the theif can just move. That doesn't mean they will stop. Sometimes, artists even have to resort to lawyers to protect their properties.

So how does this apply to secondlife?

The first thing I think anyone who creates content should ask themselves, " Can I handle being ripped off?" Because its going to happen. Artists online either have to develop an iron shell and plan of attack all of their own, or they end up stopping putting up their work because they can't handle the stress. Its the reality of the digital era.

The second thing is to be aware that Linden Labs is not a babysitter. We have to deal with a lot of this on our own. The other thing is that if we want Linden Labs to intervene we have to do more than just yell at them to do something. We must use the ToS to back us up, we must have proof, and we must come up with good propositions and ideas to help make stealing textures more difficult. We must also be patient and realistic. Any change will take time to impliment. They aren't going to tell us everything they are doing, and if they rush, they might bork the job. I'd think I'd rather see something that is tested and works than a half ass solution.

Currently, Linden Labs operates under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. If you have a copyright issue, you have to file a notice that is, infact a legal document outside of Secondlife. They state very specifically on this page that:

Your copyright in an item is determined in the real world, by real-world processes including the DMCA. The DMCA process allows users of an online service to resolve copyright disputes using the adjudication systems available in the real world.

Once again, we see where SL ends and RL overlap. The next thing the artist must realize is that legal processes are slow. It can take months to get something delt with. Because Linden labs doesn't have a policy similar to say, webcontent hosts that basically says "if someone complains, we will remove it, no questions asked", dealing with this sort of thing can become very taxing to the artistic creature. This only adds to the frusteration when false claims and reports are filed, adding to the ever increasing workload. You must make sure that if you do file a complaint you have a stack of paper to back you up in terms of documentation.

There is also the question of intention to consider. This has been a forefront of recent drama. Copyright law generally is in the business of protecting artists and creators from having their work ripped off and used commercially without the artists permission or compensation. This is so that your artwork doesn't end up on shoes in Australia or something without you being compensated. (this actually happened to a popular webcomic artists I know of). But it also includes the DISPLAY of a work out in public without appropriate permission. There is a 'fair use' clause in copyright, but it is very specific as to what it exempts. Many theives try to hide behind it, usually failing dismally, however, it is in this clause that we look at intention of the reproduction, modification, or use of a work. The intention is generally where things get fuzzy. Generally if you are using a picture of something for a review or educational purposes, its okay. For written works, you cannot reproduce more than 30% of the original work even for those reasons. There are other instances where exerpted or partial works may be used to support other works, such as to replace a portion of a damaged copy you own, or use something to illustrate a point in a lesson. ( the full list is here.)

However, in the most recent drama, the focus has been on can you modify something you paid for, but the creator has not explicitly given you permission to do so. Now, I'm not going to get involved here on the personal level between parties. I'm looking at the overview of the whole situation, because it is the kind of thing that will probably ripple effect. If this goes over, will this send a message to other people that they can engage in modifying something they bought by using a graphics exploit as long as it is for personal use only? But what about displaying it publically when you go to a club? I don't believe there was ever a malicious intention in the current situation. But, that doesn't mean that someone else might be so benevolent. Infact, it happens all the time, which is probably why creators are so uptight. So now that the milk has been spilt, how do we deal with it? Preferably without the drama. (if you don't want it that is. I'll explain this in a minute.)

The first thing I suggest to anyone who's experiencing theft is CALM DOWN. The intial reaction to theft is usually to get angry, vindictive, or downright furious. People do not act rationally when they are angry. People do not thing rationally when they are upset. DO NOT ACT UNTIL YOU HAVE CALMED DOWN. You MUST take the time to examine all the factors involved. Revenge is a dish best served cold, and to really nail a thief to the wall, you have have to have all your facilities there, cold, calculated, and right. Walk away from the screen, go find a friend, go vent to your friends/roomie/significant other, just don't do anything until you've gotten a chance to deal with your emotions. Don't tell anyone online, at least not until you've gotten at least past step two.

Second thing to do is to gather intelligence and facts. You have to consider intention, usage, and money involved. Is there money involved at all? If there is no money involved then its pretty useless to push things further unless it is a type of theft such as identity theft. ( as in stealing your textures and presenting them as their own on their products, which are the same sort of thing as yours.) or direct rips/copies of your prim work. I know a few instances of prim by prim copies being made and put out to devalue a certain creators work because someone was personally unhappy with that creator. Generally speaking, going after someone for personal use is sketchy, unless they might be a constant public show of the work in question, which again gets highly circumstantial. If you do decide the problem is worth pursuing, you need to gather as much intelligence as you can before you move on to step three. Take screenshots, document who, when, where, what, and how. Make sure everything is dated and backed up with screenshots, times, dates, places, etc. You will want to do all of this personally before you confront the thief or tell anyone else about it. If you can drop a stack of documentation that will stand up in court on someone's desk, they are much more likely to do something about your problem.

The third step is once you've gathered enough intel, created a book on the transgression, and determined that their intentions in taking your work was malicious and ment to hurt your business, life ( in the case of identity theft/impersonation), or professional image, then you can confront the thief. It is very important that when you do so you remain polite, professional, and cold. Remember, if you are still angry, you shouldn't be at this step yet. You need to keep your head. You should tell the theif who you are, why you are contacting them, and what you want them to do. You should never swear at, or call the thief names. It makes you look unprofessional and if you get beligerent it can be verbal assault and just makes you look bad. Key to this is to make sure you are 100% right, that includes on how you handle it. Do not be accusary, this causes people to immediately get defensive. Simply tell them that the textures they are using are stolen, and request they are removed immediately. Don't actually say " Hey you stole my stuff!" because thats making an accusation without the fact of knowing exactly where they got the textures. Just state what you know, which is that they are using stolen textures. Thieves are cowardly by nature, many, when given some wiggle room to get out of trouble, will comply with your demand. No problem, no drama. If they become difficult or rude and refuse to do what you ask, then move on to the next step.

The next step is to file a report inworld about it, and supply that stack of evidence you gathered earlier. This is the step where your ability to defend your work is going to be tested. You must generally supply side by side comparisons where it is DEAD obvious that they are copied or derivative works of your textures. For this reason, I suggest to all who make their own textures to imbed key imperfections and 'security markings' into textures. This can be type, particular signature watermarks, even a slight watermark. If you stretch a texture ( like hair ) this mark will not be seen on the hair, but it sure will by anyone who tries to rip the texture! It will then also be clear when they remove it. For clothing textures, incorporate copyright type or signature marks into the clothing in clever locations. Buttons, cuffs, trims, ruffs, lace, belt buckles, etc. These will provide benchmarks for comparison, since clarity is required for such marks, bad rips and 'photoshop' jobs to try and remove these signature marks will make it obvious the texture is stolen. For skins, birthmarks, moles, freckle patterns, even slight small type in a inconspicuous spot such as the scalp will provide a signature to identify your work from others who may have simply photosourced similarly. Remember, since you are doing the accusing, the burden of proof is on you. You have to proove the thief is guilty. Innocent till PROVEN guilty, so make sure you can prove your work is your work.

At this point, if you provide enough evidence, you may have to do some additional paperwork, and go on to actually filing a copyright violation report as per Secondlife's way of dealing with this. But as with anything legal, don't count on results right away.

Now, remember I did mention the drama, with or without clause here. Depending on your tolerance for it, it can become a powerful attention tactic and thus essentially a publicity stunt. People flock to drama, and its a good way to get your name out there. Stratigically used you can humiliate the thief ( assuming you've gone through the above process and waited a reasonable period of time and nothing has happened.), and gain some recognition, making people aware of the problem. However, be aware that this also has negative implications on you because it can be seen as attention whoring, drama whoring, and generally a bad sport thing. How you handle it becomes key. It is a very delicate thing, and you have to personally be able to handle the backlash, because backlash there will be.

My personal thoughts on the situation where someone modifies something for personal use is annoying, inconsiderate of a creators work, and personally don't support the idea, but I think I'd be curious to see what they did regardless. If they did something interesting, it might be a viable business opportunity, possibly teaming up to create a special edition or new line of something. But then, I've had my work referenced and brutalized so many times that I've gotten largely used to the idea and realized that trying to ice skate uphill is pointless. If someone buys a black car, and then decides after they pay cash and drive it off the lot to paint their car red, it becomes a question of does it really matter, or should we be selling red cars in the first place? The people who are the most successful in the world tend to turn a problem into an opportunity. Be it getting publicity out of the event, or finding a new business partner. Sometimes it pays to think a little sideways and not just let our artistic ego's bull us out into unseemly behavior, particularly when we are dealing with other creators. A certain degree of professionalism and respect, even when dealing with a problem can go a really long way into solving it before you have one, and that goes just as much for creators as it does for the customers and bystanders. If it doesn't concern you and you don't have anything useful to say, it would be wise to simply let those involved deal with it and dont' make things any more complicated or messy than it has to be.


At 2:52 PM, September 12, 2006, Anonymous Choice said...

A thoughtful and truthful post worthy of being studied by many, especially the part about waiting until the anger subsides. It is hard to do, because our emotions throw us into crisis mode and make us want to get answers and "justice" right here and right now. But if we can allow ourselves that breath, that distance, we can prevent a whole lot of unnecessary ache, angst, and consequences that we are blind to when our hearts are filled with rage.

At 3:00 PM, September 12, 2006, Anonymous Crissa said...

Hey, great post, with links. Many content creators get very closed about this topic, it is too easy to be very angry.

I tend to err on the side of fair use, myself - but then again, I specifically choose not to buy things that are no-mod if I can help it.

In the 'Furry' community on SL, there seems to be a greater allowance for 'personal use' on textures - because otherwise we'd all end up looking alike. But as you've noted, there's been big problems on and offline via people scanning or stealing images.

I usually say - I kept your linework because I liked it - I wouldn't have bought it otherwise, right?

Lastly, the comment about red cars is very true, especially in SL.

At 9:25 AM, September 20, 2006, Blogger Lethann Aeda said...

Well said.

Thoughts here can be applied to just about anything, not just artistic work.

Thank you for posting those links, not many people know where to look for this kind of info.

My personal opinion is that I like being able to do whatever I want (except claim it's my creation or make a profit off it) to something I buy. Like the car example, it's a matter of taste. It's one thing to pay thousands of dollars to buy a one of a kind oil painting that can never be reproduced and throw white wash over it, it's another to add your own hints and customizations to something like a car, clothing, or even jewelry. I know some people who are quite talented with a sewing machine who will take a store bought piece of clothing and then make it fit better or add their own little flourish. In the digital world, things are very easily reproduced as long as there is a copy or the original source files still around. This is a boon as well as a hindrance. It can mean modifying things can be easily done without losing your original piece, copies a click of a mouse away.

Also, one of the reasons why I like having even SL clothing modifiable (especially prim clothing) is that, just like RL, not all Avatars are built the same. While something my look excellent on a friend of mine, I can put the same piece of clothing on and it just doesn't look right because of how my Avatar is built. I think just about everyone knows the pains of having to move around prim clothing to make sure it fits right.

Anyway... I know it's a touchy subject and everyone has their own opinion.


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