Open Source and Second Life

30 11 2006

Another train ride and some time for writing. This time I wanted to reflect a bit on the copybot discussion and I might even follow up on that later. And please excuse typos 🙂

CopyBot revisited

Recently in conjunction with the big CopyBot controversy there was also lots of talk about Open Source. In this case of course in the scope of Second Life and thus the project in question was libsecondlife.

Some people were demanding to ban the whole project and it’s people from Second Life as apparently the result of libsecondlife have not always been pleasing. And especially the CopyBot episode showed that lots of uproar can take place because of it.

But is it fair? Of course at the first glance CopyBot poses a big problem to many content creators in Second Life. But then again it has it’s restrictions. Also blaming the whole project is probably not fair as the potential of good uses are big and probably bigger than the bad ones. Moreover the actual problem is not the result of libsecondlife but immanent to the system, created by Linden Lab. So what libsecondlife did was mainly bringing it to the surface. Of course things could have handled better, e.g.

  • there was some sort of advertising of the CloneBot going on (I think the predecessor of it which copied just your avatar’s appearance without saving it). Sometimes demonstrating inherit featured and problems of a system might be good but knowing how alert sometimes one has to think about the consequences. You also need to explain things, how they work, what the limitations are and so on. This opportunity was missed in the first place. Later they added it to their blog but it was a bit too late and most of the residents are probably not reading that particular blog.
  • Most of the anger did arise from the fact that this is a very technical problem which not many people do fully understand (because they do not have technical background but therefor are great fashion designers etc.). So they need to get this explanation in a way they understand. I am not sure Linden Lab sees itself in that role but IMHO it would have been good to explain much earlier what the system can and can not do. The Linden Lab blog is at least a very popular place compared to the libsecondlife blog (I also tried to explain it as you can read here).

So the result of that uncertainty is of course fear of your business. Now it seems to have cooled down a little again and as Hamlet writes here, people start to get back to normal. And I also want to state here again that you as content creator are more than just your items. You have a name, people come to you because they know they get good quality stuff and hopefully also good quality service. I personally also think the latter is as important as the creativity.

Open Source

Now what about Open Source? Linden Lab stated again that they are supporting the libsecondlife project but maybe they missed a little to explain why they actually do. We can only guess but I can at least talk about why I personally like Open Source.

I am running a company based on the Open Source CMS (Content Management System) Plone which is a tool for non-technical people to make it easy to manage their website. There is a big community supporting this product (e.g. we have 200 people with checkin rights to the repository which means this amount of people is theoretically able to add to the project). They are all over the world, communicate via mailing lists, IRC channels, a little now via Second Life, the plone.org developer section and via personal email. Additionally we meet for sprints (meetings somewhere on the world where some people meet to program together mostly on a certain topic) and conferences.

Now why do we work together on the project and how do we manage to actually run a company on top of it? The main reason for doing stuff in an open source fashion is for better quality. Code you produce is constantly checked by others for bugs. It is also in the public which means just everybody (with the technical skills to do so of course) can obtain the actual state of the code, install it on their computer and give it a try. You then eventually report bugs or even fix them directly and feed them back to the main code repository.

It is also some sort of business collaboration because you have much more manpower to work on the project than your small company alone. Everybody involved profits from that.
Of course the product itself (actually more a framework) is free but people still need help in installing it or customizing it as it does not fit every use case directly. This is what the companies involved make money with. They also might create custom extension for it which eventually flow back into the community for everybody to use.

And for the quality argument also look at commercial software and how long it sometimes takes to fix a bug. And they might even just get fixed if there’s enough attention to it. And as the code is not visible to outsiders they also cannot check for potential problems in the code which the original programmers have missed. In an open source environment many more eyes look at that code and thus potentially spot more bugs, exploits and so on. These sometimes get fixed even the same day (we happened to get told about a big at the last <a href=”http://europython.org”>EuroPython</a&gt; conference during a lightning talk and the same evening the hotfix was out).

Another example if the browser field. Once there was the open source alternative Firefox/Mozilla Microsoft started developing on Internet Explorer again because it seemed to them like a potential threat. So without Firefox one could also argue that there would be no big innovation anymore in that field. Other fields might be similar.

According to Eben Moglen, General Counsel of the Free Software Foundation, Open Source also has the ability to change society. What in the last century was steel for the world is today software. While I don’t see software as commodity as he sees it he nevertheless did give a great keynote at the last Plone Conference about it. IMHO it is a must-listen and can be found here.

Open Source and Second Life

Now libsecondlife is not that much different from other open source projects. It also has the ability to better spot possible exploits and get those fixed quickly by Linden Lab if possible (like Megaprims). It also has the possibility to create business (ok, mainly for programmers) but also to help people for a better Second Life experiences.
Here are some things which might arise from it:

  • a complete new and better client as it happened with Firefox
  • better tools for managing your own(!) content like sorting your inventory or even create a backup of it
  • better tools for dynamically interacting with the world

Now Linden Lab also was talking about someday releasing their client as open source. Probably it’s a long way since then as I think they have some licensed code in there which needs to be removed first. Additionally they need to create the logistics and policies in place. Just releasing source code without anything further will probably not work (although the libsecondlife guys will most likely pick it up). They need to have some clear guidelines on how the client will get developed and who has the final word on design decisions. This is normal in Open Source projects, you need to have one big leader who has the final word. Usually this is the founder, sometimes people somehow arise from the group of developers. This does not mean that people cannot follow their own decisions but they won’t be the official client than anymore.

The question is still the support for libsecondlife. Actually it’s not really big support except that they said it’s legal (once at the SLCC and then in terms of changing their TOS). If they wanted to truly support them they would give them all the information they need. But they don’t except maybe some hints here and there. One reason I can imagine here is that they want to test their protocol in small steps for problems. The libsecondlife team will probably not find them all at once but one by one. And thus Linden Lab has time to fix them that way. So it’s maybe a small transition towards open source, trying out how it works.

Now libsecondlife is not completely like other open source projects around because they interact with the inner workings of a complete world :-)This means they need to be careful and need to think twice about what they do, release and how they explain it. If they don’t we have seen the results.

The team has shuffled and changed a bit and now we will see how they handle it next time! And eventually media should make sure that not only the bad aspects are presented but also the good ones as I expect many of them to come.

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Media Media

28 11 2006

Slow posting those times due to general business, but here are some media bits and pieces.

Financial Times Germany

The FTD was having today some report about Second Life. On the frontpage they report about the first million made in an online game, which is of course the story of Anshe Chung. They give a little overview about the economic capabilities of Second Life and talk about the companies already in there (although I don’t think Intel and Coca-Cola are really in SL, haven’t these been more one-time events for now?).

On page 5 they continue to talk in general about Second Life. They talk a bit about Linden Lab and how they started in a small office in “Linden Alley” (in the middle of homeless people) and how it went from there in 3 years to have an economy worth of 1,6 million people. They then go on talking about IBM and it’s boss, Sam Palmisano, who plans to give support to customers and clients via Second Life. Well, following are some more examples and enumerations of companies in here. And they end with CopyBot, which seems to be no real danger to SL but is nevertheless worth of mentioning. They even claim that because of that there’s still room in SL for a entrepeneur with a clever concept of a security service. Well…

Not enough, another topic mentioned in this issue is Creative Commons, which seems to be a topic quite rare in the mainstream media. On page 32 they talk about discussions about a new copyright law and how even artists are not really happy with it. There are some reasons:

  • As artist you sell your rights for not even existing distribution formats to your record company. If you don’t want this, you might get replaced. Prior they need to discuss another contract with you if they go e.g. from Vinyl to CD.
  • As privat person there is no right of a private copy included anymore. To be precise, you are allowed to copy as long as you don’t break any copy protection. But nowadays nearly every CD has this.
  • Artists do want to control how their work is being distributed. E.g. filmmakers do not like the cutting down of movies into little chunks for consumption via UMTS. With the new law they wouldn’t have any way to protect their work against that.

So all in all mostly the record labels etc. are profiting from these changes. Artists and consumers do not seem to be that important. A reason more for artists to move to a Creative Commons license (they give Beastie Boys as example).

Of course it won’t be that easy for most of them as they rely more or less on their record labels. But who know, someday it might change 🙂

Reuters

Reuters is bringing Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime and Warner Music Chief Executive Edgar Bronfman into Second Life this week for interviews. It is part of the Reuters Media Summit taking place this week in New York and according to Reuters more such events are planned.

Fils-Aime will be interviewed at 0730 PST on Nov. 29, and Bronfman will be interviewed at 1200 PST on Dec. 1.

For more information check out this link! Depending on my time constraints I will be there as this might be cool 🙂

Machinima

Leaving mainstream media we enter the field of Machinima. For quite some time I wanted to post a longer wrapup about it but as I am quite busy I did not get to it. But at least Hiro Pendragon did a bit on the Machinima Festival and as there’s even a contest attached, you should head over, read it and submit some cool film and win US$ 250,-  🙂

Something which is definitely clear is that we need more machinima artists and I hope that every contest will bring some more people into that field.

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Linden Lab changes Terms of Service

22 11 2006

It seems that Linden Lab changed it’s Terms of Service (TOS) just now to include the following changes (quoted from their summary):

UPDATE Nov. 22, 2006:

The Terms of Service have been revised to clarify the different elements of software and service provided by Linden Lab. Limitations have been added to restrict Linden Lab’s ability to use your content for promotional purposes (Section 3.2). Specific terms have been added to address connections to Linden Lab’s servers using software not provided by Linden Lab (Section 4.2). Additional terms have been highlighted for using the marks of Linden Lab (Section 4.4). Many additional edits have been made; you must read the full terms of service rather than rely on this summary.

Especially interesting is section 4.2, which now contains:

Notwithstanding the foregoing, you may use and create software that provides access to the Servers for the same function (or subset thereof) as the Viewer; provided that such software is not used for and does not enable any violation of these Terms of Service

So this probably means (I am no legal expert) that doing stuff like libsecondlife is legal as long as you don’t create exploits (or use hole existing in server code) and use only such tools as will be allowed under the TOS. This is good news for open source software and means that they still fully support it! Thanks! 🙂

What I also like is that they now give a summary of changes. Of course it would be even cooler if they would also highlight all the changes with the previous wording.

(btw, you will get this update when you login again)

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Plone Belgium Meeting streamed into Second Life

21 11 2006

Live Stream of the Plone Belgium Meeting
And we do it again. After the streaming of the Plone Conference in October and the Plone Boston Meetup we will now stream the Plone Belgium Meeting into Second Life. It will be held in Brussels and will take place on Nov 22, from 5am to 1pm SLT. The location is the same, so feel free to join us there! At this location you can find various videos about Plone and the community in general already.

In Brussels will be around 70 people attending the meeting and the topics range from case studies about Plone in public organizations to regular talks about several projects. More information about the event itself including the schedule can be found here.

If you cannot attend in Second Life, check out COM.lounge TV for a web-based live-stream during that time.

Plone is an open source Content Management System and web application framework.

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Your world, our policies

20 11 2006

Some days ago I received this message from the Second Life voting system:

Hello,

Feature Proposal 2018: “Transparency in rules enforcement” has been marked ‘Can’t do’ by Linden Lab.
This has resulted in the return of any votes you had placed on proposal 2018 to your account.
Here are the Linden notes: Sorry, this can’t be done via the Feature Voting Tool, because it’s a policy change.

As it says on the top section of the FTV:

‘- please don’t put bugs or policy changes into the feature voting tool.’

See http://secondlife.com/vote/vote.php?get_id=2018

Happy voting!

http://secondlife.com/vote/

The request itself was issued by Lasivian Leandros after the banning of the 60 people from (I guess, no details are given of course) the V5 group. Of course V5 and it’s members have been sometimes of questionable behaviour but nevertheless also those deserve to know why they have been banned. And we want to know as well as otherwise it seems arbitrary for what one gets banned. Rules need to be transparent! Now this reply also implies that the actual policy is to be not transparent. Otherwise this would not be seen as policy change request but could be seen as feature request.

Ok, but now the voting tool is according to Linden Lab not the place to vote for policy changes. But where is then? Right, nowhere.
(Actually I was tempted to put in another vote for implementing a policy voting tool but I guess that’s silly and will not have any effect anyway).

Many people are annoyed by this and Lasivian is in the process of leaving Second Life altogether (actually it seems to be that case more or less already). He won’t be the last one I guess.
We need to have influence on the policies in “our” world and we even need to know what the actual policies are and how they are enforced. At least those getting banned should know why and have a chance to discuss it.

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libSecondlife team has drawn consequences (updated)

16 11 2006

According to this post on sluniverse.com (via this post on the Second Life Herald) some people of the libsecondlife team indeed have been very aware of the consequences of their actions and it hints that they even made the step to demonstrate CloneBot to the wider public deliberately.

Now I should nevertheless state that I am not a big fan of posting chat transcripts to the public without the consent of the people participating in it. It’s sort of a copyright/privacy breach on it’s own and should be condemned.

But it’s out now and it might endager the existence of the Open Source project libsecondlife. Nevertheless I don’t see any hint of using it for copyright infringement but more as educating content creators the hard way. And indeed the result can be seen as devastating and indeed puts the whole libsecondlife project into a bad light.

The team has drawn consequences though and they have banned Baba Yamamoto from developing further on the team (while Nimrod Yaffle was never on it) as this blog post on their homepage explains.

It remains to be seen what the further answer of Linden Lab, creators of Second Life, to these developments are.

Update: Apparently much more reorganisation is going on and the heads of libsl have stepped back now. They say the project is not dead and indeed has lots of influx of new users. So we will just have to wait what will happen now.

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The CopyBot controversy

15 11 2006

Copied!Recently there has ben lots of discussion and drama about a tool called CopyBot. One discussion with Robin Linden can be read here, there were some articles in the Second Life Herald, Eric Rice commented on the RIAA-style rage and even Reuters reported on the case here and here. Additionally there are two posts by Linden Lab on the topic, one is by Robin Linden and the other one by Cory Linden where he states again that the use of CopyBot is a violation of the Terms of Service and will be handled accordingly.

The effect in-world also has been quite huge. I received several votings on proposing to ban either CopyBot or libsecondlife, many shops have closed in protest and at least two demonstrations e.g. in front of a CopyBot reseller have been happening.

Now what is this all about? Let me try to clarify some things first.

How the system works

Second Life consists of clients and servers. On the server side there are first of all the servers which serve the sims (for each sim one server basically) and then there are some additional ones in the backend which handle e.g. login or provide the complete set of objects in existence (the asset server) which you can e.g. access via your inventory. Now in order to display objects and textures on your computer screen these need to be copied from the server to the client. In my understanding this will be a direct connection between the sim server on which you are and your client while the sim server talks to the asset server if it needs additional objects or textures.
The important point to note here is that all the objects (in the form of prim data) and textures (as bitmaps) will be transferred to your client which constructs the image from it by sending that data in a processed form to your graphics card (e.g. prim data will be converted into actual 3d objects constructed from points and vertices).
As this description implies it is always possible to copy this data. And it happened already as with the GL intercept program or similar tools (only for textures though).

Now what about CopyBot?

CopyBot is just one application which can do this task of copying objects. It is a result of the people who are doing research on the libsecondlife project which aims at documenting the Second Life protocol. A protocol can be seen as a sort of language in which the client and server talk to each other. So in fact it is the deciphering of that data stream I talked about earlier.
Additionally this project is an open source project which means that the code is freely available and can be modified and used by anybody as long as they do their work in terms of the license attached (some open source licenses, as for instance the GNU public license, need changes to be made public again so that everybody can profit from this derivative work again. It also seems to me one of the few (if any more) true collaborative open source projects in the realm of Second Life (but then again Second Life also makes it hard to truely collaboratively work on a project in-world).

CopyBot now started (in my understanding) as debugging tool for libsecondlife. And apparently the existence of a program to copy objects is not necessarily a bad thing. Imagine you created something and want to get a copy of this on your hard drive. There is no way to do that right now but work based on the CopyBot source could possibly provide such a service.
Of course there are also bad uses of such a program such as copying copyrighted material which in fact is the fear of many content creators these days.

But there is not much Linden Lab can do about it and this is what people need to understand. The data needs to be transferred somehow to your client and on this way it can always be copied. One solution might be to add encryption to the protocol. This might help but with Linden Lab’s plans of opensourcing the client it wouldn’t make much sense as they would provide the source code for decryption later on as well. Beside it might be cracked at some point and then LL would need to implement another mechanism which would be cracked again and so on. Actually I think they are changing those things on a regular basis already but people keep adjusting.

Is Open Source bad?

Before I come to the content creators let me first talk about Open Source a bit. For those who are not familiar with programming let me quickly explain that the source code of a program is the human readable form of it. Programmers write source code which in turn will be converted to a machine readable format. This format is very minimal and is not easily to convert back to the original form (and hard to understand for humans in this form). This machine readable format will then be given to the world (e.g. as the Second Life client). What libsecondlife does is not converting the machine readable format back to a human readable one based on the client program but instead they monitor the network traffic and try to guess what it means. So their goal is mainly to create completely new clients (or even servers) which then can be made truly open source.

Now on the forums there have been some commentators who argued that Open Source is a bad idea. Their reason for this opinion is that with open source code people can more easily spot problems in the source code which might be exploited. This discussion is actually not new as many companies a while back have argued the same way when they were confronted with Linux and tried to fight it (because it could possibly steal market share from them). That bugs and exploits can more easily be spotted in open source code is in fact true but then on the other hand these exploits will still exist if the source code is closed. Hackers could silently go and exploit these without anybody knowing about them. Now with Open Source many more eyes will check the source code. Some will be those of the bad guys but many more will be those of the good guys who go ahead and fix those bugs. They also release the product more often and patches are faster available than with traditional closed source programming thus making the system more secure in the end. For Second Life it usually means that Linden Lab has more pressure to fix them quickly (and LL does not have record of otherwise fixing things quickly as some have noted).

In the case of Second Life the subject is not the client source code but the underlying protocol. As I cannot imagine something completely bugfree and unexploitable the protocol probably will always be. And bugs have been spotted in the protocol already and Linden Lab went to fix them. This would eventually not have happened without libsecondlife and thus Second Life would be more vulnerable.

In this case things are different though. Data needs to be passed to the client and apparently disabling this feature would shut down Second Life. But they took at least some actions in announcing the timestamping of content and introducing Creative Commons licenses.

Licenses?

A license is the list of rules what you are allowed to do with content. This is not the same as the permission set available in Second Life. In fact the existing permission system is a bit weak when it comes to express my true intent about what I want to allow to be done with my creations. For instance I cannot set the permissions to “Allow this object to be copied and transferred for free but do not allow to sell it” or “Allow it to be copied and transferred and even changed but only with putting my name as original creator on it”. There are more such examples as you can imagine.

This is where Creative Commons Licenses come into play. These allow content creators to specify rules in more detail. For a complete description of them have a look at their homepage. Of course not all these restrictions can be modeled by permissions and thus it depends on the owner of the object to pay attention to them. But this is the same as in Real Life as e.g. I cannot protect a photo I put on the web. But I can attach a license to it stating what is allowed and what is not. I then have to make myself sure that I eventually sue people who are not playing by the rules. The same basically to Second Life. Technology is not always the solution and in fact we have more a cultural problem in front of us.

But there is DRM!

DRM stand for Digital Rights Management and is mainly known for it’s use in the field of audio and video files on the web. If you buy a song from iTunes then there is automatically DRM attached to restrict copying. It defines that you are only allowed to copy this song to 5 different devices to play and thus aims to prevent copying on file sharing sites.

Now this might sound like a good idea for Second Life!

It isn’t!

DRM is a pain in the ass if you e.g. try to copy your purchased MP3 from an iPod to another MP3 player (like the Zune). It does not play. In fact the Zune does need a different form of DRM which is not compatible to the iTunes one. So to be on the legal side you’d need to purchase this song again from the Zune store. Now imagine your iPod is broken and you got a Zune and you have 1000 songs purchased. You cannot listen to them anymore unless you break the copy protection. This is quite easily possible as every protection will be circumvented by hackers at some point but it’s not legal. Also look at the 5 devices limit. You maybe have an iPod, a laptop and your desktop computer, this makes 3 devices. Now you get another iPod and eventually a new laptop because the old one was broken. Makes 5. Now you are out of luck. It’s very unlikely that you will be able to listen to your purchased music in some years in a legal way.

So this is why I don’t buy DRM’d music. And the same would apply to any form of Second Life DRM. Even right now it’s annoying that I cannot copy all the clothes I purchased for personal use (as for making a new outfit) as they are set to no-copy. People want freedom and IMHO stuff would sell better the more freedom they have.

DRM means trusting nobody and it mostly affects your customer but not the ones who copy your stuff. They have a DRM-free version. Go to a filesharing site and you won’t see any DRM. And all the music is available nevertheless. Thus IMHO it does not make sense to start racing against hackers as the only one suffering would be your customers.

But what to do?

You as content creator are not only the sum of all your content you created. There is more to it. You have a brand which is (hopefully) recognizable, you do customer support (I hope), you are creative and come up with new ideas all the time (I bet). All this cannot be copied. And everybody who once started a business knows how hard it is to sell stuff if nobody knows you. The same is true for people copying other people’s stuff. Additionally they need to fear being sued (this maybe should done more often) or being banned. They also would be foolish to announce their service more openly. Thus IMHO content creators are pretty much protected by their brand.

The main thing to note here is that you need to be aware of this issue. Discussing it publicly it better than hiding it under the carpet while the bad guys can keep on copying. Being aware also means to find ways around that e.g. by providing additional services or maybe teaming up with a scripter to provide additional features.

There’s also the fact that many people hide behind their anonymity in Second Life. This is esp. true for all the trolls who are commenting on forums and blogs (IMHO these are the ones who truly act inresponsible in heating up such discussions instead of explaining things properly). It is also true for those who copy other people’s content. And it is true for those who are selling CopyBot (or did), such as Prim Revolution who is according to his interview on Reuters has been in Second Life for quite a while but created this account just to sell CopyBot. We should mark him as coward.

This in reverse means though that it might be a good idea to leave RL anonymity and provide more info about you. I never really understood why people tend to have separate lives in SL and RL (except maybe they are cheating on their beloved ones) but this is just me :-). But giving more info about yourself definitely helps gaining creditability which those copying guys never will have.

If we come back to CopyBot itself it’s also obvious that it is not the perfect solution for copying content. It won’t copy scripts and even objects without scripts are only poorly copied. No scripts also means no bling, no AO etc. Also read this post about what it is exactly able to do or not.

Conclusion

I understand the worries of the content creators esp. when they make a living out of it. But I’d also first wait to see how much copying really will be done. Additionally there needs to be some social and eventually legal pressure on them to stop such practices.
What I would not like is the banning of Open Source projects such as libsecondlife. Those projects help to push the platform to a new future and eventually could even replace the existing Second Life platform with all the stuff you possibly want in it. This is admittedly not very likely but if it helps to spot security holes or even enable me to save my content externally or provide similar servies then this is a good thing. And helping the platform in general is most likely also the reason why Linden Lab is embracing it.

Also note that copying always was possible and always will be. It’s the same as in RL and the same methods for fighting this apply (branding and legal action).

So please calm down, open your shops again (before other people will step into your spots and make use of that opportunity), do cool stuff and help to keep Second Life as open as possible (in fact it is not very open but that’s a different topic 😉 ).

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