Original content versus fan content

With studios and publishers flinging infringement notices around about fan-based role-playing environments online, it’s worth looking at the situation from another perspective.

After all, why not just create new, original theme properties rather than basing role-play environments on popular books, movies and television shows? Why do so when official gaming environments already exist in some cases?

Well, there’s a number of reasons. Creating a fleshed-out themed environment that isn’t just a rehash of something that already exists, is actually really hard. It’s time-consuming, requires any would-be gamer to learn a lot about your specific property (which means endless amounts of documentation, lore and history needs to be written), and you generally start out without any real support. How does a gamer even know they’ll like your theme – as a non-profit effort, your advertising options are limited, and you may never attract a large enough following to make all of the effort worthwhile.

By contrast, plugging into an existing theme is easy. There’s always a wealth of pre-existing material to work from. DVDs, books, movies, fan-fiction and more. Everyone already knows whether the theme is to their taste, all the information they could wish for is widely available, and the only matter for their consideration is whether they like or dislike the software on which the environment is running, the rules and the management. Even grabbing the smallest fraction of an established fan-base can make you a huge hit in role-play circles.

When it is embraced, it can work very well indeed. I used to participate in a particular Star Trek MUSH online. Among the players were a handful of members of the crew, cast and writers for the series. It was fascinating seeing story elements from that game appearing later in later seasons of the canon television series.

That’s perhaps an almost ideal symbiosis, but all of that was happening without the knowledge of the rights-holders who probably would have shut the arrangement down punitively, had they become aware of it.

These days there’s now a Star Trek Online MMOG, but dozens of Star Trek role-play environments still exist online, and new ones still get created. Why is that?

It’s because the ‘official’ environments don’t offer the role-playing versatility and opportunities that many online, fan-created role-playing environments do. You can take your pick of game-systems. You can even find environments without any coded game-systems, simply relying on the creativity and fair-play of participants – essentially limiting play only to what players are jointly willing to agree to.

White Wolf’s World of Darkness is perhaps the single most popular role-play setting online over the last couple of decades. That property has become a part of CCP, the makers of EVE Online who are now working it up into an MMOG.

What will happen to the hundreds of role-play environments online that operate under the World of Darkness rules and/or setting? Will CCP’s lawyers come after them as the game gets closer to release? Will they only get shut down if the World of Darkness MMOG fails to attract enough usage? World of Darkness games are – traditionally – rather light on scripted game-mechanics, and trend towards humans creating their own stories and performing their own dispute-resolution, aided by administrators – a model which I do not see CCP necessarily indulging in.

A World of Darkness MMOG might simply not appeal to the tens of thousands of WoD gamers already playing in virtual environments today, and that could well put CCP on some awkward public-relations ground if it chooses to protect its rights – rights for which many millions of dollars have been spent already.

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.

Virtual world IP: not a steal

post-like-a-pirate1 Virtual environments and the public Internet sport a bewildering array of economies, from purely fantasy economies to real money trading between users. Fundamentally, many of these are currency-based economies which we all understand – you purchase something you value and give something of value in exchange. That is, you buy something you want with some manner of currency.

People generally have a whole lot more trouble with various license agreements, such as the GNU Licenses , or the Creative Commons licenses. Infringements of these licenses are common, and when challenged the infringers are often rather baffled. Either they do not understand that the content can be misused, or they do not understand why the ‘license nazis’ seem so put out.

Let’s break it down.

None of these licenses is technically ‘free’. Yes, they involve the use of content for no monetary cost, but that isn’t the same thing. There are multiple definitions of the word ‘free’ and if you apply the wrong ones, at best you’ll be confused, and at worst you’ll end up looking like an ass. So, these licenses are ‘free’ as in ‘no monetary cost’, but they are not ‘free’ as in ‘given freely for no exchange in value’.

These licenses are your basic, free-market, capitalistic contract. The owner of the property has something of value (the exercise of certain rights with respect to that content) and their release of some of those rights under a license makes that value available in exchange for something of value to them (your compliance with the terms of the license).

You both get something you want out of it, in short. That’s basic capitalism at work. Money need not be a component of the exchange, demagoguery notwithstanding. However, this is the fundamental principle that a lot of people miss, because they mistake the various different definitions of ‘free’.

If you take the content and use it in ways that don’t comply with the license terms, it is essentially the same as refusing to pay. That is why people get steamed about it. The rights to use the content in certain ways is given to you based solely on your agreement to comply. No money is changing hands, but ongoing compliance to the terms of the license constitute the payment for the usage.

Vint Falken was surprised to find that a texture that she made available under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derives license was being sold by a number of merchants in IMVU, some of whom claimed it as their own original work. Some of those merchants were even more surprised that she had any rights to her work at all.

KirstenLee Cinquetti quit providing her Second Life viewer binaries when pressed to comply with all the terms of the licenses that she was required to uphold in order to retain her permission to distribute viewer binaries. Some licenses require more compliance effort than others.

If you were handing over currency to obtain the necessary rights, that would be one thing. However, the purchase you are making is paid for with ongoing compliance to the terms. Quite often, you can simply arrange some alternative licensing or purchase scheme with the rights-holder. If you don’t, however, these licenses aren’t as simple as clicking ‘Yes, I agree’ somewhere and forgetting that you ever saw it. They’re contracts that require you to uphold your part of the bargain or lose what you gained.

Trying to evade or cheat the obligations under which content was granted to you wins you no friends either. As Bruce Perens points out:

don’t look for, and use loopholes in the Open Source licenses. Nothing makes your company look worse than taking unfair advantage of people who provided their work to you without charge, expecting in good faith that you’d honor their license.

Why? Because you took value from someone without the intention of paying the asking price. And that upsets everyone.

It really is as simple as that.

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