The Curious Case of Racism in Second Life

Erika_in_midnight_skin The standard techno-optimist argument in favor of expanding the Metaverse goes something like this:

Virtual worlds hold the promise of commuication without regard for distance, physical ability, gender, or race. Every aspect of the avatar is flexible, rendering prejudice obsolete.

It appears such wishful thinking might be snagged on the heated issue of race. Pixels and Policy reports on a little-noticed study that says our racial biases are carrying over into the Metaverse.

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Zak Claxton and the Business of Music in the Metaverse

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Zak Claxton: Live in Second Life

Could major radio stations soon be playing the music of artists best known for their Second Life avatars?

If one well-known Metaverse rocker has his way, the tunes that have players lining up in the virtual world will soon find their way into a real-world album release.

Zak Claxton is a big deal in Second Life. His live music performances and audience-pleasing style have over the years grown into a true fan following. So when Claxton had to decide whether to release his first real-world album using his real name or the Claxton nomme de Metaverse, the choice was easy.

Pixels and Policy spoke with Claxton to find out why virtual music is bringing him real recognition.

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Second Life Designers Sue Linden Lab Over Digital Fashion Counterfeiting

You may recall we reported yesterday that popular browser world Evony is suing long-time blogger and gaming industry veteran Bruce Everiss over what Evony claims are fraudulent statements concerning alleged links to Chinese companies.

Now veteran Second Life journalist Hamlet Au reports that Linden Lab is the target of litigation as some of Second Life's most prominent virtual designers join forces in a class action lawsuit against Philip Rosedale's virtual world.

From the article:

Munchflower Zaius and Stroker Serpentine filed a class-action lawsuit in U.S. District Court against Linden Lab, for allegedly allowing and enabling content theft of their material by other Residents.

Linden Lab, unlike games like World of Warcraft, provides the user with rights to all content they create in the virtual world. This makes the situation hairy. If copying a music track from a CD and selling the bits and bytes constitutes copyright infringement under current case law – and it does – it seems plain that bits and bytes representing a digital coat are subject to the same protection.

Hamlet asks a question that I feel is the real consideration in this case: will a decision in favor of the plaintiffs promote or limit content creation? Au has a point that lawsuits hurt small businesses. Just ask Edwin Howard Armstrong, the RCA employee who in the 1930s improved on AM Radio by producing FM frequency. RCA litigated him into submission and, unable to compete, blocked superior FM technology for years.

Virtual worlds will impact the legal world in a profound and negative way if Second Life is forced to limit its liability by extending greater protections over virtual products. Small content producers will simply not have the ability to compete with a company that, as Au notes, sold over $1 million last year.

The Alphaville Herald has a great report on the newly-launched case complete with a link to the class-action lawsuit. What's telling is that both plaintiffs acknowledge they don't seek monetary damages from the lawsuit. Their goal is more restrictive regulations on who can create what, and ultimately tighter control over the virtual market for those already in a commanding position.

A telling line from the lawsuit:

Linden Lab directly and secondarily infringes the trademark of Plaintiff Eros by using Eros’s mark to sell infringing virtual goods within Second Life and by providing the tools to other infringing Second Life users.

This is chilling not because it holds Second Life accountable for the independent actions of its users, but because it argues that providing content creation tools in the first place constitutes enabling intellectual property theft. No doubt it would be effective from a business standpoint to sharply limit content creation now that the plaintiff companies have strong market positions.

The virtual economic boom in Second Life is a product of free creation and healthy competition. Restricting competition and encouraging the concentration of products in a few large fashion houses has more in common with the real world that Second Life's libertarian principles sought to upend. Not only does this lawsuit open up small creators to punishment for innovation, it stymies their incentive to create at all.