In the past week there have been a multitude of breaking news stories involving intellectual property and the internet. Lets start with the biggest story known as COICA or the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act which the Senate quickly passed unanimously in the lame duck session so quickly there was very little time to even launch a decent campaign against it.
With in a week of its passage, the US shut down over 70 websites deemed to have “no demonstrable, commercially significant purpose or use other than offering or providing access to unauthorized copies of copyrighted works”. In a suspiciously similarly timed move, the appeals of The Pirate Bay founders has failed, and they all face jail time and stiff penalties, and I assume the site will disappear, just like Limewire did just a month ago.
While I personally consider the removal of these websites to be of no big loss (good bye and good riddance), it sets a disturbing precedence that could easily explode into the removal of intellectual ideas, which would be very very bad. Who decides what websites get shut down? Is there an appeal process in place?
IP holder attacks BSG RPs in SL
Then there is this other precedent setting move by Universal. They forced the shutdown of all regions and the removal of all items that infringe upon the copyright of Battlestar Galactica. As someone who dabbled in RP on the Battlestar Pacifica, this news disturbs me.
Pick any famous sci-fi, fantasy, or historical book movie or TV show and there is probably a group in Second Life role playing it. It is what many of us came to SL to do. So if some corporation decides to make an intellectual property claim on builds that “fans” have spent months and years of their lives building, not for profit (often at a severe loss) but for the love of the show, it now gets taken down with little warning.
As far as I know, only the IP owners of Dune have made a move like this before. Many IP holders have a very lax attitude when it comes to how fans use their IP as long as it is not for profit. In fact, some secretly like fan made materials, because it is a new way to discover new talented artists and writers. The number of BSG communities are small compared to the number of RPers of Star Trek, Star Wars, Dr. Who, and DC and Marvel Comics. If any of these IP holders pull what Universal did, it would piss off a lot of their audiences.
Battlestar Galactica is a TV show with unique art that has been recreated. The picture above is definitely a BSG Viper, and can’t be mistaken for anything else. But role play of books and specific genres can avoid IP claims, or at least make them very fuzzy. There is a lot of room for discussion about what constitutes IP violation and what does not. The more I think about it the blurrier the lines get.
Consider three of the most popular role play areas: Steampunk, Vampires, and Gor
Steampunk is a genre that seemingly came out of nowhere in the mid 80’s with the William Gibson and Bruce Sterling collaboration The Difference Engine. With such recent origin, pretty much everything associated with Steampunk is copyrighted by somebody. And yet the genre is not owned by anybody. It is a world of fantasy inspired by the futuristic visions of 18th century writers and inventors like Jules Verne, Charles Babbage and Nikola Tesla, all of which are in public domain.
Vampire lore goes back centuries, but the modern take owes its origins to Bram Stoker and F.W. Murnau whose works on the subject are in public domain. And yet nobody uses the free versions of vampire lore, they use the very much copyrighted Buffy, or Twilight, or True Blood, or World of Darkness versions of vampire lore, but can the owners of IP make claims on role players when public domain versions exist?
The copyright holders of Harry Potter are similarly stuck. They own certain names like Hogwarts, Voldemort, Griffindor, etc. but almost everything else is based on folklore. Doing an RP of a school for witches and wizards, as long as you avoided copyrighted names, would be free from IP claims. And yet there are RPs of Harry Potter that do use the copyrighted names, but if the copyright holder were to come in and make an IP claim against them, all they would have to do is change a few names and textures to comply, not a complete region shutdown or object/building removal like the BSG fans were subjected to.
Then there are the Goreans, which is RP based on a series of copyrighted books, and yet the RP only borrows the title and the BDSM premise and virtually none of the plot or characters. How much of an IP claim could be made on them?
Will the IP war become a guerilla war?
If the makers of these BSG builds were smart, they would have made backups of their ships, and props and uniforms. Then they could move to private Open Sim servers and rebuild. Universal would have to go after the individuals personally to shut down Open Sim grids, will Universal even bother?
And what about the websites shut down by COICA? Will they just re-open using alternative DNS roots and foreign hosts and proxies?
Information has a tendency to spread whether you want it to or not, just look at what is going on at Wikileaks. To quote another Universal Sci-Fi movie: “You can’t stop the signal, Mal.“