Friday, November 26, 2010

Is Universal Studios Missing the Mark in Asserting Copyright Infringement in Second Life?

This past week, Second Life began shutting down Battlestar Galactica (BSG) themed sites due to alleged copyright infringement of Universal Studio's intellectual property interests. Tateru Nino has written two excellent blog posts on this turn of events, here and here, that raise some intriguing questions about intellectual property in virtual environments and why roleplayers develop sims based on existing content.

I think her point about the difficulties of building roleplay environments from scratch were right on the mark. As someone who's created content for a roleplay sim, I know firsthand how challenging it can be to develop and communicate completely unique story structures. Most of what I created was a mashup of dungeons and dragons, historical fiction about medieval battles and political intrigues, mixed with various European folklore and original story lines built upon active characters in the sim. Most players didn't get it, especially new players, and others didn't want to expend the time to figure out the details of what was going on anyway.

So, Tateru Nino's point is well taken: the allure of an established storyline, and an existing fan base for it, are certainly compelling reasons for developers to build upon a franchised idea, like Battlestar Galatica. And, on it's face that would indeed appear to be a clear violation of copyright, but are corporate copyright holders myopic in their approach to closing down themed sims in virtual worlds that act mainly as fan sites for their content?

In a 2000 article by Lauren Yamamoto about copyright protection and fan sites in general, she writes about the tension that exists between corporate copyright holders, who want to protect their intellectual property, and fans, who feel they have the right to spread the word about their favorite actors, films, or other media they consume. Yamamoto's article predates large-scale virtual worlds, like Second Life, but the basic point she makes is that traditional copyright laws do provide protection for intellectual property in online environments.

So, Universal is well within its rights to assert its claim and demand that offending content be destroyed. But, does that really accomplish what they're seeking? Tateru Nino connects Universal's decision to the opening of a BSG themed online game, which certainly would seem a logical move if, in fact, Second Life sims were actually in direct competition with other online games. I don't think that's the case, though.

I seriously doubt if the medieval sim where I created content took even one player away from Ultima Online, Warhammer, LOTR, or any of the plethora of medieval- or fantasy-themed MMORPGs out there. Our bastardized, and somewhat chaotic version of medieval-ness, was hardly a coherent "game" in any sense of the word. It was more about dressing up in period clothing, speaking as you think people might have during medieval times, and engaging in some clunkily scripted competitions.

The main attraction of the sim was social interaction, not gaming. Those who want to engage in gaming seek out structured environments at sanctioned MMOs.

I realize the BSG issue is a bit different, in that sims using BSG-related content more likely fit the definition of a derivative work than does a medieval sim that simply borrows from what is really just a thematic time period. My point, however, is not whether BSG sims violate copyright, they likely do, the point is that they don't actually threaten the financial bottom line of the rights holders and, in fact, may enhance it.

While that's clearly not a recognized exception to Fair Use doctrine under copyright law, I would argue that Universal is missing an opportunity to engage their fan base in Second Life and perhaps build upon the work others have done to attract new fans to Battlestar Galactica, much like internet-based fan pages do for actors, musicians, movies, books, and other content.

What do you think? Is Universal Studios cutting its nose off to spite its corporate face? Or, should Linden Labs be more diligent in weeding out any and all types of infringement whenever they find it?

No comments: