« OLPC Laptops Arrive (Updated) | Main | Obviously a Major Malfunction (Updated) »

Second Life, Economic Evolution and the CopyBot

copybot_protest.jpgTwo related quotes from previous Open the Future posts:

When you are able to manipulate atoms as easily as you do bits, the rules of the bit world apply.

The rules we come up with to grapple with virtual objects of real value will haunt us for decades to come, if we're not careful.

The big news from the metaverse this last week has been "CopyBot," an application that allows a Second Life user to duplicate... well, just about anything, including clothing and objects other Second Life denizens have created for sale. James "Hamlet" Au offers a recap of the situation at his New World Notes site; be sure to read the comments to get a sense of how upset many SL residents are about this program.

As Sven Johnson suggests, the important story here isn't about Second Life per se, but about the clash between a scarcity-based economy and an abundance-based world.

The Second Life internal economy was predicated on the notion that designers could produce in-game objects that they could then sell; these objects would ostensibly be scarce (in the economic sense) because the designer could put limits on how many copies s/he would sell, and because -- in principle -- other residents couldn't make copies except by tedious efforts to reproduce a design by hand. Although the only "raw material" involved in the creation of Second Life goods is the memory & storage space needed on the SL server, the capability to design desirable objects serves as a market-generating form of scarcity. No matter that everyone can have the capability to make limitless numbers of in-game objects -- unless you can design something that other people want, you're just making digital junk.

But with CopyBot, these limitations are less meaningful, because it eliminates the barriers to making your own duplicates of other people's designs. It's not tedious or challenging, it's a click of a button. As a result, apparently over a hundred in-game designers have shut down in protest, and threats of lawsuits and copyright-infringement actions are flying.

If the ability to make copies continues to exist, these vendors argue, the basis of the SL economy will be destroyed. And since there's a direct conversion between in-game money and real-world money, anything that weakens the SL economy threatens the real-world economic livelihoods of many SL residents. They're right -- but is the Second Life economy worth saving?

What Linden Lab has tried to do is replicate the atom-world scarcity rules in a bit-world environment. Nobody should be surprised in any way that this doesn't work for long. It is the nature of bits to be easily copied. Even if Linden manages to shut down CopyBot, it will arise again in another form, and probably as something much harder to squelch. The death of Napster becomes the explosion of Gnutella and Bit Torrent; the death of CopyBot will mean the emergence of something more powerful and less easily eliminated. It's delightfully Darwinian.

Bit world economies based on scarcity are inherently fragile, and cannot survive. To the degree that Second Life is a test bed for a future of abundance, then, the way that the Second Life community (both the builders and the players) responds to this reality will give us an early indication of how the real world will respond to the economic challenges of nanofactories and distributed fabrication. The question is, will Second Life be a model of successful evolution or a painful failure to adapt?

(Update: I wrote a follow-up to this article: CopyBot and the Abundance Economy, Revisited)


I haven't visited SL, so take this with a huge grain of salt.

One technical measure that comes to mind is allowing creators to "sign" their work. If SL is anything like other virtual worlds, the creator can be displayed when people inspect the avatar. The objects would remain easily copied, but the meta information would be controlled by the central servers.

This could work because of social pressure. It's branding for the virtual world.

@Daniel. Copybot basically reproduces an object by copying the primitive shapes and rebuilding it from scratch into an identical copy of the object, but the new primitives, and therefore the copy object, now are signed with the copiers name as if it was his original creation. It's quite literally like photocopying a signed artwork but the photocopier alters the signature to your own.

Also, LL did propose an additional branded metatag 'signature' attached to objects in response to this - but even if it could carry them to the duplicate copy object, it would be entirely trivial for the creators of copybot to wipe or replace these signatures - copybot is not a scripted virtual object, it's an external program that essentially replaces the Second Life Client and intercepts and manipulates the data at protocol level.

Hey Jamais - I've been covering this as well, and most of it is a basic misunderstanding of what the Copybot can do (see: http://www.libsecondlife.org/content/view/30/ ) and also a basic misunderstanding of the Terms of Service and Copyright (see: http://www.knowprose.com/node/16654 ).

And this leads to media coverage that is questionable, as well as questions at a meta level (see: http://www.knowprose.com/node/16671 ). Someone even falsely accused the Electric Sheep Company of being behind it (see: http://www.secondlifeherald.com/slh/2006/11/fleeced.html ) which has been corrected only after strong wording within the comments.

No one has actually used copybot to steal anything. This is simply misplaced fear.

I think you may be trying to be pragmatic... but I don't see it quite the way that you do, perhaps because I'm in SecondLife.

There really is no clash of economies related to the copybot. Now if you want to talk about other things... yes... there are. :-)

Scarcity based economies, abundance based economies, how about sufficiency or based economies?

The small scale solar experiments I have been doing results in a minimum sufficiency of light and communication (radio) for one room. Sufficient solar can be seen as a lifetime supply of electricity at least on a minimum level.

This also changes the paradigm in interesting ways.

Not Second Life but somewhat germane, I hope.

KR -- thanks for the clarification.

Taran -- I appreciate the insider's perspective. You're undoubtedly right that the SL economy isn't at risk of imminent collapse because of this, but the point of my screed here is the observation that the application of atom-world/"scarcity" economic rules to a bit-world/"abundance" environment is inherently untenable. CopyBot alone may not be the doom of the current model of the Second Life economy, but it's a sign that doom is in the offing.

Gmoke -- as always, an insightful observation. I'm not sure if there's a technical difference between a sufficiency-based economy and an abundance-based economy, but there's definitely a cultural difference. This is worth thinking about in more detail.

Jamais, I think it's highly debatable whether SL is a scarcity-based economy, to begin with. If you visit SL and explore it at any great length, the immediate thing you'll be overwhelmed by is *stuff*, content of all kinds, high quality stuff, too. That's always been true. (Indeed, there are numerous "newbie junk yards" where clothes, weapons, etc. can be bought extremely cheaply, or free.) So I think it makes more sense to think of SL as a reputation, brand, or even *personality* economy, in which there's a high premium in owning content from the most successful, popular, and/or admired creators. Those are qualities that can't be replicated by CopyBot.

"CopyBot alone may not be the doom of the current model of the Second Life economy, but it's a sign that doom is in the offing."

What?! Seriously, Jamais, there is no premise.

Good questions and observations here, I'll respond in a new post.


Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Powered By MovableType 4.37