December 17, 2009

A short history of copying

[This is a post I made for Rez Magazine in July 2009. Since Rez Magazine is closing down, I saved the post for my own blog.]

Copying is a fact. Copying has happened over the millenia. The first cavemen copied fire from lava flows or burning trees. Cultural advancements were based on copying. Things like a number system and written language got copied. Copying helped win wars. Copying helps fighting AIDS in Africa. Copying comes with a whole variety of names like "learning" or "inspiration". Babies copy their parent's behaviour when growing up. Copying is deeply ingrained in the human nature.

I am not saying copying is right. People spend a lot of time and effort into creating things for commercial gain. Those people have all the rights to be extremely pissed if someone copies them and threatens their business model. Again it is not as black and white as it seems, when it comes to cases were the copy is superior to the original, or where the original is so simple that it could be considered as public domain, but that is a different blog post altogether. Someone whose fruits of labor get copied should have a way to seek compensation, and most countries have legislation in place where this can be achieved. The machinery grinds a bit when it becomes international or when different standards come into play, but basically it works.

Exact digital copies change the game

Admittedly, the digital technology we have since the Seventies/Eighties makes copying extremely easy. While copying a painting by a Dutch Master took the contemporaries an equal, if not longer amount of time and work, copying a DVD in 2009 is a matter of 30 minutes instead of the 15 months the movie making needed, not to mention the cost. If you look at copying as an arms race, the side of the copiers has quite an advantage nowadays.

The answer to this is Digital Rights Management - DRM. It's the technological answer to the technological reality of exact digital copies. But DRM is nothing more than an illusion of security. DRM puts up a huge smokescreen and repeats the mantra "You are safe, you are safe" over and over. It's the 21st Centuries equivalent of dried frog pills and love potions. If digital content is to be consumed by humans apart from being encoded digitally it needs to be decoded again. And the decoding process can be reverse engineered, and sooner or later will be reverse engineered. So while DRM does not discourage the determined, it does however annoy the compliant customers by limiting their experience.

What is the best protection?

What is your best protection against being copied? Innovation! Let's take the fashion industry - a prime target of copying not only in the atomic world but also in Second Life. What Diesel or Armani or Calvin Klein or Gucci show on the catwalks in Milan and Paris will flood the trash boutiques on High Street all over the world a few months later as copies "inspired by...". The large labels are definitely not thrilled about that, but do they call for "Design Rights Management"? Do they ask that at airports or railway stations or in police controls, women get stripped who wear copied dresses? No. Do they demand show trials where women who bought copycatted dresses get charged for thousand times the worth of the dress? No! They do two things:
  1. From the commercial side they make their initial, innovative releases incredibly expensive. This enables the folks who can afford them to feel part of a rich elite, as well as as cover the design and production cost plus a hefty margin.
    Or they may take the approach of going for the masses, showing their new creations on the catwalk only to sell it by the millions themselves as long as they have the head start.

  2. While the copycats pick up on the new releases and the sales of the old collection starts to dwindle, they are already busy making the next collection, working on new designs, only to surprise the fashion world with their new creations in Milan or Paris again. They either sell few for high prices, or many for low prices, they collect their margin, eventually they get copied but by then they have their next collection in the works already. Lather, rinse, repeat.


From the atomic to the virtual world

Let's finally come to Second Life, a world with a DRM system weaved into the very fabric of the system. The DRM system was certainly part of the success of SL, since for a while it gave content creators security and a commercial model that allowed them to receive economic gain for their work. I do not blame anybody for believing this system was foolproof. Not everybody is technically interested, and the advocates of DRM never stop claiming that DRM is safe and the answer to all problems.

However it was only a matter of time until the inherent vulnerabilities got exploited. Intercepting the the OpenGL protocol to retrieve textures was the first step, working on the viewer protocol to retrieve prim parameters and other attributes only the second step. Rika Watanabe made a short but drastic summary what can be copied and what can not be copied. It should be mandatory to read for every content creator.

Was it foreseeable that copying happened? Yes. Could it have been prevented? No. The way Second Life works is that your viewer gets a kind of blueprint, and recreates what your avatar sees locally on your computer. And for that, all parameters and all textures need to be transferred to you. The only way to prevent this would be if the Second Life servers would transfer only frames of a kind of movie to you - every action would happen inside the server. And this is simply not feasible.

Accepting copying as inevitable is one thing. Making it too easy is another thing. Burglary is as inevitable, but you don't leave your door open to make it easier for the thief. So when earlier this week UK-based metaverse development company Rezzable announced the release of BuilderBot, a tool that could copy a whole sim regardless who owns the items on it, emotions ran high. Rezzable back paddled two days later, announcing it will keep the source code of the program under tabs and implement DRM conformity. The discussion is the same since over a year ago the tool "Second Inventory" was released. In its first versions, "Second Inventory" did not bother as well who the creator of items was. Quickly, the author was convinced to include DRM checks as well.

As of today, copying of all content from Second Life (with few exception - see Rika's article linked above) is possible for everyone. However, special technical understanding is required not many people possess. Tools like "Second Inventory", export features like included in the Gemini Viewer or BuilderBot, aimed for the masses, limit copyable content to content you created yourself or where you have full modify rights for. And I think this is good as it is. You can't prevent the determined from copying, but that does not mean to make the technology available to all.

Getting copied sucks. Getting copied hurts. Getting copied wants you make to drop everything and go lick your wounds. But it is a fact, and throwing technology at the problem will not prevent it from happening, but make life more difficult for the legitimate users. If you got copied, by all means, report the person and seek legal action if possible. But stop asking for a technical solution, because there can't be a technical solution!

Copybotters don't innovate! Copybotters can only feed on what actually exists. Beat them with what you can best: create! Create amazing content for Second Life! Refine your skills. Don't waste energy on worrying about being copied. Use the energy to innovate. Be ahead of the copybotters. Don't focus on people who don't buy in your shop anyways (those who buy copied content), focus on the people who are willing to spend money! Don't let the copybotters win. Show them you are better, faster, more innovative.

Stop worrying now. Start creating now!
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