When Gospel Voom was approached by a client to recreate a highly detailed, three-dimensional section of the famed French Quarter in New Orleans for use in the virtual online community of Second Life, I'm sure the last thing on his mind was that he would end up fighting a battle to protect his intellectual property rights.
Voom (his chosen Second Life name), is a London-based industrial designer in real life with over 14 years of professional experience, who has developed, among other things, a variety of projects for universities and businesses in Second Life. So it was as a real-life businessman that he was careful to communicate the terms of his commission with his client, on more than one occasion, to ensure he would retain and protect his creative rights and credit.
And yet, despite working for six months and following all the by-the-book contract negotiation assurances, after Voom completed and turned over the final "Orleans Blues" product, along with a backup copy, to his client, only a few weeks passed before he signed on to Second Life one day to find his message system filled to capacity with friends and fans asking where the Orleans Blues project went to. Then he noticed his original work was returned to his Lost and Found folder -- all in pieces.
Voom investigated and found that the original work had been deleted and the location it resided at sold. He contacted the client, who said she deleted it when it was losing money. Not long after, Voom learned from friends that an identical version of his work under the name "nawlins" was seen outside of Second Life on another community site called OpenLife, but that the work did not carry his credit as a creator.
Asked how nawlins was made, one of the owners said the majority of the work was created in OpenLife, with a few parts brought in from Second Life. Considering the above events and the timeline involved, the owner's explanation seems dubious at best. More likely, a CopyBot program to collect and move Voom’s project in its entirety was used.
Voom attempted to reach Sakai OpenLife, the site’s founder, to inquire about nawlins, but was unsuccessful in getting a response. Additional efforts from another source revealed Sakai felt the matter was a private dispute between Voom and the Second Life client who had sold the work.
When informed that Voom intended to file a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) grievance against his former client, Sakai responded that it would look badly for Voom to do so. Others disagree and have rallied around Voom for justice in what appears to be a blatant violation of his contract and creative rights.
On a broader scale, protecting intellectual content even in Second Life has become an issue. For products created in Second Life, pixels may be the unique means by which the product is visually assimilated and stored as code, but the basic creations are protected by legal measures such as the DMCA in America and the European Union Copyright Directive (EUCD). The degree to which these rights are successfully enforceable is another matter, but it is important and reassuring to have these measures in place, because wherever the creativity meets commerce, you just know there will to be a dispute to follow.
Hundreds of major universities, school systems, charities, and corporations are venturing into virtual worlds for networking, educational purposes, conferences, product development, marketing, and branding efforts. You'll see the likes of Cisco, Dell, Disney, IBM, Reuters, Sun Microsystems, and Telecom Italia advancing their names and products in Second Life. Even Northrop Grumman uses it for training and prototyping.
It's a safe bet that many of these major players wouldn't have come to Second Life if they felt their assets were at risk. You can bet, too, that they will be watching with keen interest as Voom's not-so-virtual odyssey continues to unfold.
— Scot Sterling has worked as a graphic designer and art director for more than 20 years in both staff and freelance capacities in New York City, Dallas, Houston, Singapore, and Bangkok.