Content & Licensing in Virtual Worlds

We are seeing an increase of something that we find disturbing on many levels: self-created licenses for content.

The reasons we find these licenses is disturbing are many: in general, content creators are not lawyers, nor do they seek legal counsel in developing their license agreements.  These agreements are often poorly framed or worded. The agreements do not indicate what legal jurisdiction and what laws of what country govern them.  And, scariest of all, some of these licenses attempt to ‘reverse engineer’ previous licensing agreements.

Any software developer will understand why licenses cannot be changed after something has been issued.  Others will have used that original bit of code issued under one license, which has its own unique set of requirements and restrictions.  These users may have even created a product that incorporates the original bit of code.  If coders were allowed to change their original license terms, that means that anything created with that original bit of code would also be subject to these new terms, which might be more restrictive than the initial license agreement. Trouble, heartache and grief and legal strife lies that way, and so once something has been released under one license, that is the license that governs its use for all time.

Likewise, content creators can’t change their license terms after the fact.  We see this increasingly with content creators who have been developing for Second Life®, where they are suddenly changing their terms of agreement for previous purchasers.  Unfortunately, licensing doesn’t work that way. If you license content under one agreement, you cannot legally to make a unilateral change in the licensing agreement unless you have included language to this effect in the original license.

It’s just like the coders with their software licenses: if they were allowed to change the license type, that change would create a legal and administrative nightmare and no one would use their code as a result.   Users would be afraid to, since they wouldn’t know if they had to try to track everywhere that code was used, in what products, and how the licensing might change the usefulness and applicability.

Since most of these licenses are not developed by actual lawyers, but by the content creators themselves, those agreements are missing certain critical and important terms…such as a clause enabling the content creator to make changes to the licensing agreement at will with appropriate notification to purchasers of that content going forward.

We have been working with a team of American Bar Association lawyers for the past 18 months, developing legal templates that content creators will be able to use as a ‘jumping off’ point for their own agreements.  These agreements are only suitable for organizations or individuals who are based in the United States, and of course, legal counsel should be sought to help further develop them. Towards the end of October, we will be publishing these legal templates for content creators to use in developing their own legal agreements for licensing.

We will also be publishing our legal primer for content creators, which is intended to help content creators navigate the murky waters of content creation and licensing for OpenSim-based worlds.

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5 thoughts on “Content & Licensing in Virtual Worlds

  1. Pingback: Oct. 14 2010: Resources for Consolidating in SL and Exploring OpenSim Grids — Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable

  2. you can make changes to your licensing, something Linden Lab continues to do. but you can also “win back” your rights that you originally agreed to in court (not a very reasonable way to approach this)

    there are many existing licenses to use and even a license generator on the creative commons site. if people are not clever enough to use that resource, then i would not use any of their content (red flag that they are flaky imo)

    not issuing a license may also be a better approach. for example, anything i publish online is immediately afforded international copyright protection, i do not need to declare it formally. i get a kick out of legal departments that still insist on using the phrase “All Rights Reserved.” something that was superceded 60 years ago by new copyright conventions . . .

    i applaud you for your work on creating templates, but as i stated above, i would use CC created licenses above any third party advice

    • Fashion Research Institute has its own license we use. It was developed by our legal team, and it precisely governs how we are licensing our rights in our copyright. We don’t like Creative Commons licenses for our content because a CC license does not address each right in the copyright individually. It’s fine for people without a legal team; our license we use for our business is excessive for the typical content creator.

      Copyright and license are not synonymous. Copyright (in the US at least) exists the moment a creator fixes a work into tangible form. License, on the other hand, governs the use of one or more of the rights included in the full copyright bundle. You do not need to declare your copyright formally unless you plan to take legal action to protect it in the event of infringement of your rights under copyright or infringement of your license of your copyright.

      CC doesn’t provide templates for things like ToS, EULA, region covenants and other legal forms. We’re taking a rather broader and more visionary approach to the issues of licensing and legal considerations, which includes providing templates for grid operators as well as for content creators.

  3. What do you think about the constantly changing terms of service which define a sort of license for you can do with Second Life content? It used to be that a full permission object could be exported without a hitch, and even on permission restricted content we used to be able to view the object parameters.

    Now we see the terms of service and third party viewer policies receiving constant edits in an effort to better control in-world content and prevent a mass exodus to OpenSim grids.

    Is it reasonable for Linden to change the licensing of all existing content with a simple addition to the terms of service?

    There are so many technicalities to consider here, and Linden are trying to enforce two different policies which greatly conflict on what kind of licensing rights we really have on our content.

    • Linden Lab maintains a proprietary platform, Second Life, which the Lab develops and maintains. There has always been a clause in the ToS and EULA that enables them to make changes to their agreements. While one may or may not like these changes, they can do so at will within an appropriate amount of time as defined by their legal jurisdiction. If one does not like their terms of service, they need not be constrained to continue to use their service. It is, after all, proprietary and the ToS and EULA are de facto going to favor Linden Lab.

      As to whether or not its reasonable for the Lab to change their policies, it is their platform, not the user’s. No one is forcing a user to use Second Life, and the user can choose to depart at any time, leaving whatever content they may have created.

      With regards to full permission objects in Second Life, you can still transfer content which you yourself have created. If you did not originally create the content in question, and you do not have an ironclad legal agreement with the originator stating that the content you are acquiring is work for hire where the copyright is transferred along with the actual work, then the odds are good that what you actually ‘purchased’ was not the full rights to the content, but rather a nonexclusive, nontransferrable license to use that content per the original creator’s intention. Your statement that a full permission SL object was ‘transferred without a hitch’ as you put it only meant it was technically capable to be transferred …but one wonders if it was transferred legally. Some content creators allow their work to move to other platforms. Others do not. You would need to check with the original creator to see what their license allows. You should always have good legal counsel define license agreement. Lawyers think about these sorts of contingencies and help protect both creator and purchaser.

      Content licensing is very different from the legal agreements made by platform operators. It’s closer to the licenses for software. As software coders will tell you, they cannot change the license terms under which they release code which may be incorporated into derivative products. You are not incorporating the Second Life platform into derivative products, so changes in the Linden agreements shouldn’t have an impact on your licensing of content. Linden is free to make any changes they wish to the agreements governing their proprietary platform. If you do not like their changes you need not use the platform.

      We develop on the OpenSim platform because we have complete control over our content until we’re ready to license it You may want to choose a platform that also suits your needs.

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