Friday, February 6, 2015

Star Trek and the rights and wrongs of intellectual property in Second Life

Before I start this blog I should state that I am not a lawyer, I do not have any expertise in law and this blog is merely my opinion and not advice.

Fan builds - probably acceptable?

For those who have never been in a position to infringe someone's copyright, the law about intellectual property is something vague which mainly relates to pirated music and video, and if you don't use illegal downloads, it probably doesn't take much - or any - of your attention.  In the virtual world, where creation and uploading textures and images is so easy, it may suddenly become very relevant to your world in Second Life or OpenSim or any of the other SL-like virtual worlds which allow you to make and create things.  For many people (including me) it takes a while to sink in that if you upload a picture which you didn't take and don't own to Second Life and put it in a frame, you may be infringing someone's copyright.
Museums - probably like fan sites on the web

Eleven years ago, I didn't understand this automatically, I had to be taught.  It's become even more difficult to understand the written and unwritten rules of intellectual property as time has gone on.  Some companies have had a presence in Second Life and have left behind artefacts and objects which they produced.  Some things are not copyrightable in the real world - clothes, for example - and yet people get very hot under the collar if one SL creator makes something that looks like something another creator has made.  Sometimes it turns out that both have independently copied a real design in the real world.  As clothing is not able to be copyrighted in the real world, it would be very strange if the virtual version of it were subjected to more legal protections.

People use trademarked and copyrighted material all the time in Second Life, and so it becomes accepted that there may be people selling products that resemble real-world stars, real-world tv characters and their props and costumes.  Some people say that this encourages people to be interested in the real-world shows and may be helpful marketing; others say that any use of images and designs is an infringement of intellectual property and should be resisted.
Selling Star Trek stuff
My own opinion, and it is only an opinion, is that that there is no question that the intellectual property behind the designs of - for example - Star Trek in its various guises belongs to CBS Entertainment.  Taking their images and designs without permission or a licence and using them is wrong.  But the unwritten side of the rules is that CBS Entertainment tolerates and even promotes real world fan sites on their own website, possibly because they know that people who are really committed to the Star Terk franchise will buy a lot of their products and promoting a supportive community is a really good way of marketing those products too.  I don't know - it's the gap between the explicit letter of the law (all Star Trek stuff belong to us) and the unwritten laxity of fandom (but you can make yourself a Star Trek uniform and carry a papier mache tricorder and we won't prosecute you).

I don't know what CBS entertainment thinks of the huge number of fan builds and museums and replicas and role playing groups in Second Life.  Some people see them as infringing the copyright, plain and simple. However,  I see the fan builds and fan-made uniforms as the virtual extensions of the fan cosplay in real life.  As long as people have made their own star ship enterprise, or klingon head attachment or tricorder, I am not sure that it doesn't count as an artwork in its own right.

However, for those who are ripping commercial games and sites for meshes of Star Trek stuff, or selling uniforms and attachments without permission... that's a different thing.  It's the difference between making yourself a cosplay Captain Picard outfit and selling Captain Picard outfits on Ebay.

The law about intellectual property in the virtual world is new and relatively untested because no one thus far has made enough money to want to go into battle in court over whether IP rights for real life items like cars and motorrcycles extend into the virtual world automatically, or need claiming separately from real-world copyright design.  There is no question that using someone else's trademarked name for a design is wrong and protected by law in the real world and the virtual.  What is less certain is whether designs for cars and real world objects extend into the virtual world naturally or have to be asserted separately - whether they are the same thing if they look the same, or different because they are ultimately made of pixels, not metal, plastic and rubber.

There is no question that ripping the meshes or textures or animations from a game or an object in Second Life or a website is wrong whatever you do with it.  But I am not sure that making your own tricorder out of prims for your own use is so wrong.  The difficulty comes when you want to find other people in the fan community who share your obsession for Star Trek, because the only way to make contact with them, or attract them to your build, is to use the trademarked name for the show, which infringes the trademark.
Fan build or IP infringement?  Not sure

My own opinion is that probably it suits everyone to have the tolerance of fan creations unwritten and unstated, because anything else would be too complicated legally to administer, and thus very expensive. 

Unfortunately, people coming into SL see people using commercial and copyrighted material all over the world, and assume that it is acceptable to do this.  My feeling is that making your own uniform to enable you to role play in a Star Trek build is fine... selling it is not.  The test of whether you are infringing someone's copyright is certainly not whether you are making money at it, as giving away someone else's IP is just as much an infringement as selling it would be.  But the difference is really like the real-world one, where making your own version of a uniform is acceptable, and selling them off a market stall is not.

In the course of writing this post, I searched for Star Trek and was astonished by the number of tribute builds and RP communities there are in Second Life associated with the franchise.  There is everything from the starship enterprise to isolated communities of Vulcans and colonies of Klingons.  If you have any interest in Star Trek, it is possible to inhabit something like that world, virtually.  And long may it support the communities of fans which are obviously cherished by the programme makers and keep the franchise alive.

Usually I would credit the makers and creators of material and link to their sims.  I'm not doing that in this case because I don't want to single them out particularly, it was just an example to use with a strong fan base in real life and the virtual world.  They know who they are!

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