Sunday, July 20, 2014

Terms of... not... endearment

One of the things that changed during my period of not being inworld much was LL's terms of service for using SL.  They changed in August 2013, they have just changed again, and the change has not been a good one.

People get het up about terms of service, often unnecessarily.  The fact is, when your beautiful painting of a sunset, or the mesh for your combination screwdriver-coffeepot-and-sex-monkey, is rendered inworld, the data representing it needs to be uploaded and stored on LL's servers, and then downloaded to the viewer of anyone who comes and looks at it.  This requires that data to be moved through a whole network (that there Internet thing, you may have heard of it) of other computers, possibly stored temporarily in places along the way.  Besides the obvious technical challenges, in terms of intellectual property law, LL needs legal permission to do this, and that's where all that bit about granting an irrevocable non-exclusive license for the purpose of providing the service comes in.

Or did.  Back in 2013, LL changed the terms of service to a much broader one, in which any content you create or upload to Second Life can be exploited, reproduced, redistributed, and more, in any manner whatsoever.  Not just for the purpose of getting it from SL Viewer A to SL Viewer B across the Internet.  For anything they like.

(A corollary of this - also enshrined in the new terms of service - is that we have to warrant that we have all the necessary legal rights to permit them to do this!  The problem here is that this is broadly incompatible with a lot of IP law relating to Creative Commons licenses or even public domain works.  Basically, the only things you can be sure won't breach the ToS are... things you have made entirely yourself, from scratch.  All those prims in my tower, where I've covered them with textures bought in from USC and other places?  Dubious, highly dubious.  There is, though, a shovel and a pile of coal on one level, and I made the textures for those, both diffuse and sculpt maps, all by my very own self, so they are fine.)

Now, a lot of people were very upset about this, on the grounds that it constitutes an overly broad rights grab.  There are quite legitimate commercial issues at stake here, too.  There's quite a market out there for 3D meshes of one kind or another, they take time and talent to develop, they have a real commercial value - and if you upload one to SL, then LL now has the rights to sublicense or sell it for themselves, in any manner whatsoever, and if you don't like it, tough.

The inhibitory effects of this on content creators are significant - and SL needs its content creators, like no other online environment does.  Without those creators, SL is literally nothing more than grass, water and sky, studded with people bitching at each other.  Briefly.  Before they give it up as a bad lot and go away to play Minesweeper.

I've been hit by this, in a small way, myself... I know SL book publishers inworld, and it so happens that my idiot mate who got me called Glorf is, in a small way, a frustrated author.  He has unpublished novels, he knows me, I know publishers....  But, under LL's terms of service, putting one of his books inworld would assign almost all his IP rights to LL, forever, with no prospect of recompense, and this is a deal which not even my idiot mate is idiot enough to take.

So, recently, LL has modified those terms of service... and we have read them, and parsed them out, and discovered that the modifying parenthetical clause is stuck in at a point which makes it, essentially, meaningless.  (I don't think I can add anything to the analysis here - which also, incidentally, demonstrates that the ToS is not only rotten English, but fairly rotten legalese as well.)

It is understandable, therefore, that content creators are manifestly Not Happy about this.

One wonders, really, why LL has chosen to go down this route.  The best guess is that it might allow them to transfer our creations over to another service in future, the hypothetical SL2 (still very much hypothetical at this stage).  I can think of other legitimate reasons for some broadening of the ToS, if I put my mind to it.  Perhaps they want to make or license movies set in the world of SL, and don't want to worry about being sued if (for instance) my three-rotor hovering home in Steam SkyCity finds its way into shot.  Perhaps.  I could even be persuaded to accept this reasoning, if it was being presented that way - but it's not.  I'm just speculating.  All we know is that the ToS currently constitutes a grab at all our IP rights over our content.  Which, to put it bluntly, sucks.

LL have given us informal assurances that they would never think about making free with our content in such an unprincipled manner.  The problem is, informal assurances are like verbal contracts - not worth the paper they're written on.  The only formal assurance we have comes from the ToS, and that says they absolutely can make free with our content.

And then there's the attitude of current boss Ebbe Altberg... who has, apparently, claimed that no one has told him what's wrong with the ToS, so LL can't possibly fix it.

It is at this point that I have to be a bit blunter than is my wont.  A lot of people have made it plainly and explicitly clear what is wrong with the ToS.  Granted, they have not all used exactly the same form of words - some of them are angrier than others about different parts of the thoroughgoing rights grab that it constitutes, and say so.  But, overall, the message has been quite clear and unequivocal.

LL is claiming more rights than it needs to provide the SL service, and that has to change.  Not just morally - commercially, too.  It makes no commercial sense for anyone to provide LL with exploitable content for free.

And - which is where I have to be blunt - Ebbe Altberg knows this.  He has heard what people have been saying about the ToS, and there is no way he can not know what the criticisms are.

So, when he says no one's told him what's wrong - well, he is flat out lying.  There.  That is me being blunt.

I really do try not to put the boot into the Lab when they don't deserve it, and I will bend over backwards to give them the benefit of the doubt.  But there comes a time when they do deserve it, and there is no alternative, then, but to draw back the old steel-toecap Doc Martin and let fly.  (Yes, for a job like this, I use my RL shoes.  Though, right now, I would happily step on Ebbe Altberg's feet in my SL stilettoes, too.)

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Slouching toward SL2

I've been spending some time at the SL11B sims, looking around the various builds... the birthday celebration has been offering impressive sights and impressive lag in roughly equal proportions.  I took some snapshots, and may well take more.

Of course, the question is, will there be an SL12B next year, give the latest Epic Controversy That Will Bring About The End Of The Grid, Ebbe Linden's announcement that a successor platform to Second Life is in development?

Well, my guess would be yes... over the past eleven years, SL has built up a heck of a lot of inertia.  People have invested gigantic chunks of time, love, and actual money in it, and they won't easily let that go.  And it's still the major source of revenue for the Lab, and they won't let that go.

However, the announcement that "SL2" won't necessarily be backwards-compatible with existing SL content gives me a little pause for thought.  Like it or not, that positions SL2, in a way, as a [I]competitor[/I] for SL... it will compete with the existing virtual world for my time, my attention, my cash.

... possibly.  We know, as yet, very little about the plans for SL2 - not even whether it will be called SL2.  We know it's planned to be in beta some time next year, we know it won't necessarily be compatible with existing SL - hmm, I say.  To what extent will it not be compatible?

I mean... will existing SL avatars automatically have, or be able to get, SL2 accounts in the same names?  If so, that would be a major plus - the stuff I have in SL, I can happily leave behind: I'm a builder, I can always make more stuff.  The existing relationships between people - groups, friendships, partnerships - are much more important, and if they can make the transition intact, then that's a major obstacle to adoption out of the way.

Of course, I say "I'm a builder", but so far we don't know what sort of inworld creation will be possible in SL2, or even if it will be possible at all!  (But if it isn't... well, the creative aspect of SL is one thing that keeps me coming back.  Losing that from SL2 would be fatal to my interest in the project.)

What won't they keep?  Well, the inertia that will keep SL "classic" going also lumbers it with a lot of stuff that ought to change, but is now far too entrenched and too expensive to update.  I'd expect, frankly, that SL2 would include the creation of an Avatar 2.0 - probably with lots more detail, and more extensive armatures for rigging.  Which would mean that SL classic UV maps for clothing, all existing rigged mesh items, and possibly BVH animation files, would not necessarily be compatible with the new avatar - all that stuff would have to start from scratch.

Whatever build system gets implemented, I wouldn't expect sculpted prims to make the cut, either.  As an interim form between prim-based builds and mesh imports, sculpted prims have their fascination... but, ultimately, the technology for them is a blind alley, and I wouldn't expect a new platform to explore it.

We're told that SL2 will have Linden dollars and a Marketplace, "but better".  This implies to me that our account balances certainly won't transfer over, or be shareable between the two virtual worlds.  That might be another negative, there, in that setting up payment details and making separate payments into the new world is a bit of a hassle.

We don't know much about the technology it'll be using.  There's been talk of SL2 running on mobile devices, which implies a very "thin client" approach.  That might, frankly, be preferable to total-immersion systems using tech like Oculus Rift.  (Although fascinating, Oculus Rift has always struck me as one of those very nifty pieces of technology that are solutions desperately in search of a problem.  Most of us don't have - or even particularly want - lifestyles which permit total immersion in a video game.  I'm a lot happier being able to see the real world out of the corner of my eye, just in case my mother sets the house on fire.)

And we do know that, whatever sort of client is used, it won't be open source, so third party viewers won't be an option (or not easily at least).  I can see the Lab's point of view, there... the benefits and insights gained from TPV development are almost certainly outweighed by the massive amounts of hassle the TPVs have caused over the years, whether from copybotting viewers, or one-off cases like the Emerald fiasco, or maintaining inworld consistency between different viewers, or the bullying behaviour of some TPV advocates... The temptation to have a very simple TPV policy of "no TPVs" must have been irresistible.  (People who absolutely cannot do without the V1.23 interface and its annoying pie menus are cordially invited, here, to take the traditional virtual stepladder and use it for the traditional purpose.)

But, for the most part... we just don't know.  We can speculate six ways from Sunday, and I just have.  Perhaps there will be a glowing portal in the middle of the mainland that we can step through with our current SL identities intact, and the building system will make 1 Land Impact equal to a set blob of voxels that you can manipulate inworld with a Blender-like toolkit - in which case I will be diving through it with my hammer, chisel and blowlamp clutched eagerly in my little paws.  Or perhaps it will be keyed off your RL Facebook or Google+ accounts, and all the creation will be done with mesh imports, in which case you couldn't pay me to touch it.  We just don't know.

It's going to be interesting to find out, though.