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The Second Life Foundation

One topic of the interview with Philip Rosedale at SLCamp was (of course) the change of the trademark policy for the Linden Lab trademarks such as „Second Life“, „SL“ and so on. Here is a quote from Philip from the transcript:

The simplest thing we are trying is to be a common, public good (such as Wikipedia). Even in those cases like Second Life and Wikipedia, you still have a name and a brand and there is a difficult question there. Because, for the benefit of every one, we cannot assign collective administration of Second Life as a brand to 10 million people. I know of no management infrastructure that could reasonably do that. What would you use? Voting?

I think this is not the issue. First the question is: What does control mean? Is it defining the message? There is actually no such thing as „controlling your message“ anymore. Maybe there never was. No company can really control their message. The message is defined by the people. What they think about the product, what they make out of that product. This is of course especially true for a world which the residents shape. So even if Linden Lab tries and tries, they can never set the message. E.g. they can say „It’s not game“. If everybody thinks, it is a game, then it is (or vice versa).

There is of course the logo and this stands out. It will be associated automatically with whatever message is out there. It is also unlikely that somebody can take over the message as there is just the huge population of people and esp. bloggers who keep the general message up.
Thinking of this it might maybe even counterproductive to weaken this mass of „messagers“ by limiting their use of the terms „Second Life“ and „SL“.

So I don’t think you need to give the „administration“ of the brand to the user, you just need to
keep an (maybe adjusted) fansite policy. You need to allow people to use the name of the world they helped to create.

He goes on saying

…basically what we want to is provide a minimum amount of reasonable protection so that it doesn’t become completely unregulated, Something that everybody uses in a way that maybe the entire community doesn’t want.

Now I usually don’t like picking words but when using „everybody“ then he cannot put it into opposition to „the entire community“ ;-) If everbody uses it in some way then this is the message. No trademark law or control of any entity can ever stop that (esp. in an internet age).

He also says though:

There is an interesting question which is, is there a way that you can actually not have any ownership of the brand but I think the challenge here is that this is be the best outcome for the broad community.

Apparently I don’t agree and think he should pursue this idea further. A small group of people controlling something for a whole community is never the best outcome. Even if everybody would be happy right now what it Linden Lab changes to some evil corp in 3 years (when SL is even bigger)?

Trademark and Open Source

Who owns the name also has implications on Open Source efforts. When companies open source their product this always is an issue. Questions might come up like „when there’s bad times for a company and they change their TM policy to the worst case, what should we do?“. Imagine you are not allowed anymore to use this name for the Open Source project. Not a good outlook. And I actually experienced this in a project where this was a big problem for the community (and the developer community is smaller so it in fact does matter a lot more). If you want to keep the community on the long run and want to minimize the chance of a source code fork you should also make them co-owners of the whole project.

Speaking of ownership: Also the issue of code ownership comes into play. Right now everybody who submits code to Linden Lab has to sign a contributor agreement, giving Linden Lab the right to relicense that code under a different license (like a commercial one as they did for Electric Sheep for their custom viewer). This recently also raised some discussions on the sldev-Mailinglist in which even Richard Stallman participated. The question at hand was „If I submit code how can I make sure it’s also used in the free version and not only in a re-licensed one“ because you don’t want to code for a closed client of whomever (read the full discussion starting here).

So code ownership is maybe even more important. The existing code of course is still out there but should Linden Lab decide to stop this project the whole process of creating legal structures around it will begin again and it will not be easy. Beside that contributors might eventually feel betrayed.

Trademark and open protocols

The other thing Linden Lab is working on with the community is the SLGOGP. This stands for „Second Life Grid Open Grid Protocol“. Please note the use of the trademark (which makes this sound so strange). Here basically the same problem applies but even more so. If you want to be the thought leader and want as many people as possible (virtual worlds vendors in this case) then having „Second Life“ in it’s name is definitely counter-productive. Beside that the same sentiments like with Open Source apply of course.

What is the solution?

This is the big question. And I am not saying I have the solution but I would like Linden Lab to think about a solution. They are pioneers in creating a working virtual world, they should be pioneers in making is self-sustainable.

So I wonder if a foundation would be the way to go. Many Open Source projects to that (e.g. there is the Plone Foundation which even got some help from Eben Moglen to get started but there of course many more). Many initiatives around standards (e.g. OpenID, OpenSocial) do that as well.

If there would be such a thing it could:

  • hold the trademark name and set liberal policies on it’s use
  • own the code of the Second Life client
  • handle all the Contributor Agreement stuff
  • own the text written for the open protocol
  • own the name of this protocol

Now of course the issue will be what Philip said, how to control all this with the community. And here we don’t talk about just the brand but also about code and protocols. This will be complicated for sure but I see something like that as the only way for the future. I am actually not sure who is the „owner“ of the word internet or web but I imagine somebody want to change some trademark policy on them! I am also not sure if the name „Second Life“ will stick for this (probably not as it’s too special) but going forward now would save Linden Lab a spot in being in the game.

Last but not least this I would also assume this to be very important for a virtual world community. This is different than the web (at least at the moment) as it’s not just a tool. There is much more passion, creativity and all that involved. The more important it is to put this on solid blocks. The more important it is that people don’t feel betrayed in the end (like „Hey thanks for building this world and this name, now we take over because you know, we can“)

As said it wo
n’t be easy but I also wouldn’t expect every Second Life resident to become a member. I also wouldn’t expect this to be the last legal entity discussion around. In the end there will be many entities just like around the internet and the web.

All in all though, RL governments manage to govern their world, there are institutions which handle the internet apparantly successfully (otherwise you wouldn’t be able to read this) and thus I am positive.

There just needs to be the will to do that!

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