Chimaera

I have never been much of a political activist. The way I see it, however passionate you are about an issue, politics have a way of wearing you down by making you argue the same things over and over again, until anything you say is but the n-th rehash of things said countless times before. And while repetition might hone your skirmishing skills, each pass blunts your heart as much as it sharpens your tongue.

That, and the fact that I am a hopelessly shallow person of course, have been enough to keep me away from the nitty gritty of political work. Oh, I might cheer and wave, I might even run that first, glorious mile when events are still fast paced and exciting ; but don’t look for me when the going gets slow — unless it is in the boutiques we passed on that first mile. It has always been that way. I have always been that way. 

But life moves in strange ways, especially when you have two of them, and in one of mine at least things have been… different, lately.

Not entirely surprisingly, this has to do with trademarks ; trademarks as made into policy by Linden Lab, and as protested against by so many in the blogosphere. And then again, more surprisingly maybe, it has not. It has not because when all is said and done, what the issue really boils down to is not a silly set of writing rules for bloggers, nor even the presumption to enforce these by brute force if need be, but one simple and far more general question :

What kind of world do we want to live in ?

Yes, yes, I know how that sounds. Don’t call the orderlies yet (later, maybe : being put in a straightjacket and manhandled by burly men, then locked into a cell, only ever to get out for an ice bath or some electric shock therapy … but I digress).

Let me explain what I mean.

To do this, we’ll have to wade through the whole sorry mess one last time. Nothing that follows will makes sense without it. Take my hand ; it’s quite a tour.

On March 24th, Linden Research, Inc. as the operator of the Second Life grid we know and love know, disclosed a new policy regarding the use of their brand names. Immediately noticeable was that this policy voided the previously lenient guidelines for the usage of LL brand names on fan sites, community forums and similar. Suddenly, LL expected anybody whose site title or main URL contained a Linden Research brand name such as Second Life or SL to either change those, or to shut down. A grace period of 90 days was decreed ; no provision was made for grandfathering long established sites created in good faith. In essence, LL said goodbye to the crowdsource marketeers who helped make them what they are today without so much as a « thank you ».

Another part of the new policy was not quite as obvious at first. Under the label « Proper Reference to Linden Lab’s Brand Names in Text », it sported the stock clause of « put the appropriate trademark symbols after the first mention of our brand names if you are under US jurisdiction », only worth of note for the tremendous fun some got out of the judicious use of ™ and ® symbols — and a stinker : a series of rules stating how anybody who wanted to name the trademarked products of LL in writing had to mention them, be it in a research paper, on a non commercial blog, or even on a calling card.

These rules, and it bears exploring them because they are so absurdly detailed, state that « generic nouns » have to be appended to brand names on the first and / or most prominent mention, and as often as possible afterwards, and that most other combinations of words containing brand names are as unacceptable as any textual modification of said names. They forbid not only the much quoted « my Second Life » (you’re meant to write something along the lines of « my life in the Second Life world » instead), but also terms like « Second Lives », « second living », « 2nd Life » « SLife » and many, many more. Presumptuous silliness, probably unenforceable under most jurisdictions and as such easily dismissed — were it not for one fact.

A fact that was crammed down everybody’s throat when LL amended clause 4.4 of the ToS, making quite clear that a breach of the trademark policy amounts to a breach of the ToS. Which meant banning was on the table as a way to circumvent whatever protection against the guidelines local jurisdiction might provide. As residents had to nod off the ToS change when logging on, this chilling fact percolated though the user community, press and blogosphere until early April.

The result was the birth of a motley, informal coalition of protesters. People wanting to keep their domains and names, and people thinking free speech was at stake joined forces, their first action being to help Gwyneth Llewelyn draft her petition to LL. Later came a common agenda for Robin Linden’s office hour on April 8th, which was discussed there at length, mainly by the ever eloquent Gwyn herself as the designated spokesperson of the group. Its core demands were for LL

  1. to make sure nobody is banned without warning for perceived trademark infringements happening in-world
  2. to make sure nobody is banned at all for perceived trademark infringements off-world (there are courts for that) and finally
  3. to find a lenient grandfathering agreement for established community sites.

Robin promised clarification was forthcoming and then … nothing much happened. Now the supporters of the original demand for clarification had said they would go on strike in precisely such a case. And so strike they did, starting August 15th on the dot, for three days.

Nothing much be said of the strike here, except maybe for the irony that its proponents seldom had so much to write about, albeit not on their own blog, and that among the most efficient publicists of the strike were many who opposed it on the grounds that silence is not the right way to attract attention. Suffice to say that it was one of the most controversial things going on in the SL blogosphere for some time, and that besides both strengthening and weakening the assumption that the natural unit of bloggerdom is one blogger, it was as unmitigated a success as it was unmitigated a disaster.

Unmitigated a success because LL actually acknowledged the blogosphere and its worries, which must be a historical first (as my darling Codie put it « Bloggers 1, Lindens 0 ») ; and unmitigated a disaster because what they actually said was « yes, we will ban you ». Of the demands put before them, LL only acceded to one : not banning without notice. Beyond that, they stated clearly that they consider the ToS to apply to out-of-world activities too, and would indeed ban for these, and they reiterated there would be no grandfathering for existing sites.

One out of three is… bad.

But I did say this would only tangentially be about trademarks. I apologise for having taken so long to revisit the situation ; believe me, I have cut and chopped so much already the bloody remains of history are piling up high under my desk.

Look back with me : see the bunch of kids frolicking on the barricades, kitted out in Les Miz costumes to play revolution, exhilarated at their own daring, merrily singing songs of defiance, safe in the trust LL would never touch a hair of the head of its own children ? Nothing had prepared them, nothing had prepared us for the chill that reached our hearts when, on turning around on the very last day, smiles of victory still on our faces, we looked into the mouth of cannons lined up before the barricade. And though the commanding officer called out to us in a friendly voice, it took but a moment to notice her eyes were cold, and that her men never left their post.

It is a funny and sad spectacle both, but it is not all I see, not by a long stretch. In fact, I see far more than kids playing revolution on that barricade (and not only so because the RL counterparts of these kids have passed their fourth decade more often than not). I see people who dared to assert Second Life is a society, and that what happens to that society is theirs to be heard about. And as I watch the doubt grow in their eyes, I hope and pray the resolve they carried in their hearts will grow with it.

Second Life, a society ? Oh yes.

To get one fallacy out of the way right away : yes, of course Second Life is a software service provided by a company based in San Francisco, renting out bandwidth, data storage capacities, and API access to subscribers worldwide. There is absolutely no doubt about that. There is absolutely no doubt either that atomic us are all semi-random accretions of carbon derived molecules temporarily held together by enzymatic activity, in a time frame utterly negligible on a cosmic scale. Both are big, meta type truths we have to accommodate. And in both cases, they do nothing to invalidate what life we have there day for day.

And yes, of course, too, Linden Lab is a company operating within the limits of the global economy and its place of jurisdiction, the State of California, US of A. It has employees and investors. It has to make a profit to stay in business. But this does not change the fact that what from the business’ point of view is the product it offers, oddly looks like the new country Philip Rosedale once stated he was building when taken on its own terms. It’s all a matter of what you are looking at.

Because what the market analyst will call the user base of the Second Life, the user base itself calls residents for a good reason. Look at this service that feels so much like a place  with unclouded eyes for one moment : it has a freely convertible currency pegged to the US $, a thriving economy, a large domestic consumer goods industry covering both base plagiarism and genuine creation ; artists, entrepreneurs, artisans, speculators ; a social stratification ranging right from the Linden aristocracy through the landed gentry, industrious burghers and rentiers to the paupers, prostitutes and thieves ; a varied press comprising news agencies, broadsheets, one man publications and tabloids, even a TV channel ; anything from consumist glossies to high brow discussions by its very own brand of intellectuals. It has fashions and subcultures. It has a frontier of sort, and immigration, as badly managed as its RL counterparts were throughout most of history, too, and often accompanied by the same inimical noises from those who came earlier. And it has a government, a power that reigns supreme over the land and its residents.

It would gain much from accepting what it is — an uneasy hybrid between a business venture and a new world —, but even more from getting what has made modern society what it is today : civil rights, accountability of those in office, justice. None of these exist in here. Laissez-faire does not amount to civil rights ; holding office hours is not accountability of those in office ; an anonymous system of complaints often having no result at all, and sometimes ending with the offending resident being dragged behind the shed to be shot, is most certainly not justice.

All of this is not so by oversight. It is by necessity. To the business, the country has to be, and to remain, its very own private domain, indefinitely. Privi lege (ever wonder about the etymology of the word ?) has to rule supreme. This sits badly with a society growing both in size and complexity, by its very nature becoming more restive as the need for government intervention grows. Between the residents of SL and their government, Linden Lab, the balance is uneasy : to let the powers that be push their agenda and throw ourselves at their mercy, though by that very act we ensure that they will respond to us less and less, eventually turning us into nothing but subjects ; or to push back, adding a factor of our own to the mix they have to take into account. A frightening option, because it literally means risking our existence in this world, but the only one to hold hope for becoming citizens one day. For in the virtual world like in the atomic, freedom is not granted. Freedom has to be won.

So when asked why I cannot stop griping about trademarks, and why I won’t make the oh so small adjustments needed to conform to the new regime, all I can say is : it’s not about trademarks. It’s about how I will not live in the growing shadow of Linden Lab the business, however comfortably, and watch my Second Life being taken away from me, little bit by little bit. Yes, the point I choose to make my stand is arbitrary, though I’d argue that censorship (and what else is it but censorship when a power decrees that only those writing the way it wants will still be allowed on its territory ?) is always worth fighting against. But in the end, I will simply not be boiled like the proverbial frog, just because the water temperature currently still happens to be bearable.

Here I stand. I might be shaking in fear and anger, but my decision is taken : I will see this through to the very end.

Believe me, nobody is more surprised than me.

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6 thoughts on “Chimaera

  1. It is all about the number of residents. On one hand, the more residents there are, more power they have against any oppressing institution. But on the other, it is harder to organize, there are more of those who will not be interested and who will become boiled frogs. I won’t take a guess if Lindens counts with this or just have luck. More important is the question that is on this side of virtual governing. As you asked: What kind of world do we want to live in ?

  2. There is an abyss between LL and the residents, and this abyss is being wider and wider. Sometimes it seems LL forget what is what make Second Life, Second Life is not LL, is the residents, without us Second Life is nothing but thousands of empty sims (ok, in this case with no lag).
    I understand you can’t act in a way that makes happy all the people, but at least try to work to satisfy the most people as possible.

    Some months ago LL recognized the lack of communication between them and the residents and they promised to fix it. Until the moment the only way they find to increase comunication was to install more “Linden Lab speakers” but no “resident microfones”.

  3. It’s a great question Rheta, but I must have missed your answer =)

    What is the world you want to live in? The Wild Wiki World of Second Life? There will always be users disagreeing with any decision, and voice their opinion. Recently Flickr added a neat video tool to their website and guess what – 50.000 users (residents of the Flickr community) said they not only disagreed, they’d refuse to use the service, and started to actively campaign against Yahoo.

    I’m not comparing the 2 campaigns per se, I’m just wondering what your model would be to maintain relations between corporation, who has a very, very clear goal (make more money than they spend, continuation and growth), and a community, sharing 100rds of different visions of what this would would/should be, especially BECAUSE of the kind of commitment you display time and time again 🙂 So far the community has somewhat come to a consensus to disagree with Linden Labs (at least in spirit), but that’s just step 1 of the big plan.

    If anything I’d see you aiming for a completely decentralized world at this point (which is already available), but I don’t want to make any more speculations before hearing what you have to say 🙂

    As for me, my commitment isn’t as big to SL to make this a very relevant question without dwindling into accessibility and more of a wishlist towards a goal of a sustainable, and valuable platform for both business and casual use.

  4. Barney Boomslang has added a great post on the topic on his blog. Though I disagree with him as to the effect of the strike, I am in entire agreement on other points. To quote him :

    Now put those parts together: you are forced to agree to a change of rules that actually widen the reach of the ToS of Second Life beyond the actual grid and into the RL. You don’t have any choice on it — at least if you have inworld content or land. But if you do, every action outside the grid is at least potentially under scrutinity of Lindenlab. Of course they won’t look at all blogs all the time — they don’t have the people to do it and the time to do it. But well, it is handy to have a big fat lever to use when there is some dissent with someone the next time.

    The whole legal situation other blogs talked about is totally irrelevant. They could even be lying through their teeth when talking about having those trademarks. It’s not relevant for you. The only thing relevant is that they created themselves a big fat large stick to hit you with, that reaches far outside the grid and the actual services of Lindenlab, and they force you to personally hand over that stick to them, if you want to continue to access your content.

    […] all the legal talk is irrelevant. You have given them the right to take everything away from you, if you break the ToS.

    I have nothing to add to that.

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