OpenSim is a Free Software re-implementation of the Second Life (SL) virtual world server. The popularity of Second Life and the availability of a Free server (from OpenSim) and a Free client (from Linden Labs, the original authors of SL) means that OpenSim and SL’s scripting language may become the standard for networked virtual reality in the same way that the Apache server and HTML have for networked hypertext.
OpenSim is an excellent project but it has two issues that are of concern for the freedom of OpenSim users. These are not being discussed within the Free Software and web freedom movements, and they need discussing quite urgently before detrimental norms become fixed.
The first problem is that OpenSim is written in C# and allows users to write scripts in C#. There are alternative implementations of some of the less complex parts of OpenSim (in Perl for example), but the main sim (virtual world) engine would be more difficult to replace. Is it worth trying to do so, or at least trying to produce a non-C# alternative in parallel, or are C# and Mono a safe environment for at least this Free Software project?
The second and far more serious problem is Second Life’s existing user restriction mechanisms, its implementation in OpenSim, and how this interacts with ip maximalist calls for further restrictions.
SL objects and scripts are software and/or data, they are owned by their users, and they are run by their users on the server. But Second Life has a built-in DRM-style “no copy/no change” flag system for virtual objects that can remove the freedom of the users of that code to modify and share it.
The flag system is implemented by OpenSim but can be turned off by the server administrator. This is as it should be; the flag system is a restriction that has been rejected in CD, cable TV and other media. It destroys fair use and discourages consumers, destroying the very value it is supposed to protect. But the ability to turn off the flag system disturbs some IP maximalists. And even the flag system is not enough for some IP maximalists who demand encrypted textures and other ridiculous security theatre for Linden Labs’ implementation SL.
The flags are unnecessary for administrators and for rightsholders. Linden Labs and OpenSim operators can claim safe harbor protection under the DMCA, like web hosts and like video sharing sites, and rightsholders can appeal under this system. Calls for further restrictions should be resisted, and the established norms of Fair Use and free use of software espoused and defended. And they are ineffectual for “content creators”, as shapes and textures are ultimately sent over the network to the client anyway.
One solution to “protect” content encumbered by control flags, although more to protect virtual world administrators from endless protests that they are enabling “content theft”, would be a system to strip flag-encumbered objects from a user’s avatar when it teleports into a Free sim (one with the flag system disabled) and restore them when they teleport out. Proper DMCA safe harbor compliance would be preferable, but such a system would answer critics and inform users.
It is possible to establish norms and systems that protect the freedom of users of virtual worlds while obviating the demands of ip maximalists. For both the freedom of users and the profits of rightsholders Networked Virtual Reality should be like the World Wide Web not the old walled-garden dial-up network services that lost to it.
So, in summary.
1. Decide whether C# and Mono is the best environment for OpenSim and if not what can be done.
2. Resist calls for stronger restrictions on users and explain why they are counter-productive.
3. Establish that control flags are legally unecessary, destroy users rights and will depress adoption and exploitation of worlds.
4. Establish DMCA/EUCD best practice for OpenSim operators and implement code to support this.
5. Implement control flag firewalls that strip and restore restricted content when avatars teleport to and from a sim.
6. Establish both software and web user/data freedom standards for OpenSim users and promote them as part of the value of OpenSim.
7. Promote the use of Free Software and Free Culture licences within virtual worlds for scripts, objects and textures.
8. Reframe the terms of the debate using the growth of Free Software, the Web, and online music sales as counter-examples to IP maximalist claims.
Free Software and free Culture advocates and organizations such as the Free Software Foundation, Creative Commons, The Open Knowledge Foundation and autonomo.us must step up to this urgent task.