Friday, January 31, 2020

Top Stories of The 2010s, Part Four

By Bixyl Shuftan

This is the fourth of our series of some of the top stories of the 2010s. For part one, Click Here. For part two, Click Here. For part three, Click Here.

The Content Creation Terms of Service Controversy

When content creators build things on Second Life, they allow Linden Lab a certain amount of control over their goods. Some is necessary as glitches on the Grid can easily mess up products and it takes the Lab to be able to manipulate the content to be able to fix it. There's also that when trying to market Second Life, the Lab will use pictures of the content others have made (as do online newsletters covering the virtual world). And for years, of people's creations inworld, the Lab had "rights to use it in Second Life and not much more," which practically everyone thought was reasonable, if not desirable.

Then in September 2013, word began going around about a certain change in Second Life's Terms of Service.

[..]you agree to grant to Linden Lab, the non-exclusive, unrestricted, unconditional, unlimited, worldwide, irrevocable, perpetual, and cost-free right and license to use, copy, record, distribute, reproduce, disclose, sell, re-sell, sublicense (through multiple levels), modify, display, publicly perform, transmit, publish, broadcast, translate, make derivative works of, and otherwise exploit in any manner whatsoever, all or any portion of your User Content (and derivative works thereof), for any purpose whatsoever in all formats, on or through any media, software, formula, or medium now known or hereafter developed, and with any technology or devices now known or hereafter developed, and to advertise, market, and promote the same. You agree that the license includes the right to copy, analyze and use any of your Content as Linden Lab may deem necessary or desirable for purposes of debugging, testing, or providing support or development services in connection with the Service and future improvements to the Service.[..] 

To many, this looked like a power grab by Linden Lab, saying it reserved the right to take people's hard-made content and sell it without contacting the maker in any fashion. Some accused the Lab of acting out of greed. Others felt the Lab was unlikely to just up and sell people's intellectual property outside Second Life, but these poorly-written terms ought to be changed as soon as possible to stop the loss of confidence of content creators. Still others called it an act of stupidity, "Other companies manage to sell digital merchandise without making the artist surrender their rights to their creations - the only thing they actually own. If LL cannot accomplish the same thing, then not only do they forfeit the right to claim to be a visionary tech business, but they will forfeit the right to be in business at all." Aeonix Aeon (Will Burns) speculated this was likely a long-term "exit strategy" by the Lab for the day they no longer felt Second Life would be profitable, selling what they could of the users content after closing the Grid.  He compared it to the owners of a warehouse where publishers go to store their books claiming equal rights to the contents. The slogan "Your World, Your Imagination" he felt no longer accurately applied to Second Life.

The Lab's initial response was to issue a long and wordy statement, saying their intention was to "unify the existing terms of service for our various products into a single version." They would go on to say they respected the rights of content creators expressing their "regret that our intention in revising our Terms of Service to streamline our business may have been misconstrued by some as an attempt to appropriate Second Life residents’ original content." But there was no change in the terms of service.

People in and out of Second Life would respond in various ways. CGTextures, a website for 3D artists, would state it was no longer allowing it's content to be used for Second Life goods, "The new Second Life ToS is simply incompatible with our own Terms of Use." They stated they contacted Linden Lab, and got only "nameless, canned replies … Apparently they don't care about this problem, so we don't see how we can come to a solution." Bryn Oh and other exhibitors resigned from the Linden Endowments of the Arts' committee, "As it stands now I don't feel comfortable luring artists into creating content for Linden Labs who can pretty much do whatever they want with it."

Tuna Oddfellow and Shava Suntzu responded by closing down their Odd Ball performances in Second Life, "Dear Linden Lab -- it's been a nice eight years, but you just broke the social contract with me as a creator in Second Life BIG TIME." Shava expressed her fear that should Linden Lab go bankrupt, that the intellectual property of it's users, such as the builds and images used in the Odd Ball, would end up taken away by it's creditors. They would take their show to the second-largest virtual world, Inworldz, for a time. Qarl Fizz, the former Qarl Linden, announced in his blog that he had deleted his sim, citing Linden Lab's new Terms of Service in regards to content creators, "i can imagine nothing more despicable. truly, you have become the most craven of the internet low life. i can hardly imagine where you might go from here - nigerian scam spams to your users, perhaps?" I myself would comment between the Lab trying to shut down third-party Linden exchangers a few months before and now this move, it was continuing to erode the trust of it's customers.

One of the more important responses was the formation of the "United Content Creators of SL" group, led by Kylie Sabra (Kylie Angel Skyborne) on Sept 29. It would hold a legal discussion in mid-October. Among the things brought up was a seldom-mentioned part of the ToS change, that the Lab could sue a third party in someone's name and act as the person's attorney. Linden Lab's actions were called part of a trend in social median, a number of companies such as Facebook demanding more control of their users' content. While there was the possibility of taking the matter up with the FCC or a lawsuit, Kylie felt the latter was unlikely to succeed as in recent years California law, which Linden Lab fell under, had been more friendly to arbitration agreements. What was the most likely to succeed was a peaceful resolution with Linden Lab.

The UCCSL would send Linden Lab an open letter. Days later, someone from the Lab would respond. It declined their request for an open meeting, "We believe that it would be more fruitful to avoid further debate of the assertions made to date regarding the intent and effect of our updated Terms of Service." But they did say they were "currently reviewing what changes could be made that would resolve the concerns of Second Life content creators." Kylie was initially optimistic, but her later messages to Linden Lab would go unanswered. On January 30, she stated that she had concluded "Linden Lab has no intention of making any change to the Terms of Services." She would step down from the group in March, saying in her last statement the Lab had caused lasting damage with it's relationship with comment creators, "we will never again feel that we are partners in this endeavor with Linden Lab: We will never again trust so blindly as we once did."

But behind the scenes, Linden Lab was going through a change. In mid-January, The company's CEO Rod Humble left Linden Lab, no one outside the company knowing until he made a Facebook post about it days later. The Content Creator ToS Controversy would be one of the darker moments of the Lab under the tenure of CEO Rod Humble, and cloud his legacy.

The new CEO, Ebbe Altberg, would address the issue at the VWBPE conference in April, saying he was looking for a solution. Just as importantly if not more, he spoke more about the issue that hour than the company had in months, which gave residents concerned about the issue new hope. Finally in July 2014, after almost a year after the controversial change had been made, Linden Lab finally revised the wording of it's Terms of Service in regards to content creators. Some of the wording was iffy enough to make a few people hesitate to say the issue was finally over. But most were finally satisfied, and the controversy faded into Second Life history.

In an interview in October 2014, Ebbe Linden felt the main problem wasn't what the Lab intended for a Terms of Service update, but "the way it was rolled out." For the residents however, this was another big example of how by accident or design the Lab had a way of unnecessarily angering it's customers. While later Terms of Service changes would raise a few eyebrows, this would be the last time, at least in the 2010s, such a change created this level of outcry. Exactly why Linden Lab dragged it's feet on the issue for months can only be speculated on. Maybe they were feeling "ignore it and it will go away," or maybe they didn't truly realize what a mess they had on their hands. If so, Kylie Sabra and others are deserving of thanks for keeping the issue in the headlines for as long as they did.

The Rise and Fall of InWorldz

While Second Life may be the most successful virtual world, it hasn't been the only one. Early on, Second Life had some competition from "There." But it never did capture the media spotlight like Linden Lab's world, and shut down in March 2010. This meant that the alternative to Second Life were the various OpenSim worlds. By 2010, two were standing out from the rest, Avination and InWorldz. InWorldz was the more successful of the two. I took a look at it that year, but at the time I couldn't stay there more than a few minutes. Trying again a few months later, I was able to stay on and look around.

So what was InWorldz like? Someone compared it to like Second Life but with fewer bells and whistles and fewer people. The people making their virtual homes there, I had the impression many were attracted to the place as sims were cheaper than Second Life and/or they were fed up with Linden Lab. I imagine for some it was what they saw as a happy medium, smaller than Second Life, but larger than the other OpenSim worlds.

I would pay only a little attention to the place for a couple years afterwards, although did mention there were events going on there. Om January 2012, it would reach a total of fifty thousand users. In May 2013, the number had grown to 75,000. Many of these were probably Second Life residents who came over to get an occasional curious glance like myself. But as only just over a hundred were online at once, I was somewhat skeptical about the place as a source of news for a publication centered on Second Life.

Then came 2013, when Linden Lab made two controversial moves that upset many residents, the Third Party Currency Exchanger ban and the Content Creator Terms of Service controversy. With their way of buying Linden dollars now in jeopardy, some communities made up of residents outside the US began talking about moving to another grid. And when Linden Lab appeared to some to be saying, "anything you bring here is OURS to take and sell as we wish to anyone," some residents began feeling it was time to make a place for themselves elsewhere. And InWorldz would get a lot more attention from the residents of Second Life.

The first big name in Second Life to make the move was Tuna Oddfellow, whom closed the Odd Ball in Second Life and moved it to InWorldz. Their first event in October went without much trouble. In November, an InWorldz Connection Center run by Zia Larnia sprung up to help residents from the larger virtual world more at ease with transitioning over. When it suddenly closed a month later when Zia's partner up and left, Nydia Tungsten would open "The Grid Walkers Welcome Center" with her help. Nydia, along with a number of my friends in the Sunweaver/Angel community were getting increasingly uneasy with Linden Lab's blunders, and felt it was time to set up a "lifeboat" in InWorldz as a place to go to if the Lab shut Second Life down. On Saturday November 30, there would be an "InWorldz Discussion Group" chat to answer questions.

With more attention on InWorldz, I began finding out a few things. One was that Wingless furry avatars were available in one location. Luskwood would also give you a copy of an avatar you bought in Second Life to your InWorldz account if you requested. The Relay for Life was holding a second fundraiser season in the smaller virtual world. Club Fur would be duplicated in Inworldz in Oct 2013. The Podex virtual currency exchanger would offer it's services to InWorldz in Jan 2014. I would end up interviewing InWorldz founder Beth Reischl (known as Elenia Llewellyn inworld). Between this extra attention on InWorldz and the desire of some readers and writers to talk about gaming, there wound be a new SL Newser section: Other Grids and MMOs, later changed to Other Grids, MMOs, and Games. And over time, InWorldz numbers would grow to almost 90,000 in November 2013, and 100,000 on May 2014. When InWorldz had it's fifth anniversary celebrations in March 2014, it was those of an up and coming grid that looked like it had a bright future.

But things were about to change. In January 2014, Rod Humble stepped down as CEO, and in February Ebbe Altberg took his place. Linden Lab under Altberg became more talkative to people, and among the first things he announced was that the controversial changes in the Terms of Service in regards to content creators would be undone. And in July they were changed to the satisfaction of most.

With the reasons InWorldz was getting more attention now relaxed, residents in Second Life became less inclined to hop over. The Relay for Life would continue to hold events there. But overall attention fell. With Linden Lab announcing the development of their next-generation virtual world Sansar, perhaps attention that would have otherwise been paid to InWorldz by residents of Second Life was focusing there. The Newser itself would continue to pay a little attention to InWorldz, but not as much. The numbers of active users would go up and down some, then in Spring 2015 start a decline that would continue. The number of sims would spike in mid-2015, then start to decline. The decline in sim numbers was slower than the numbers of active users, though. Then InWorldz found itself facing competition not just from Second Life, but another OpenSim world. Kitely grew rapidly in just a few years to become about half InWorldz size in the number of registered users. By 2015, the two grids were about equal, and in 2017 Kitely had become the largest of the OpenSim grids. Another grid, Avination, which was a competitor for the largest OpenSpace world in their early days, was the target of theft by criminals, and then hit by a "catastrophic" data failure that led to it going under in 2017.

InWorldz itself began making some moves that raised more than a few questions. This had begun early on when in August 2013 their General Discussion forums were closed, citing an increased activity of trolling and hateful posts that was taking time and effort to moderate them away from their activities in keeping up the grid. In April 2017, they announced they would no longer publish their statistics of how many regions or active users they had. And to a number, this was a signal the grid was in decline, and the owner wasn't sure how to stop it other than hide it. Reischl was distancing InWorldz from other OpenSim worlds, insisting it wasn't really one, "InWorldz has moved on from Opensim a long time ago," and seemed to be saying she was no longer publicizing the statistics because of an "us vs them" attitude there.

In January 2018, Hypergrid Business published an article saying merchants in InWorldz were becoming concerned about the grid's future. "...we have seen a drastic decline in sales and residents," one merchant told Hypergrid, requesting anonymity saying he was concerned about possibly being banned. An "InWorldz Chamber of Commerce" had been set up in fall 2016 "To help promote in-world commercial activity, and to collectively advocate on behalf of their interests." But their director expressed disappointment in her meetings with Reischl, Hypergrid reporting, "She said it was not her job to keep merchants or residents in InWorldz." The article also stated, "Residents have also complained on social media that the founders haven’t been paying attention to their concerns. Of the top managers, owner Reischl moved to Panama and founder and CTO David Daeschler has mostly moved on to other projects." Another resident commented that early on, "one of the best things about IW was the fact that it was so easy to talk to the founders on the forum and they actually listened to us and gave us feedback it made IW feel like a community." But now it was looking more and more like how she saw Second Life at the time she joined InWorldz.

But there was no sign of serious trouble to most until Monday July 23 when Beth Reischl announced the grid was facing shutdown in a few days. At the same time, she set up a Gofundme that was supposedly to save InWorldz. But after most of her goal amount was raised, she changed the objective to starting a new grid. This caused no shortage of confusion and feelings of anger. Zia would comment, "There are a lot of disabled people and older people who play here.  That sort of sudden 'get out' message is hard for someone not in great health to stay up for two days straight and download 8 years of their life." But there was also sadness as after almost a decade, the virtual world where so many hopes and dreams had been created was going away, and on Friday July 27, 2018 the lights finally went out.

Following InWorldz's closure, one of it's staff opened up a small OpenSim grid for former InWorldz residents. Other OS worlds would invite those displaced to go to theirs, and a number did, one example being Kitely Marketplace sales going up 300% in the days after the larger world's closing was announced. A number went back to Second Life. But others held out for Reischl's next world, Islandz. It would finally come online in November 2018. But it didn't last long. On Saturday January 26, Reischl announced that due to real life financial troubles she couldn't overcome, she would have to shut down Islandz, "I'm done with the metaverse. ... I have zero, zilch, zip, nada, just maxed out credit cards." Following a rash of confused and angry statments, the Islandz Discord server was taken down. Instead of a new beginning, it was a sad epilogue.

So what happened? Not being in Reischl's inner circle, one can only guess. It appears that the team she assembled early on was able to make and maintain a great grid. But as people left, the positions were either unfilled or someone not as good took over. With fewer people and less money coming in, she eventually had to borrow money to maintain it. Either the bill came due and she didn't have the money, or as she stated there was a failure to communicate with the people she borrowed it from.

As a resident of Second Life, I couldn't help but feel uneasy. The big thing was seeing the hopes and dreams of hundreds fade away. But deep down, I wondered if years from now I myself would be in their position as Linden Lab would make the decision to shut down Second Life. But our virtual world will likely be around for a long time to come. It is a small irony me and my friends got a few sims there a few years ago as we wondered if our virtual homes were at risk of being closed, and in the end it was the place we were interested in that closed down. As time has gone on, another Opensim Grid, the Great Canadian Grid, would end up being shut down. It would seem as clumsy as they can be at times, Linden Lab ended up creating the virtual world that endures year after year.

Bixyl Shuftan   

For Part Five, Click Here

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