Friday, September 29, 2023

Looking Back: The ToS Content Creator Controversy

 By Bixyl Shuftan

It was ten years ago this month that Linden Lab made one of it's most controversial moves in Second Life's history. It started out as what at the time was treated like a normal Terms of Service update in September 2013. But it included the following ...

[..]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,[..]

Thus started the Terms of Service Content Creator Controversy. Among residents of Second Life, the reactions of many was suspicion. Just what was the Lab up to? That they had the right to modify and copy content was understandable, to back up and fix any items that got damaged or glitched. But to sell or resell and "exploit in any manner whatsoever," that was giving some the impression Linden Lab planned to up and sell some of the things people made, either as part of an "exit strategy" to make money from the content if they ever closed Second Life or just simply up and taking and selling things just to make quick bucks.

Before too long, word got around. And not just among Second Life residents. One texture website that had been allowing Second Life residents to download it's content for use began stating they could no longer allow that given the latest ToS from Linden Lab, accusing them of greed and were showing a lack of respect for it's users, "as soon as you upload your model or texture, they can do literally anything they want with it." When calling the Lab, they 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."
It wasn't long before the Lab would issue a statement that would appear on a number of blogs, saying the Lab would continue to respect the rights of content creators.

“As evidenced by Second Life’s extensive history, functionality and well-documented policies for providing a platform on which users can create and profit from their creations, Linden Lab respects the proprietary rights of Second Life’s content creators. We 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. We have no intention of abandoning our deep-rooted dedication to facilitating residents’ ability to create and commercialize such content in Second Life. In fact, we strive to provide Second Life’s residents with evermore opportunities to do so.”

Not everyone was up in arms. Some took the Lab's word without issue. Others felt what the Lab was trying to do was reword their terms to avoid legal trouble, but felt the Lab needed to fix the wording so there wouldn't be confusion over their intentions. Jo Yardly commented, "I hope Linden Lab realizes this is a big problem that damages one of the most important parts of Second Life; creativity." Shockwave Yareach was more critical, "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."He felt unless the Lab corrected the issue, and soon, people would be looking for another virtual world 
In late September 2013, one performer the Newser had wrote about over time, Tuna Oddfellow, reacted to the ToS update by closing his Odd Ball in Second Life. "Dear Linden Lab -- it's been a nice eight years,"  his partner Shava Sunzu at the time would say, "but you just broke the social contract with me as a creator in Second Life BIG TIME." They would take the show to the much smaller virtual world of InWorldz. Other Second Life residents would also take an increased interest in the smaller virtual world, This included the Sunweaver community, which would get a couple sims there as a "lifeboat" in case Second Life was shut down. There would also be an InWorldz/Second Life connection center set up by Zia Larina and Nydia Tungsten. During the time of the controversy, InWorldz' numbers would grow. In May 2013, they were around 75,00 accounts. A year later, they would be 100,000.
Despite the criticism, the Lab made no move to reword it's Terms of Service. More people were speaking out saying while they didn't see the Lab as trying to rip anyone off, the way they worded things was causing people to lose confidence in them and Second Life.  One blogger would comment, "It is obvious that this revision of the ToS was, to say the least, short-sighted and ill-advised. But it is not obvious to the Lab." Hamlet Au of New World Notes would talk to a lawyer knowledgeable on intellectual property rights, who guessed that the wording came about partially from Linden Lab trying to put it's many products at the time under the same blanket policy. She called the Lab's moves, "tremendously short-sighted ... Linden Lab's refusal to understand the needs of its customer base is far more troubling to me than its poor contract drafting." She felt all the Lab needed to do was just change ten words in the ToS in regards to content creators, "All they need to do is limit their license to uses within the scope of their business purpose. People might still be mad, but then it isn't nearly as stupid a license grant." Aeonix Aeon called the move as part of an "exit strategy" by Linden Lab, feeling it's leadership at the time didn't like the lack of control that gaming companies had over their product and were seeking to seize some away from the residents. 

In mid-October 2023, there was a discussion about the controversy by a Second Life Bar Association Panel. Kylie Sabra, one of the hosts, felt the move wasn't new compared to what other Internet companies were doing. But she called the language "sloppy drafting," and noted half of Instagram's users had dropped out following an uproar over one of it's terms of service changes. The other host felt Linden Lab wasn't as customer friendly as it used to be. While lawsuits were a possibility, they felt the best course with the Lab was a peaceful one.

Kylie Sabra would go on to found the "United Content Creators of Second Life," or UCCSL, with the purpose of protecting the rights of builders and designers and other makers of content, notably in regards to the Terms of Service controversy. Eventually in late October, the Lab would sent them an email about their concerns. They stated they were "currently reviewing what changes could be made that would resolve the concerns of Second Life content creators," but had no wish to have an active discussion with them, "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 ..." 
Kylie was initially optimistic, paying more attention to that the Lab was saying they were going over changes. But as the weeks and months went by, there would be no change. She would write to the Lab, but would get no more responses from them. But on January 30, 2014, she came to the conclusion the Lab was not going to do anything, "... it is clear to me now that Linden Lab has no intention of making any change to the Terms of Services. ..." She would step down as head of the UCCSL less than two months later, feeling she had done all she could and that 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 at Linden Lab, change was going on. In the middle of January 2014, the Lab's CEO Rod Humble stepped down. He would be succeeded in February by Ebbe Altberg. At the VWBPE conference in April, he finally addressed the controversy, saying more in his hour than the Lab had stated in months, saying he was looking for a solution. Finally in July 2014, close to a year after the controversy began, Linden Lab finally changed the wording of the Terms of Service in regards to content creators. While some of the wording seemed a little iffy to some people, most residents were satisfied. And so the issue was over.

In an interview in October that year, Ebbe Linden's opinion was that the problem was what Linden Lab intended in the Terms of Service update, but "the way it was rolled out." But for the residents, this was another example of how the Lab had a way of needlessly making them mad, either intentional or not. While later Terms of Service changes would occasionally be met with questions and criticism from the residents, notably in June 2015 when the Lab ordered all third-party currency exchangers to shut down, this would be the last time one would result in such a huge outcry. Just why Linden Lab dragged it's feet on the issue for months, we residents can only guess. Maybe the Lab was 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. 
In any event, the issue was certainly a reminder that content creators in virtual worlds, and other places online, should have their rights respected, and to dismiss those is telling them they're not really wanted. And here in Second Life, nobody wants that.

Bixyl Shuftan