Why Are Residents So Driven To Create?

Castronova states that “Since 2004 the cost of game design has been rising more rapidly than sales”1. He was not the only one2 to find this at that time, and the situation has continued since then with 2009 seeing many game studio closures3. Because; there are vastly more users than developers, content creation is labour intensive and, as Ondrejka says, “developers are in a race they cannot possibly win as they try to stay ahead of the users who choose to commoditise their games’ content and currency”4 the obvious solution is to involve users in content creation, which is exactly what Second Life has done. The Linden Lab website claimed in 2007 that at least fifty users of Second Life were generating in excess of $8,000 a month5. Today there are many thousands of users creating and selling content.

But how does one motivate users to create content? Why would they pay for access to the virtual world and accept that they have to create it themselves? Second Life solved this problem by making access to the world free, granting residents rights in their creations and providing a marketplace for those creations. Despite its early advertising emphasizing that users would have full rights to the content they created Linden Lab have now done a complete about face and altered the terms of service to specify that they have a wide range of rights over residents creations. While Linden Lab originally instituted the permissions system at the behest of professional content creators, these new Terms of Service have seen large numbers of professional content creators leaving Second Life as the new rights Linden Lab have given themselves include the right to distribute content created by residents of Second Life “… for any purpose whatsoever in all formats, on or through any media, software, formula or medium now known or hereafter developed.”6. These professional content creators have moved to more open worlds, for example Hosoi Ichiba, a long time well regarded content creator in Second Life moved to Kitely7 when it opened its marketplace in 2013. Second Life is a fun economy, but Linden Lab’s recent actions are removing the fun. With the removal of much high quality content from Second Life residents are voting with their feet and moving to more open worlds where such strictures do not obtain and where content that used to be available in Second Life is now available8.

The primary motivation of most residents is to have fun. That they can sell their creations is a bonus. Of course there are those who have entered Second Life with the express purpose of income generation, but this is not the case for the vast majority of residents. While establishing accurate numbers of residents in Second Life is problematic because Linden Lab declines to publish accurate figures9, there were approximately 1,400,000 logged in in any given 60 day period in 200910 while for the same period only 65,000 residents had a positive monthly income11.

Certainly residents want fun but another important factor is that they want to be able to control their environments. They want to be free. Freedom is fun. Referring to Huizinga’s12 argument that play is freedom, Harambam et al.13 argue that the perfect game is one which provides ultimate freedom to its players. Others agree; “Good virtual worlds allow people to be whatever they want to be”14, “The intrinsic need for autonomy is what fuels the player’s hunger for more freedom in games, and why games that provide freedom and open-ended game play are so highly valued”15, “One of the great joys of a virtual world like Second Life is the ability to indulge in fantasy limited only by our own patience and skills with the tools”16. Second Life is the present day exemplar of such freedom. No other virtual world allows the same level of freedom to create, the freedom to have fun.

I have discovered that users are motivated to create their own content by a desire for freedom, but that their belief that they must control their creations in order to profit from them does not extend that same freedom to others. Freedom, it seems, has limits, and those limits are bounded by money. Users might want to be free to create as they like, including using the creations of others to remix into new creations, but there is a distinct split personality exhibited when it comes to profit. While it was my experience that most users prefer to purchase full permission items, many then find themselves inclined to distribute their items with restrictive permissions. Even those who have incorporated full permission items created by others into their new creations often lock down the permissions when they go to sell these new creations. The market did sort a lot of this out though, for example, those who tried to sell restricted permission items specifically marketed as building components, e.g. textures, seldom sold many units.

It seemed obvious to me that if I wanted to be able to continue to avail myself of full permission components in the construction of my items I should in turn sell full permission items, and I do indeed sell full permission scripts. However some of the items I sell are offered with restricted permissions and there are good reasons for this. Residents with little experience building items can inadvertently destroy those items if they have full permissions. Then they come to the content creator seeking support, or, and sadly this is more likely, they simply write negative feedback. In order to avoid such inexperience driven destruction I offer some complex items with restricted permissions in order to prevent the purchaser from editing them and rendering them non functional. However I also offer those items as full permission items with a note advising purchasers that should they destroy those items it is their own responsibility. This doesn’t always stop them from complaining once they have broken a full permissions item however. Another reason used for restricting permissions was so that those who only needed a single item for their own use, say a house, could obtain a substantial discount from the price charged to those who wanted multiple copies and were, for example, setting up rental properties in a community and using those houses to make money. To this end it was a common practice for merchants to sell two versions of an item, for example, one ‘copy’ and one ‘no copy’. In a world where items have to be individually constructed, and require materials for that construction, this makes perfect sense. But it is hard to see a supporting rationale in a virtual world, where nothing at all needs to be done, and no materials are required, for an additional copy to be supplied. The only argument seems to be that the artificial scarcity applied to the ‘no copy’ item makes it less valuable than a ‘copy’ item. Seeing as there is no cost, or loss, to the builder, for the extra copies it just seems greedy to add this restriction. Interestingly, this means that value works in the opposite way in the world than in meatspace. In the world things that have less scarcity, i.e. are able to be copied, attract a higher price than more scarce, i.e. not able to be copied, items.

Money in Second Life is Linden dollars. One United Stated dollar converts to approximately two hundred and sixty Linden dollars (L$). This exchange rate has been relatively constant for some time17 18. A complete outfit for an avatar can be purchased for L$300. A block of land sufficient to install a large house on can be rented for around L$600 a week. A good quality house can be purchased for L$500. A few U.S. dollars go a very long way.

Despite all the hype about burgeoning entrepreneurs in the Linden dollar economy, there is a huge amount of user created content offered completely free in Second Life. A large number of residents make content and give it away for free because it is fun to see other people use the things one creates. However the highest quality items are usually not free.

The tension between libre and gratis is most clearly seen in the fear of not gaining the greatest possible financial benefit from one’s creations that has driven the desire for a permissions system on the part of some content creators. But given that; the great majority of content creators in Second Life are not earning very much at all from the sale of their content19, the limitations the permissions system places on building, the vast quantity of free goods available and, most importantly, the ease of subverting the permissions system, why insist on the existence of the system? It seems the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many.

While at law copyright in one’s creations vests in the creator, “the problem with much of copyright law is that although it made sense in the context of technology that existed when the law was created, it does not adequately address digital technology”20. Because Linden Lab must be aware of the ease with which the permissions system can be subverted, I believe its existence is maintained largely to provide reassurance to content creators.

The permission system creates an analogue of meatspace property rights for virtual objects. But does it work? There is a catch 22 of virtual property. If one wants to sell content to the resident it must be delivered to their computer. Once it is delivered it can be copied. Past experience has shown that technological solutions that attempt to prevent copying do not work21 22 23, and do collateral damage that is destructively expensive, as Gutmann puts it “the Vista Content Protection specification could very well constitute the longest suicide note in history”24. Yet companies persist in using technological solutions that have been shown not to work, and which incorporate antifeatures, intentionally introduced ‘features’ that users do not want or benefit from e.g. digital rights management (DRM), into their products25.

Are content creators really interested in maintaining control over their creations because this is the only viable business model, or because they are not aware of any alternative models? In a digital world where copying data is not preventable, it makes more sense to allow people to do so than to try to prevent them, unless you want to make your customer your enemy. Any attempts to stop copying ultimately waste the time and energy of the creator and annoy paying customers. Sound business models based on fewer restrictions do exist26 27 28 29 30.

Many merchants in Second Life have realised the importance of loss leaders as a marketing tool and it is a widely accepted reality that one needs to have at least one freebie item in one’s shop, and that this will drive traffic and thus increase sales. Another method of utilizing free content to drive sales is what Eric Raymond calls the “Give away the recipe, open a restaurant” model31. This model gives content away for free as a method of selling services. Some of the scripts I sell in the world are component parts of complex items I have constructed. Residents buy these scripts planning to build their own items, but they often can’t get the result they desire, and then they come to me seeking help. While I do provide quite a bit of free support to customers, I sometimes have to draw the line and tell them that if they want more help they will have to pay for it, either by paying me for the service of helping them to build their item or by commissioning me to build a bespoke item for them.

Lawrence Lessig released his book Free Culture under a Creative Commons license which allowed it to be freely copied, and yet physical copies of the book still sold better than the publisher expected32. Cory Doctorow, who allows free digital downloads of his books but charges for physical copies and audio versions, has had similar experiences with his novels; “…making my books available for free increase the number of sales that I get…”33. This may seem counterintuitive, but as Doctorow says “Why am I doing this? Because my problem isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity”34. Once obscurity has been overcome the creator can then derive income from selling to the customers that copying has brought to their door. In the same way authors like Doctorow derive income from personal appearances, content creators in Second Life can do so from obtaining commissions.

If users can freely trade goods it benefits sellers due to increased awareness of sellers as this dissemination creates a wider audience, and it benefits buyers as people prefer to buy full permission items. This is indicated by the fact that objects with full permissions sell for much higher amounts (typically a factor of ten) than limited permission items. As Bakshy, Karrer and Adamic describe, “copyright may inhibit the spread of assets, favoring the spread of those where users are free to share and modify the content”35. Many content creators specialise in a particular type of building component and residents often assemble their builds from components sourced from others. Because of this full permission objects are preferred over more restrictive ones. In Second Life, other content creators are far less likely to purchase your creations if they do not get full permissions, because it is then impossible to combine those items into other creations that are likewise destined for sale. Even in the case of textures (for which it is especially easy to circumvent the permission system), content creators will generally ignore textures offered for sale that do not grant full permissions to the purchaser.

I sell full permission scripts in Second Life and find that this brings people to my store who have come to know of me through being given one of my scripts by a friend and who want custom work, or who just want to pay me something as they have been happy with their script. This kind of copying serves as a form of viral marketing, provided the creator’s name is preserved. Even the U.S. Copyright Office has stated that attribution can sometimes replace monetary compensation to legitimize an unauthorized use36 and the US Supreme Court has suggested that copyright law includes protection for an author’s interest in receiving credit for their work37.

Ultimately, content creators who are unhappy about the ability of others to freely copy their works are going to have to come to terms with their fear and explore new business models. Because of the subvertability of the permissions system and the rise of third-party worlds using the OpenSimulator server software38 residents are already making copies of full permission items to enable them to transfer their purchases from one world to another. Content creators who embrace their customer’s desires will prosper at the expense of those who fight those desires. Being sued is not fun.

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