Comment The panic that broke out in Second Life last month over a copybot raised many questions about the security of property in the virtual universe.
Unlike most massively multiplayer games (if you can even call Second Life that), Second Life "residents" are allowed to actually own the stuff they create. So if you could copy endlessly, in what sense could you actually own anything?
The CopyBot itself may not have been quite dangerous enough to justify all the fuss it caused – but it highlights an interesting crossroads in Second Life's development. It had its origins in a project called libsecondlife, which is working on a project (informally endorsed by Linden Lab) to open source the Second Life game engine.
This suggests a fascinating possible future for the Second Life universe - But an open source strategy must surely make that fragile economy even more vulnerable.
Linden Lab has been talking about open sourcing SL for a while – and there are lots of good reasons why it might want to. The Second Life interface is pretty clunky, and the graphics engines are a long way behind the state of the art. A game like World of Warcraft leaves SL in the shade - possibly one of the reasons why of the million or more who have registered for SL, only a small proportion become regular visitors.
Linden Lab is a tiny company, struggling to develop its product at the pace it should. As CEO Philip Rosedale admitted in a recent podcast, "We as a roughly 100 person company are stretched to the limit."
If it can attract a sufficiently large community, an open source project would bring more development resources to bear on Second Life (though the open source community hasn't been terribly good at user interfaces in the past).
The first libsecondlife project that the ordinary resident could use would be a new client. As Jonathan Freedman, a member of libsecondlife, says: "The default Second Life client is rather limited. It is very feature full. So you need a decent system to run it." So one of the first things they could design is a simpler client for new members.
Big corporates like IBM, who are ardent Second Life fans, could host their own Second Life instances, and adapt it for other purposes – like training or conferencing. Open source developers could also work on better integration between Second Life and other projects, from simple web browsing to other online universes, such as WoW.
If you consider SL not as a game, but just a rather fancy 3d chat application, then that seems more or less what you'd expect. Instead of a single service provider, you have multiple interconnected service providers, set up by anyone who feels the need.
Linden Lab declined to talk to the Register for this article, but said in a statement that: "It has been a long stated goal of Linden Lab's to open source aspects of Second Life. We've always felt that this is the best way to ensure scalability and growth within our world. In the same way that the real world relies on its citizens to create and develop infrastructure, it is only logical that our residents would have as much say over the platform."
Freedman says the first open source SL client could be released within six months, with server-side software following over the next few years. The full roadmap is here.
But two questions follow from this – first of all, what does it mean for the Linden Lab business model? Linden Lab told the Reg that: "Any move in this direction would neither have an effect on the maintenance of residents' intellectual property rights nor on Linden Lab's ability to generate revenue via the sale of virtual real-estate."
But if I can host my own server using open source software, then surely I could have my own private island too, without having to pay Linden Lab for it? Freedman speculates that its business model could evolve to become something like a Red Hat, where the software is given away for free and the company makes its money through consultancy and support.
It certainly sounds like a more promising business model than selling virtual real estate, especially if you're planning to let other players enter the market. Land's value depends on its scarcity – so if anyone can create as much land as they like, prices will only head in one direction – down.
The rest of Second Life's fledgling economy depends on people being able to prevent the copying of what they sell – a tough call in any electronic metaverse, open or not. As a way of protecting value, Freedman suggests a kind of a watermark.
"I hate to use the words 'Digital Rights Management', but it could mean something like that, that allows you to see if something has been copied," he says. So while you couldn't stop people copying a virtual pair of shoes, you could at least prove they were genuine and legitimate. "Linden Lab is planning on some way of implementing that."
At least open source Second Life elements will be released under the BSD license, not the GPL – so people who develop more elaborate creations within Second Life won't be obliged to re-release the code behind them.
Though there was no evidence that anyone lost any money (virtual or otherwise) from the Copybot palaver, the fact that a misdirected libsecondlife tool could cause an economic panic illustrates the fragility of an economy based on intellectual property in a virtual universe.
Second Life is certainly at an intriguing point in its development. A fully open sourced Second Life has the potential to become the de facto standard for a three-dimensional version of the world wide web. "We would love to see a fully open source metaverse," says Freedman.
For people who make their living selling content in Second Life, that might be good news - more customers. But protecting that content will be even tougher in an open source world.
And a bigger question is - could Linden Lab's business model survive open sourcing? And could Linden Lab's commitment to the open source path survive a buyout or an IPO?
Ben King is an online reporter at Channel 4 News.