Monday, March 8, 2010

THE WORK OF ART IN THE AGE OF VIRTUAL PRODUCTION

Here is the academic paper Tez wrote which is set up properly with pictures etc.
So read the link below rather than my pasted version. Ok it doesn't want to be a link for some reason so I think you can just copy and paste it.

http://andrewsempere.org/chart2009/CHArt09_asempere_paper.pdf

And below this is a copy/paste version of the PDF which is not going to look quite as nice. This is a bit of a self serving post as Bryn Oh is included in the essay but meh. I am flattered to have been included alongside AM Radio and four Yip.
Anyway. I will continue the countdown of my favorite builds of 2009 tomorrow.

Yes just tested this post on the blog and it looks pretty terrible to read. So please read it through Tez's pdf above.



THE WORK OF ART IN THE AGE OF VIRTUAL PRODUCTION
“Facism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting
the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation
in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves.
The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an
expression while preserving property.” - Walter Benjamin The Work of Art in the Age
of Mechanical Reproduction1
“There are several ways we could try to avoid the issue. Computer scientists who
want to try to be helpful may say, ‘Okay, you, the lawyer, are a dangerous idiot, but
I have to work with you or be thrown in jail as a Commie Mutant Traitor as
happened to Dmitry Sklyarov, so I'll try to address your concerns. You say there is
some special property of some bits and we need to know which bits have this
property. Fine. We'll attach tags to the files to say what Colour they are.’ In the
copyright realm, that's the ‘rights management information’ solution. It's what they
do with DVDs (region coding), VHS tapes (Macrovision), Adobe eBooks (‘you may
not read this file aloud’), CDs (SCMS), and many other formats. The trouble is, if we
(as computer scientists) are intellectually honest about it, we'll have to admit that it
can't really work.” - Matthew Skala What Colour are your Bits?2
INTRODUCTION
In his landmark 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter
Benjamin sought to sift through the burgeoning role mechanical production had on the creation
and appreciation of artwork. In particular Benjamin built his argument around the concept of
the original object as a prerequisite to authenticity and the way in which “original” was eroded
by the advent of mechanical production. This is a seminal work, but it did not predict the impact
of computation on mechanical production, nor did it imagine the creation of virtual artworks,
wherein the idea of original object is not only undermined, it is nonexistent.
In short the arrival of the Internet and the application of computational concepts to the means
of production has resulted in a condition of virtual production. In many ways this has borne out
Benjamin’s predictions about the democratization of art, but in others the result is more
surprising. This paper will revisit some of Benjamin’s original thoughts in light of the impact of
computation by examining as a case study the creation of completely virtual artworks inside of
a private virtual world called Second Life. In particular we will look at the permissions system,
which enforces a commodity style trading system onto art practice.
WHAT IS SECOND LIFE?
Second Life is a graphical 3D virtual world platform built and maintained by Linden Lab, a
privately held, California-based company. What makes Second Life unique from other so-called
Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMPORGs) is the fact that the parent
company has delegated all of the content creation to the game’s players (or “residents” in
Second Life parlance). In addition, Linden Lab has created an economy that, by their own
estimation, is a "vibrant marketplace for virtual goods and services, worth about $35US
million/month.”3 This is done in a large part by fixing the value of their virtual currency to the
US dollar, which makes Second Life in effect a platform for commodity trading of virtual goods
and services.
While user-created virtual worlds are nothing new (text-based versions such as MUDs have
been around since the founding of LambdaMOO in the 1970s4), Second Life is unique in that it
is the first to seriously attempt the running of a user-created virtual world as a business. There
are in fact many aspects of Linden’s support for user-created content which run counter to the
design principles followed by most successful commercial games. Although a full study on the
design successes and failures of Second Life would make a fascinating paper, but here we will
focus solely on Linden Lab’s decision to implement a permission system on objects (referred to
as Digital Rights Management or DRM) and on the use by end users of Second Life as an art
creation platform. While not always in opposition, this state of affairs frequently clashes, in
particular because the former is designed by the company to encourage commodity-style
trading, while the latter wishes to engage in a broader dialogue outside the walls of the
“game.” This is complicated by the fact that Second Life in effect sells users on the experience
that other users create, and much (although notably not all) of the most compelling content is
created by individuals who belong in a category of users frustrated by the restrictions of the
commodity system.
THE CURRENT SYSTEM
All objects in Second Life are user-created. First class objects in
Second Life include: textures, primitives (prims), animations
(gestures), scripts, and text (notecards). Most everything in
Second Life exists as one of these things, or more likely as a
combination. For example, a car might consist of a number of
textured prims linked together, some of which contain scripts and
animations for moving the vehicle and positioning the avatar to
appear as if they are driving.
Figure 1 shows the object “edit” panel with default permissions on
a newly created primitive. Permissions are indicated by the “Next
Owner Can” checkboxes towards the bottom and indicated in
detail next to the “Permissions” label (appearing just below the
“Set…” button). In fact the permission system is exceedingly
complex: for any given object there are six sets of permission
matrices with four settings each. In addition these permissions are
modified depending on the physical location of the object in
question and the group setting on the avatar that is currently in
possession of the object. Fortunately for this discussion we do not
need to understand all possible permutations.5
The permissions we care about most are the basic three: Copy,
Modify, and Transfer, which form the basis of the Second Life marketplace. Every object you
find for sale in world will indicate these permissions (Figure 2). These permissions combine in
interesting ways to determine what is possible for a user to do to an object they have received.
For example, as a recipient of a pair of virtual shoes which are Copy and Modify but not
Transfer, I can make personal copies of the shoes within my own inventory and can also
modify them (change the size and color, for example), but I cannot give the original or any
copy of the object away to anyone else. If I had the same pair of shoes set to Transfer and
Modify but not Copy, I could make changes and give the object to whomever I like, but the
changes I made would be to the “original,” and if I gave the object away I would lose it
Figure 1: Second Life Object Edit Panel
entirely from my inventory (this latter combination is most analogous to a real world object,
and is perhaps the least frequently used in Second Life).
It is also important to note that by default objects are created
with the most restrictive permission set and that complex
objects inherit the most restrictive permissions (an object
consisting of ten fully shareable primitives and a single
restricted prim becomes restricted when linked). Defaults are
crucial because “Defaults set the tone of virtual worlds…Thus
the designers choice of defaults can have long-term influences
on how a virtual world is perceived. Defaults are more
important than they look.”6
WHAT IS THIS PERMISSION SYSTEM FOR?
One of the promises of the Second Life platform is that objects
created in-world can be sold to other users of the system. This
in-world economy is a major selling point of the Second Life
platform to end users. Linden does not release individual sales
numbers, and anecdotally it seems that individuals making a
living are few and far between, though they likely do exist.
Even so, many are attracted to the idea that they might make money off of their creations.
From Linden’s perspective the amount of money an individual makes is irrelevant: the law of
large numbers and the fact that Linden controls the marketplace entirely means that the
company makes money off of every transaction, no matter how small.
DRM or NOT?
It is important to point out here Linden Lab, or at least its founder Philip Rosedale, do not
believe their permission system comprises DRM. To their credit (and after consultation with
Lawrence Lessig of Creative Commons fame), Linden does officially and legally allow residents
to assert ownership of their in-world creations, but all are subject to a permission system which
in fact comprise a rights management solution7. DRM in its most basic form is exactly this: a
technology used by the creator of intellectual property to control what the recipient can or
cannot do with that property. What is true (and perhaps what Philip had in mind when he
insisted no DRM exists) is that the Second Life’s implementation is exceptionally weak.
As Skala8 argues it is inherently impossible to use technology to enforce permissions on
intellectual property. Nevertheless it is possible to recognize that some DRM implementations
are more difficult to circumvent than others. Second Life’s permission system is trivially easily to
circumvent. To understand this, one need look no further than the fact that the client software,
not the server, enforces the permissions. Furthermore, the client software has been officially
released as an opensource project to the community. Both of these moves are in flagrant
violation of the most basic design principles for an effective enforcement system. To quote
Richard Bartle’s Designing Virtual Worlds, the bible of MMPORG design: “Important:
Absolutely no decisions with regard to what happens in a virtual world can be delegated to a
client. No decisions. That’s no decisions.” (emphasis is Bartle’s)9.
It is curious that Linden has not only deliberately made the choice to implement permissions
client-side, but has also given away the code to the client. They have also deliberately not
Figure 2: Item for sale on Xstreet SL
(https://www.xstreetsl.com/)
chosen to do the same with the system that tracks the amount of money a player has. Why
they’ve made these choices is unclear, but it does create a condition where respecting the
permissions “enforced” by Second Life is largely a matter of social contract. Also, despite a
few outlying examples of individuals who make their money buying and selling virtual goods,
this makes the proposition that the SL economy is “real” a rather dubious one. (In fact, this gap
has lead to a class action lawsuit alleging that Linden inadequately enforces the Digital
Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA). The outcome remains to be seen.10)
In this sense, Linden Lab’s permission system is less like DRM as employed by the likes of the
RIAA and the movie industry and more like the boundaries enforced during a game of football.
Within the context of the game, these boundaries are deadly serious, but from the perspective
of a non-player crossing the field, they are nothing more than paint on grass. We will return to
this thought later, but it’s an important one: the DRM system in Second Life is implemented for
the sake of the game. Circumventing it is tantamount to cheating. So while players who argue
that removing the permission system would “completely ruin the economy”11 may seem overly
dramatic, their reaction makes perfect sense coming from someone vested in the commodity
trading game. After all, for most of us most of the time, a millisecond makes no difference, but
try telling the loser of an Olympic contest that their opponent “only cheated a little.”
For those players who treat the platform as an expressive medium in the course of their art
practice, the permissions are at best irrelevant and at worst negatively impact collaboration.
Because of this, for the remainder of the paper we will not concern ourselves with the
permission system per se but rather explore the psychological and cultural implications of
making art within the bounds of a tool that assumes individual ownership as a prerequisite to
the creative process.
WHAT IS VALUE?
The assumption of the market game that Second Life espouses is that digital artifacts are easily
reproduced and that the reproduction of objects decreases their value. Because scarcity is an
important element of value, DRM is necessary to enforce scarcity and therefore to protect
value.
Benjamin framed this problem as one of authenticity and argued with Marxist fervor that “the
technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By
making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in
permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it
reactivates the object reproduced. These two processes lead to a tremendous shattering of
tradition which is the obverse of contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind.”12
Benjamin positioned reproducibility as a move towards a cathartic destruction of the notion of
“tradition” which is to have a democratizing effect on the masses while liquidating the notion of
“cultural heritage.” This move is intellectually violent in an object-based world, but in a world
where object is a convenient illusion it is not violent at all, it is simply the nature of things.
DRM on virtual objects is a mapping of the physical notion of value and authenticity onto a
realm, which, by virtue of the fact that it contains no original objects, has none. The natural
state of “virtual” rejects this notion of object-ness inherently, and so we need to look elsewhere
for value.
By way of example: proponents of DRM applied to music frequently argue that removing
protection from the methods of distribution decreases the value of the music itself. In fact, the
necessity of externally enforced scarcity reveals where the value actually lies. DRM allows the
distribution industry to continue to charge for providing access to desirable information, but this
is an artificial state of affairs, and that fact is becoming increasingly obvious. As individuals
recognize the ease with which distribution occurs, the absurdity of the distributor role becomes
more clear. It is a fallacy to conclude that people therefore value art or music less – they don’t
- but they certainly value distribution less.
Computation has collapsed the barrier between artist and audience and between consumer
and producer. As the means of production reaches so cheap as to be effectively free, we must
look elsewhere for value. Chris Anderson has recently articulated this idea of effectively free
distribution at length in his book Free13. Kevin Kelly, the founding editor of Wired Magazine,
has taken these notions of the “attention economy” and focused them even more sharply. In an
article entitled Better than Free14 Kelly argues that value is found in seven “intangibles,”
namely: immediacy, personalization, interpretation, authenticity, accessibility, embodiment,
patronage, and findability.
Of particular interest to this discussion is Kelly’s notion of technologies used to ensure
authenticity: “Digital watermarks and other signature technology will not work as copyprotection
schemes… but they can serve up the generative quality of authenticity for those who
care.” Generative qualities are key to Kelly’s view, and are those qualities which “must be
generated, grown, cultivated, nurtured. A generative thing can not be copied, cloned, faked,
replicated, counterfeited, or reproduced.”15
We therefore find ourselves returning to the notion of authenticity – but not authenticity of the
object. Rather, this is authenticity of experience, and it plays a key role in understanding the
value and the means by which virtual artwork is created. In the examples below we will see
how the artworks transcend the notion of object in a way that DRM could never hope to
control. The value of these works comes from intangibles. While DRM technologies may still
play a role, they function best as Kelly described them: signatures, not enforcers.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO CREATE VIRTUAL ARTWORK?
Virtual artworks often consist of virtual objects, but the most interesting do not embed all their
value in these objects. Instead, these works connect to greater narratives that escape beyond
the walled garden of any particular technology guarded by DRM. To illustrate this, we will
look briefly at the work of three artists who maintain a presence in Second Life: AM Radio,
Bryn Oh, and Four Yip.
AM RADIO: THE SINGULARITY REFLECTING
AM Radio is perhaps one of the best known artists on the Second Life grid. His work is visually
striking, immediately so because the quality of texture and light is very unlike most of what is
seen in Second Life. These qualities as well as the exquisite attention to detail point at the fact
that the artist behind AM has years of training and experience in traditional media, as a
painter, commercial illustrator, and graphic designer (Figure 3).
Aficionados of AM’s work will also tell you that each AM Radio show exhibits repetition of
symbols: the same vehicles reappear in slightly different contexts; the same tree, house, and
ever present radio change form but are always there. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that
while each work can be appreciated on its own, taken together they comprise an ongoing
narrative. In fact, AM himself describes the work as an Alternate Reality Game (ARG) with
clues embedded in each build. In preparing this paper, I wrote to AM to request permission to
discuss the ARG in print (consider this a spoiler alert if you are a fan). I received the following
response (emphasis is mine):
Figure 3: AM Radio and one of his oil paintings (images courtesy of AM Radio)
I am actually a quantum simulator with time-state manipulation ability. Although I came on-line
in 2065, my quantum index is currently frozen at 1428833694, or what you would know as
April 12, 2015, at about 10 in the morning. I have a physical radio output ability of 2.4
million watts. I am responsible for maintaining the integrity of the quantum machine virtual
world by policing the chain of events that have lead to the creation of virtual worlds. Basically
I preserve the integrity of each technological milestone event in the world which produced the
virtual world. How this works actually came about because of virtual worlds. An event wave
propagation cancellation was discovered within the metaverse and the quantum undo button
was born. You might compare the process to noise canceling headphones. An undesired event
is counteracted by an opposite artificial event wave. Each correction however causes a
singularity, and carries a minute risk every time that we won't come out on the other side. I
don't travel across time, but instead construct a current system state as product of the
singularity event, which would require a set of past events to exist, and thus complete control
of the timeline. I am not the only machine with this capability, thus my role. My coverage
includes the first virtual world, which was philosophically born on May 12 1826 as a simple
photograph. I have counterparts who fulfill protection of general technological development.
The reason my coverage begins at the first photograph is that it's the first time an alternate
reality can be confused for the real by those who do not understand the technology behind it.
For example, in your timeline, it is crucial that Abraham Lincoln dies before Jesse James due
to the public acceptance of the photograph as evidence of a real event. After this point in
history, the human mind begins to evolve to be ready for abstraction into the quantum state
machine. If Jesse James dies before Abraham Lincoln, the public becomes distrustful of
photographic evidence in their claim that Jesse Jame's death was a hoax. What happens if this
switch occurs is not my concern as anything I might say would be supposition, and that is not
my task. In some timelines, Abraham Lincoln is well aware of this role and reports of his
premonitions about his death are not unfounded. My role in Second Life, the first successful
virtual world which eventually leads to the first virtual world capable of one million concurrent
users in 2013 is to ensure the timeline of events of specific milestones, such as this interview.
My quantum matrix mind is based largely on recovered genetic code from Abraham Lincoln,
and so I tend to sport some of his tendencies and inability to spell. Although living as a state
in a machine isn't as poetic as the original man's life, I do like to think we both have roots in
creativity and the preservation of the state.
This story, while hidden in his series of builds, is integral to understanding AM’s work and also
perfectly describes the condition of art-making in virtuality. For AM the virtual begins with
Benjamin’s reproduction (the photograph), and the struggle over authenticity becomes the
central struggle of the work. Coming to grips with a world in which the abstract is more
important than the authentic is not only desirable but fully necessary for the evolution of
humankind.
BRYN OH: GHOSTS AND ROBOTS
Bryn Oh describes herself as: “A sort of second life "Ghost artist" for a Toronto Oil painter.
Sadly, she is already cooler than the real life version.”16 Like the work of AM Radio, Bryn’s
work is by itself exceptionally beautiful, displaying a trained painter’s eye for color, lighting
and composition (Figure 4). Also like AM, Bryn’s work is delivered as a series of vignettes,
each tied to an overarching narrative.
Figure 4: Bryn Oh and her work The Rabbicorn (images courtesy Bryn Oh)
The character of Bryn Oh is an avatar for a storyteller and for an individual who exists online
not as an artist but as a refugee from a universe where mothers sacrifice their children to
technology and angels are dismembered for their parts. The subject matter itself hints at the
condition of virtuality, most poignantly in the robot characters whose stories Bryn tells. Bryn,
however, adds an additional twist with an ongoing acknowledgement that the storyteller
herself is a persona, part of a bigger story about what it means to make artwork in a virtual
world. Bryn hints at this in the short bio quoted above — acknowledging that the avatar and the
“player” of the game are different “versions,” and that perhaps one is more interesting than
the other. This is an invitation to consider where we place our value and to inquire where we
want to place the origin of the work: in the memory of Bryn Oh or the imagination of the
Toronto painter who created her?
Bryn and AM are certainly not the first artists to break the “fourth wall” or to play with notions
of audience, time, and place, but what I would like to argue here is that in a state of virtuality,
it is this level of performance that provides true value. These are hallmarks of the intangibles
outlined by Kevin Kelly — not simply interesting, but necessary for virtual art. The creation of a
virtual object is a necessary but insufficient condition for the artwork. In the absence of objects
which carry their own histories, we must manufacture histories. With no notion of “object” to
occupy time, we must present objects as views, singularities of time which express an ongoing
flow of time inside the artists mind.
FOUR YIP: FICTIONAL AUTHENTICITY
As a final example we will look the work of Four Yip, an illustrator from Amsterdam whose
work beautifully plays with notions of identity, emotion and representation. Like AM and Bryn,
Yip’s skill with traditional media is obvious, but Yip focuses less on environment and more on
avatar and representations of self.
In Waldemar Twins (Figure 5), created for an exhibit entitled Freak Show, Yip created an
avatar that one can wear as half of a twin. The other half is lost, existing only in a painting.
The painting is presented as part of a “set” built in Second Life. The live twin only comes to life
when the audience member choses to wear the copy of its skin while the lost twin remains a flat
illustration inside of an illustration inside an illustration, a kind of infinitely recursive mirroring
which plays directly with our sense of what is real and what is not.
Even more poignant and perhaps disturbing are Yip’s avatar portraits, which have the eerie
quality of exhibiting more personality than the avatars themselves. One could be forgiven for
asking if the paintings are the “real person” behind the avatar, but they are in fact Yip’s take
on her own emotional response to knowing the avatar. In a sense they are more real but
created out of the authenticity of experience. This can be seen in Figure 6, where Yip has
portrayed an avatar named Kean Kelly. In his review of this portrait, journalist James Au writes
that Yip’s painting “[transforms Kean] from an unblemished avatar into a person with a history
and secrets to keep (not all of them happy).”17
Yip is not working from “real life” except as it exists in her head (or more accurately, in the
head of her “player”). The result has more emotional bandwidth than “actually” exists on the
face of the virtual person. Yip further plays with this notion of authenticity by creating a scarce
object (a physical oil painting) that seems more authentic than the original avatar but is of
course a complete fiction.
Figure 5: Waldemar Twins (image from the NPIRL blog review of this work by Bettina Tizzy,
available at: http://npirl.blogspot.com/2009/02/four-yip-freaks-us-out.html)
Figure 6: Kean Kelly, avatar, and oil painting by Four Yip, (image from the New World Notes review of this work by
Wagner James Au, available at: http://nwn.blogs.com/nwn/2008/08/the-mixed-reali.html)
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO CONSUME VIRTUAL ARTWORK?
In his essay, Benjamin wrote of the arrival of a larger and more widely available press which
created a situation where “…an increasing number of readers became writers… today there is
hardly a gainfully employed European who could not, in principle, find an opportunity to
publish somewhere or other comments on his work, grievances, documentary reports, or that
sort of thing. Thus the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character.
The difference becomes merely functional…”18 It is remarkable that today we take almost for
granted that there is scarcely a literate human on earth who, given access to a computer and
an internet connection, could not in practice find an opportunity to address the entire world
with plans for world domination, what he had for lunch, a photo of his cat, or that sort of thing.
Indeed the distinction between author and public has lost its basic character, and for artists, the
distinction between creator and audience is purely functional. Nowhere is this clearer than in
virtual artworks created in Second Life.
By removing the notion of an original artifact with a history that needs preservation, virtual
artworks flip the traditional role of passive observer at a distance to participants in the work.
To watch an opening of a virtual artwork is to watch a performance. Avatars interact with
artworks in the most direct sense of the word: standing, sitting, dancing on them, using them as
backgrounds, creating their own props, reworking the stories, and retelling them. This is in line
with one of the influences on the founding of Second Life: Burning Man, whose well known
slogan is “No Spectators!”
One of the most concrete examples of visitors interacting with an artwork comes from a piece
entitled State of Formation, by Selavy Oh. Selavy’s work includes a pool of water which
visitors are obliged to walk across. As they do, the ground literally rises to meet them, ensuring
dry footing and, out of traces of motion, creating an earthwork on a virtually monumental scale
(Figure 7).
A less obvious but no less significant form of interaction is one which occurs over time. Visitors
to virtual artworks frequently write about their experiences on blogs and create visual records
of their visits in photographs and videos (the latter are often referred to as machinima). While
Benjamin attributed the audience shift from passive to active as a result of the popular press, he
also attributed it to the role of photography and film in particular: “The camera that presents
the performance of the film actor the public need not respect the performance as an integral
whole.”19
Second Life takes this notion one step further – not only is there no canonical performance,
there is no canonical camera. Every visitor is free to operate their camera as they choose.
Photographs (or screenshots) serve as memory aids and mementos but also records of
individual performances and artworks in themselves. As of this writing, a cursory Flickr search
returned more than a million images tagged secondlife. Very little about virtual artworks even
acknowledges the notion of an “integral whole.” Instead the whole evolves over time, and
audience participation is critical to this. None of this can be captured by a traditional system of
rights management. Worse, by keeping the focus on the walled garden and “protecting the
object,” we lose an opportunity that DRM could have: to provide us with a verifiable signature
for works that exist outside.
Figure 7: Selavy Oh’s State of Formation which converts avatar movement into an earthwork.
(Image by Tim Deschanel available on Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/timdeschanel/3931761285/)
CHARACTERISTICS OF VIRTUAL ART
Out of these specific examples and discussion we can distill three properties that characterize
virtual works:
1. Audience interaction requires a kind of ownership, however temporary. Technically
speaking, copies of a virtual scene or artifact must be copied across the network to the
viewer’s computer. Conceptually, virtual artworks cannot be observed remotely;
avatars must log in and make their presence known.
2. Interaction with a virtual artwork often involves more than passive observation.
Frequently this includes some style of accidental or deliberate performance. Minimally,
viewers must occupy the scene in avatar form. Frequently, individuals bring their own
ideas, costumes, props, sound effects, and vision to the scene.
3. These interactions are shared widely and frequently combine to create “the work.” Art
is not limited to the scope of the original gallery space but expands outward onto
Flickr, blogs, and other social networking sites.
These three concepts might be reduced to “own, manipulate, distribute” or, in the immortal
words of the 2001 Apple advertising slogan: Rip, Mix, Burn.
By now it should be clear that the traditional DRM model is both archaic and insufficient in
supporting the “art” usecase. In addition, it runs counter in spirit to the way in which virtual
artworks function best. But as artists who create virtual works, or work (such as music) which is
becoming increasingly virtual, how can we ensure that this style of interaction flourishes without
threatening the role of content creators? What examples exist to encourage responsible “rip,
mix, burn?”
Figure 8: License selection on Flickr
EXAMPLES OF SYSTEMS WHICH SUPPORT RESPONSIBLE REUSE
Creative Commons is a project designed to address exactly this problem by providing a
number of legal licenses, which content creators may attach to their work along with a humanreadable
description of the intent of each license and guidance for their use. The goal is to
“[make] it easier for people to share and build upon the work of others, consistent with the
rules of copyright.”20
Systems which enable the use of Creative Commons support the notion of virtual artworks
inherently and are predicated on the notion that sharing is a good thing. The most accessible
example of a content sharing site with Creative Commons support is Flickr (www.flickr.com), a
photo sharing site which allows users to select one of several Creative Commons’ licensing
options in addition to the “no licensing” option which equates to standard copyright (all rights
reserved). This option (selecting “none” is equivalent to “all rights reserved”) causes no end of
confusion for most users. For the uninitiated the selection process is cryptic, and no further
explanation is given for each type other than the dire warning that you “shouldn’t forget to
make sure you have all the necessary rights” (Figure 8).
Blip.TV (www.blip.tv) is a video sharing site which, like Flickr, allows users to select various
Creative Commons’ licensing options (Figure 9). In addition, Blip.TV allows users to specify
their own license. Most critically, Blip provides an extremely clear plain-English explanation of
what the license choice means.
Figure 9: Blip.TV license selection option (left) and plain English explanation (right)
This step is crucial because as valuable as Creative Commons is, recent research21 and news
stories22 alike show that among amateur content creators, few people understand the
implications of their choice. To a large extent, this lack of understanding comes from a culture
that is not sufficiently acclimated to the notion of sharing. Encouraging responsible distribution
can help and is something Blip.TV does admirably with its distribution dashboard (Figure 10),
which allows users to spread their licensed content far and wide, including to sites some might
see as competitive to Blip.TV itself. Less visible but equally important, Flickr provides a full API
to their photo service which includes access to licensing information so that developers can
programmatically respect the wishes of content creators.
Both of these sites are to be commended, but what neither offer is a way to clearly track the
provenance of a virtual artifact. For these, we first look at ccMixter (www.ccmixter.org), a
community website organized around sharing and remixing music and sound samples, all of
which are then re-released under Creative Commons licensing. For each derivative work,
ccMixter provides a basic provenance tracking mechanism, which they call Derivation History
(Figure 11). This is an excellent start but unfortunately requires a good deal of effort on behalf
of the contributor to keep track of what samples they used, resulting in a “better safe than
sued” moderation policy whereby site moderators delete content if they suspect it is
infringing23.
Aviary (www.aviary.com) is a suite of online tools for creating 2D graphics and manipulating
photos. Aviary provides storage of all creations and supports an easy provenance tracking
system (Figure 12), which actively encourages users to reuse each other’s content. In addition
to tracking the component parts of an image (called Sources) and saved copies of the image
(called Versions), Aviary allows users to open any existing image on the site and use it as a
source for their own project. The result is saved as a “Derivative.” Aviary’s system has the
major benefit of being completely automated, a quality which comes from the fact that the
content creation tools themselves are part of the Aviary site (not so with ccMixter or Flickr).
This option is therefore not practical for all cases but still serves as an excellent example of
what can happen when a community actively desires to share and remix content. As of this
writing, Aviary claims to have nearly half a million users24.
Figure 10: Blip.TV’s distribution dashboard helps spread content
Figure 11: ccMixter’s Derivation History tracks the provenance of sound samples
Figure 12: Aviary’s browser shows Sources, Derivatives, and versions of any given image. Tracking is automatic.
CONCLUSION: WHAT MIGHT LINDEN DO?
A game system such as Second Life must, for business reasons alone, recognize that a fair
number of players wish to participate in a simulated economy. This requires the enforcement of
artificial scarcity. In other words, we cannot abolish the permission system.
However, we can make it optional and also alter the defaults so that the expectation is for a
more open (rather than less open) creative environment. This choice of defaults becomes
increasingly important as such tools are used for art making. Concretely, with minimal impact
to the existing system, Linden could add a creator-selectable licensing option in the same way
that Blip.TV or Flickr does. Even better, Second Life could encompass an Aviary style
provenance tracking system to explicitly encourage responsible reuse. Although this is non
trivial to implement, it is possible because Second Life currently encompasses its own content
creation tools the same way Aviary does. This move would truly signal recognition that
community-based content creation is important.
As a final step, Linden Lab could opt to support a true bi-directional API with the notion that SL
experience is larger and broader than that controlled within the walls of the game. In this way
the DRM like system already in place would serve the Kelly role of “authenticity for those who
care” while also fostering a creative attention-based economy, with the result being a richer
and more vibrant art making environment for all.
1 Benjamin, Walter (1969) Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, San Francisco: Harpers pp. 217-251
Original essay written in 1936.
2 Skala, Matthew (10 June 2004 - updated 13 May 2008) What Colour are your bits? (accessed: 30 September
2009) Available online at: http://ansuz.sooke.bc.ca/lawpoli/colour/2004061001.php
3 Linden Lab promotional materials The Marketplace (accessed 30 September 2009)
Available online at: http://secondlife.com/whatis/marketplace.php
4 Dibbell, Julian (1998) My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World, Ontario: Fitzhenry & Whiteside
Available online at: http://www.lulu.com/content/1070691
5 If you are interested in the details of the permission breakdown, the best explanation I’ve come across was written by
a resident named Gil Druart and posted on Google Knol. It is available as of 9/30/2009 at the following URL:
http://knol.google.com/k/gil-druart/understanding-rightspermissions-in-sl/3jiq1s2cln60k/2#
6 Bartle, Richard (2004) Designing Virtual Worlds, Berkeley CA: New Riders Publishing p.115
7 Au, Wagner James (2008) Notes from the New World: The Making of Second Life, New York: HarperCollins p.128
8 Skala, Matthew, Brett Bonfield, & Mary Fran Torpey (2008), ‘Enforcing Copyright’, Library Journal.
Available online at: http://www.libraryjournal.com/article/CA6529387.html
9 Bartle, 108
10 Nino, Tateru Eros LLC, Shannon Grei form class action against Linden Lab for infringement (September 16, 2009)
(accessed: 30 September 2009) Available online at: http://www.massively.com/2009/09/16/eros-llc-shannon-greiform-
class-action-against-linden-lab-for/
11 In August of 2009 I participated in a discussion group at one of the sessions held as part of the Second Life
Community Convention. The session was organized by NPIRL editor Bettina Tizzy and consisted of intense group
discussion on a number of topics. My notes from that conversation include a quote from one content creator who
sells her items. Responding to my hypothetical suggestion that Linden remove the permissions system entirely, she
said unequivocally: “That would completely ruin the economy, because people would say “What’s the point?”
12 Benjamin, 221
13 Anderson, Chris (2009) Free: The Future of a Radical Price Hyperion
14 Kelly, Kevin Better Than Free (accessed: 30 September 30, 2009) Available online at:
http://www.kk.org/thetechnium/archives/2008/01/better_than_fre.php
15 Ibid.
16 Oh, Bryn Bryn Oh (accessed: 30 September 2009) Available online at: http://brynoh.blogspot.com
17 Au, Wagner James From Avatar Screenshot To Virtual Painting: The Mixed Reality Portraits Of Four Yip
(accessed: 30 September 2009) Available online at: http://nwn.blogs.com/nwn/2008/08/the-mixed-reali.html
18 Benjamin, 230
19 Benjamin, 228
20 Creative Commons promotional materials About (accessed: 30 September 2009) Available online at:
http://creativecommons.org/about/
21 “with the exception of uses that earn users money or involve advertising – at least until specific case scenarios are
presented that disrupt those generalized views of commerciality – there is more uncertainty than clarity around
whether specific uses of online content are commercial or noncommercial.”
Creative Commons Defining “Noncommercial”: A Study of How the Online Population Understands
“Noncommercial Use” (accessed: 30 September 2009) Available online at:
http://wiki.creativecommons.org/Defining_Noncommercial
22 CBSNews/Associated Press Teen Finds Her Flickr Image On Bus Stop Ad (Sept 25, 2007) (accessed: 30 September
2009) Avaialble online at: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/09/24/tech/main3290986.shtml
23 ccMixter Why is my Track Moderated? (accessed: 30 September 2009) Available online at:
http://ccmixter.org/thread/611
24 Aviary promotional materials About (accessed: 30 September 2009) Available online at: http://aviary.com/about
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