What would happen to business and society if you could easily make a copy of anything – not just MP3s and DVDs, but clothes, chairs and even houses? That may not be a problem most of us will have to confront for a while yet, but the 1.5m residents of the virtual world Second Life are already grappling with this issue.
A new program called CopyBot allows Second Life users to duplicate repeatedly certain elements of any object in the vicinity – and sometimes all of it. That’s awkward in a world where such virtual goods can be sold for real money. When CopyBot first appeared, some retailers in Second Life shut up shop, convinced that their virtual goods were about to be endlessly copied and rendered worthless. Others protested, and suggested that in the absence of scarcity, Second Life’s economy would collapse.
Instead of sending a flow of pictures of the virtual world to the user as a series of pixels – something that would be impractical to calculate – the information would be transmitted as a list of basic shapes that were re-created on the user’s PC. For example, a virtual house might be a cuboid with rectangles representing windows and doors, cylinders for the chimney stacks etc.
This meant the local world could be sent in great detail very compactly, but also that the software on the user’s machine had all the information for making a copy of any nearby object. It’s like the web: in order to display a page, the browser receives not an image of the page, but all the underlying HTML code to generate that page, which also means that the HTML of any web page can be copied perfectly. Thus CopyBot – written by a group called libsecondlife as part of an open-source project to create Second Life applications – or something like it was bound to appear one day.
Liberating the economy has led to a boom in creativity, just as Rosedale hoped. It is in constant expansion as people buy virtual land, and every day more than $500,000 (£263,000) is spent buying virtual objects. But the downside is that unwanted copying is potentially a threat to the substantial businesses selling virtual goods that have been built up, and a concern for the real-life companies such as IBM, Adidas and Nissan which are beginning to enter Second Life.
Just as it is probably not feasible to stop “grey goo” – the Second Life equivalent of spam, which takes the form of self- replicating objects malicious “griefers” use to gum up the main servers – so it is probably technically impossible to stop copying. Fortunately, not all aspects of an object can be duplicated. To create complex items – such as a virtual car that can be driven – you use a special programming language to code their realistic behaviour. CopyBot cannot duplicate these programs because they are never passed to the user, but run on the Linden Lab’s computers.
As for the elements that you can copy, such as shape and texture, Rosedale explains: “What we’re going to do is add a lot of attribution. You’ll be able to easily see when an object or texture was first created,” – and hence if something is a later copy.