Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Real-life Law intersecting with Virtual Reality

C-Net earlier this month carried a story about the owner of a Second Life avatar demanding that YouTube and an Australian newspaper take down stories about a harrassment attack on her in Second Life.

Last month, Anshe Chung Studios demanded that YouTube delete the recording, citing the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, which generally requires Web sites to remove material that infringes on copyright laws. The controversy stemmed from video taken during an interview with Anshe Chung, the virtual world's biggest land owner, conducted by CNET in its Second Life bureau last month.
To Jason Schultz, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the issues surrounding the DMCA complaint are pretty cut and dried.

"Since the general theory (in Second Life) is that you own what you create, she completely owns the copyright in her avatar," said Schultz. "But that said, she absolutely has no rights under fair use to stop people from taking screenshots or screen captures of her avatar in Second Life."

Schultz also drew a comparison between this situation and a real-life hypothetical.

"The analogy I would draw is if there was a car accident in downtown New York," he said, "and the driver happened to be wearing an Armani suit, and there was a photographer who took photos and published them. That photographer couldn't be sued by Armani. News is news. And fair use gives news reporters and others the right to report what they see and hear, even if it includes your copyrighted work."

Of course, fair use doctrine, regardless of how well established it might be, has not been fully tested when it comes to a virtual world like Second Life. But to some observers, the issues surrounding the doctrine are the same, regardless of whether the medium is real life or a digital environment.

Ailin Graef {owner of the harassed avatar and largest landowner in Second Life} "can control tracts of land in Second Life all she wants," said Xeni Jardin, a co-editor of the tech culture blog Boing Boing, which published a story with an image on the griefing attack last month. "But she can't control the rest of the Internet where I and other journalists like to live and speak freely. And we intend to continue to do that."

In mid-month, the complaint was withdrawn and the people involved granted another interview to C-Net here. The real-life husband of the woman who owns the avatar regretted casting his initial complaints as copyright infringement under the DMCA, and now states that the images of the griefing attack were defamatory and particularly offensive since the avatar (and apparently the owner in real life, too) is oriental. The YouTube video replayed the harassment of the avatar during a live, but virtual interview of Anshe Chung, the avatar. The video was set to music and featured giant penises and posed the avatar hugging a penis. Apparently this was the aspect the complaint tried to reach. The husband and wife live in Germany, and state in this interview that they could find no form to complain with except the DMCA, but really were focused on what they have characterized as virtual rape: impression at the time was that Corporate America may view Second Life and what happens there strictly as a matter of pixels and textures and I had given up hope that my original concerns that I had raised would ever be taken seriously. I tried to engage into a discussion, also with Boing Boing and The Sydney Morning Herald, based on the paradigm of Second Life being a place where people interact and things happen--an analogy to the real world. But I was ignored when raising the issue of personality rights in that space. I felt like people believed they can do whatever they want because, anyway, they just show pixels and avatars/cartoons in a game. YouTube has not given me feedback about what exactly were the terms of use they saw violated.

I am fascinated by the interplay between virtual reality and law in the real world. Here is a handy link to other C-Net stories about virtual reality's intersection with the real world: link. The stories range from Sweden opening an embassy in Second Life, to eBay auctions either banning or allowing sale of virtual world items to political figures and catalog sales groups opening virtual world presences.

1 comment:

Betsy McKenzie said...

Ironically enough, I can't seem to get any traction trying out Second Life. I don't know if I'm just too old for this or if my connection is slow. It looks as though I'll never get to try being a Second Life law librarian! I'll just go on watching from the sidelines, I guess. sigh~