October 29, 2004

State of Play II-04 NY Law School, digital property

by Mary Flanagan · , 4:51 pm

The morning panel at the State of Play conference 2 here at the NY Law School was invigorating; David Johnson from the NY Law School led a discussion of Intellectual Property/Digital Property. The panelists, an amazing mix of lawyer, culture worker, and theorist, provided a glimpse at a range of approaches towards IP law in online worlds and specifically games.

Yochai Benkler has argued that virtual worlds built must have definitions before they are built so as best to set up IP expectations and issues with users. How are virtual worlds defined by the makers, and can the IP rules promote creativity? Sites where world makers disclaim the right to exclude have been enormously productive for those worlds… He is pushing for a EULA that vows that the company will share what they use but not block use. As someone who makes all kinds of digital artifacts, I find this preplanning almost an impossibility. How would digital artists, for example, or even MMORP owners, really plan on the multifarious kinds of engagement that participants engage in?

David Johnson posed the question to the staff of Second Life: how does one make a world that encourages creativity? Cory Ondrejka, VP of Product development at Second Life, notes that typical open source style production is not really set up for games and entertainment, for its expensive to produce assets. “Digital worlds are great importers of content from the real world. ”

Ondrejka cautioned that we should not overlook the importance of 3D-ness in new communal spaces online. He also mentioned that since he presented at the conference last year, the quality of the world is mightily improved, increasing the company goal of fostering collaboration and creation–they granted intellectual property rights to get materials produced, and he attributes major growth to the world (15 times over in a year) to this liberation of creative IP. Ondrejka notes that Second Life users spend 35% of their time every day making and uploading user created content!

Your friendly blogger just has to consider… if we use today’s tools, what is the liklihood that we may only reproduce the ideologies embedded within and around them? Obviously with the multiple wikis and filesharing systems, different systems of exchange are emerging. I’m thinking of Marcel Mauss’s book The Gift here as well, often cited in this area of research; in a cross cultural analysis of gift giving, Marcel Mauss notes that gifts can be:

a) a means of holding power over someone through obligation to receive or give (9). “One gives because one is forced to do so, because the recipient has a sort of proprietary right over everything which belongs to the donor” (11).
b) gifts can be a way of demonstrating morality through religious activities: gifts made to gods, for example, in front of other people demonstrate the economy of myth. These exchanges concern the sacred beings of a particuar culture as well as human participants (13)
c) gifts can be alms: both the result of a moral idea on gifts and the idea of the good of sacrifice and generosity (15). The powers at be may take vengeance upon the rich unless they participate in sharing.
d) Gifts can prove honor and generosity (17)
e) gifts can produce “friendly feelings” between people, sealing events such as marriage.(18)
f) gifts can demonstrate wealth and power, making those around them feel safe or threatened, making those giving feel benevolent or honored (Gifts can be devalued for ritual purposes to temporarily alter and redefine power relations (21)
(Mauss, Marcel. The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. Trans Ian Cunnison. NY, London: W. W. Norton, 1967.)

(**note: not everyone at this conference would agree about allusions to the gift economy. However I feel that this framework is suitably complex for inclusion in some of the open source and exchange system discourse).

Certainly IP and other legal issues are touching on some of the most important social and economic questions of our time, especially the systems of exchange which are so much a part– ok, in capitalsim, the central component– of cultural practice. If online digital spaces are our new public space, indeed, perhaps even emerging a culture, how we contribute to the collective good with them remains a fundamentally imperative for we culture workers invested in the values our technical worlds are creating.