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Second Life Avatar Sued for Copyright Infringement

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stroker-serpentine.jpgRight in time for the July 4th holiday week (after all, what’s more American than demanding your day in court?), businessman Kevin Alderman and his lawyer have just filed suit against someone who goes by the name Volkov Catteneo, for copyright infringement.

This would be just one IP dispute in thousands handled by US courts every day, except for two unique features: the contention is over a virtual sex bed which doesn’t exist, and the named defendant also doesn’t exist. As such, the suit will establish an enormous precedent in the new realm of virtual world law, however it shakes out.

I should back up and explain those last three sentences.

Linden Lab, the company which provides Second Life’s virtual land (i.e. server grid) and means to explore it (i.e. interface software and currency) has since late 2003 allowed its users to retain the underlying intellectual property rights to all objects and programs created in the world with its internal building and scripting tools.

This policy unleashed enormous user-created innovation, and enabled thousands of users to make a living with their virtual content creation. Alderman, known in Second Life as Stroker Serpentine (pictured) is one of SL’s leading entrepreneurs; his SL-based adult entertainment industry has become so successful, he recently sold his X-rated Amsterdam island in Second Life to a real world Dutch media firm for $50,000 very real dollars.

For the last fours years, this IP rights policy has been working more less as designed, but those who follow the virtual world business have been waiting for the other shoe to drop: what happens when one avatar tries to sue another avatar for copyright infringement in an actual court?

It finally has: Alderman/Serpentine believes Catteno is selling unauthorized copies of his SexGen bed, a piece of furniture with special embedded animations that enable players to more or less recreate an adult film with their avatars. Alderman sells his version for the L$ equivalent of USD$45, and they’ve helped make his fortune. Catteno is selling his alleged knockoff for a third that price, undercutting him.

But who does Kevin Alderman sue? Since SL users have no obligation to reveal their real life identity to other players, all the relevant data exists only on Linden’s servers and files. This is why Alderman is threatening to subpoena Linden Lab for this data, so he can bring the real person behind Catteno to trial.

I contacted Stroker Serpentine in Second Life and asked why he chose going to trial. Volkov Catteneo’s account was created in February 2007, while Stroker is a longtime and well-loved player. Why not just voice his complaint about Catteno to the SL community, so they can ostracize him and his allegedly infringing beds?

Stroker tells me he did try that method in another case, but ironically, it backfired. “[T]he last time this happened I confronted the individual about it and requested that they cease and desist…,” he says, “I was made out to be a bully and dragged through the [SL community] forums.” Linden Lab has a system for letting users file DMCA notices against each other; Stroker tried that twice, but wasn’t happy with how Linden responded. So he found a law firm specializing in copyright/trademark disputes. “We weighed all alternatives and listened to a lot of advice. So here we are.”

Trouble is, Catteno tells Reuters he doesn’t have any real world data on file with Linden Lab. (A plausible claim; since ’06, it’s no longer necessary to register a credit card or other identifying data with Linden Lab.) I imagine the company could supply Alderman and his lawyers with Catteno’s IP address, and let them deal with it from there. Or if it goes forward in court, perhaps the judge will review the case, decide it’s fundamentally nuts, and toss it. Then again, the court might let it go to trial, as it did with another user lawsuit against Linden Lab, and what happens then is anyone’s guess. Numerous companies which depend on user-created content are waiting to see. In any case, may the best avatar win.

Update, 9:00am: For the legally minded, Reuters’ SL reporters (who broke this story) have put the actual legal form in .pdf at this link.

21 Responses to “Second Life Avatar Sued for Copyright Infringement”

  1. its amazing to me that people actually spend money in second life.. in any case to each his own.. and since the items are sold for profit, as in the money is convertable to dollars it makes a whole lot of sense

  2. Impossible Thread

    Wagner James Au doesn’t seem to get it straight. The article of the Reuters contains unconfirmed claims, not known facts.

    Probably the claims that Amsterdam sim was overpriced 35 000 USD are just a publicity trick of Boom BV and Stroker Serpentine. That’s why they declined to comment on the exact price in the link provided by Wagner James Au himself. Well, they could lie about it legally, as long as they do not lie to the taxman.

    But if Boom BV did pay the overprice, there will be another question. Why?

    That could be found out by filing the “Suspected money laundering report” required by the persons involved in the busines by the EU law.

    Lovely Volkov Catteneo wrote: “he’s not winning anything from me, and if he does, sexgen will become the next hit ” freebie ” item in SL.”

    Well, the motivation of Stroker Serpentine is publicity and gaining some extra money from you to his lawyer friends. Thus, I suspect that he doesn’t care much of your threat, and I suspect that he doesn’t make any significant amounts of money from the sexgen bed.

    Have you checked that Stroker Serpentine has the copyright of each part of the item which you seem to be selling illegally?

    And does the subpoena violate the rights of the third party avatars?

    Actually, I don’t know which one of you is more disgusting, thus I’m going to enjoy this play.

  3. Volkov Catteneo

    Stroker is an ass, plain and simple, and btw, he’s not winning anything from me, and if he does, sexgen will become the next hit ” freebie ” item in SL.

  4. Second Life is a piece of software, avatars are accounts. Holding a trial in Second Life is like holding a trial in Photoshop.

    @Mary if I reverse engineer your software, and sell it, where would you like to battle it out? :)

  5. Putting aside the legal ramifications of this whole thing, I am still trying to wrap my head around two avatars in court. Does it make more sense if the trial is actually held in Second Life? That would certainly increase the level of “unprecedented” to Defcon Chartreuse. Sheesh.

    -Mary from BINC

  6. The question is whether it’s a knock off or a direct copy of the source code. In the first case I doubt that anything can or should be done against it. This plays into software patents which I think are a bad idea in general because it’s about patenting ideas (there are many similar items of course in SL anyway).

    If it’s a direct copy of the source code (however he might have gotten hold of it) then it’s a different case.

    Regarding the Blizzard analogy from Eric I think it depends whether you can change the code on their servers.. Just publishing some algorithm which calculates the frequency of loot is not going to court except they hacked Blizzard and took their original source code.

  7. Cat Cotton

    Would the media stop repeating the lie about the Amsterdam island selling for 50k US. It did not, the deal was shady from the get go and fell threw in the end. Get real no one in their right mind would pay 50k Us for an island. Amsterdam island was ok but hardly worth that price.

    As for Stroker Serpentine good luck to you, I am not sure I would take it to court but I guess if your making a real life living at it why not.


  8. Gotta pick on the issue of ‘sex bed that doesn’t exist’. Putting aside the textbook snark that will come with THAT statement, I’m curious about the ‘doesn’t exist’ part.

    Why isn’t that considered software? There is source code and elements that went into the creation of it– say, like a widget or piece of software or function.

    Just because a different metaphor is placed on something doesn’t change what it is.

    I rent ‘land’ from Linden Lab, the same way I rent ‘land’ from Dreamhost. I can resell that ‘land’ in either case. I could charge you money to say, have your own blog on my website.

    Under the hood, it’s the same thing. So, just because it’s called ‘a sex bed’ that changes things?

    I’d be willing to bet that if you ripped out a piece of code inside of the World of Warcraft that controlled the frequency of the loot that was dropped, and tried to sell it, Blizzard would have NO problem taking you straight to court.