Monday, August 30, 2010

Wicked Websites: There Be Dragons in a Second Life

Well, I finally got past the dragons on this, my (free) blog account.

I'm in a group: #amwriting, and received on twitter through that group, notice about a writing event to take place (without a description of the event).  Curiosity took me to the location of the event.  It was to be on a site called #SecondLife, or [do not click on this link]  This site is run by Linden Research, Inc., also called "Linden Lab."  Address: 945 Battery St., San Francisco, CA 94111.

In order to get to the event, I had to sign in.  It was free.  So I began.  I could do nothing else until I had given them my email address, and of course my "private" password, with a password clue that would help "me" remember it.  They also, naturally, got my IP address, which means they will always be able to identify my computer.  I have had to do some serious changes here, but I'm back.

Did I go to the event? 
I did not.  Something inside me told me I should read their EULA (end user license agreement) first.  Well, I did.  It was horrifying. Before I go over in detail what this site charges, and what it does and doesn't do as I was able to discover it, I should tell you what it is.  It is basically a role-player's dream, except that when you're on it, unless you play in the role-playing section, you won't likely know that you, too, are a role-player.  It is also a computer game.  It is an attractive blog.  It makes you take on an identity, or avatar, which has a far nicer life (maybe) than your own current one.  This avatar must own "real estate" (large or small) to participate in almost everything on Second Life.  This costs money, real money, which you have to pay upfront, and which gives you absolutely no rights.  Then, when you want to do something on the site, most of the things cost Linden dollars (which my research indicated cost a US dollar to buy, plus probably stock market fees) because you get these things by buying them on the Linden Lab stock market.

It reminded me a little of a straightforward computer game that my daughter used to play with her Pegasus, made by Ganz.  All she needed was to have purchased a little stuffed animal with a code that links online to the game that had "her" Pegasus in it.  There were no fees for this game.  The only cost was the stuffed animal.  It was called a "Webkinz".  She could play with her Pegasus, which she got to name, and it had a place to live in, very basic (no bed, as I recall).  She had to make her Pegasus do certain things correctly in the game to earn points which she could use to buy things for her online Pegasus's avatar.  She soon learned that it would be wise to buy food before nailpolish, that sort of thing.

The Virtual World for Adults called Second Life is similar, except that, unfortunately, the purpose isn't to help a child through the use of fun games to learn a few useful life lessons.  The purpose of this Virtual World, Second, is to take a huge amount of money from people who think it's a neat place to be.

And so it is.  There is a huge section for role-playing gamers.  Some nice graphics (though probably not as nice as the computer games available for purchase in any electronics department of most stores.)  There is also a very large "language" section which allows you to chat with people from other lands, and maybe learn a little bit of a foreign language.  There is a travel section which talks about the real world places that you've always wanted to go to.  There is a Philosophy section which includes one on buddhism (now that's a joke) where you get lectures about its humility and quiet lifestyle and how to meditate (for money, lots of it).  There are other sections including discussion sites and commentaries, teaching about music creation, art creation, movie creation and writing, or just plain having fun letting your "avatar" do these things.  It all just reeks of the joy of being creative.

Now, suppose that you, in the guise of your avatar, write a song that's really good; or you write a story; or make a film, or do some incredible graphics.  They're yours, right?  Nope.  You have intellectual ownership of them, only.  You can't do anything with your intellectual ownership.  You can't even use them outside in the real world, because (and I quote)  "Linden Lab owns the bits and bytes of electronic data on its servers and will solely determine any disposition of the electronic data stored on its servers".  And (I quote again): "You agree that by uploading, publishing (etc.) through the servers, websites etc. of Second, you automatically grant Linden Lab a non-exclusive, worldwide, royalty-free, sublicensable and transferable license to use, reproduce, prepare derivative works of display and perform the Content..." that you create.  You cannot get it back.  It isn't yours except as an example of your intellectual property.  Furthermore, everyone else on this Wicked Website who wants to can prepare derivatives of your work of art.  They, however, can't take them away from the site any more than you can.  You upload a great photo?  It's theirs.  You record a marvellous video?  It's theirs.  You can prevent other users taking it for their own to play with by specifically not making your content available to others.  (One asks, then, why create that content on Linden Lab's site at all?)  However, you cannot prevent Linden Lab from using your work for whatever it wants to without any payment to you. 

Say you find this out later, and want to delete copies of your content on Linden Lab?  What you delete is not deleted from Linden, only from other users.  Linden Lab is allowed (because you didn't read the Eula before you signed on) to keep copies of particular interest to them, including film, music, snapshots, creative writing, blogs, and so on, and so on.  They even own any fonts you might have used!

This truly outrageous set of demands is made even more dreadful by the price.  It is free to register, yes (and they get a lot of info about you when you do.)  And there are a few things, very few, that are free, usually on a site that you can't get into without ownership in the site or trading to get into the site using the Linden stock exchange.  But basically here is the kind of money you're looking at:

(1)  You have to buy Linden dollars with real dollars but once you've bought them they are no good anywhere but on the site.
(2)  If you want a premium membership, first you have to buy a private region (to "live in").  If you buy a full-sized region, it will cost
$1000 just for the "regional setup" AND
$295. per month (paid in advance)

If you want an educational region, the initial setup and monthly fee are, respectively:
$700 and $147.50

There are homestead prices, and the tiny square feet "open space" prices.

Nothing is less than $250 for setup and $75 for monthly fees. 
And you still have some kind of initial fee that they do not specify plus something they call VAT (value added tax) again, and they don't specify that either.

Now suppose you only want to rent a Region for a day.  The cost is:
$L 4000 per day payable in full on the first day of rental.
I could find nowhere on the Eula if Linden dollars  are ever any different than US dollars. 

I truly do not want to be hauled up for slander or libel (though it is not slander or libel if it is TRUE), and so I add this disclaimer: What I have described to you is what I saw on the Second Life website.  There may have been things that I didn't see.

As a writer, I am scared to death at the concept of "Bookstacks Isle", a region where Readers go for Book Clubs, Readings, and other literary events of the sort that, presumably, I began to track down today. If you want to belong to a bookclub online, there are lots of free ones, and they are very good, including my own favourite:  And if you want to go to a reading, there are literally dozens announced on twitter and facebook every day. Free.

I heard that it was P.T. Barnum who once said, "There's a sucker born every minute", though I believe it was actually someone else.  The point really isn't who said it, but what you should learn from it.

This was a lesson to me too.  Always, whatever site you want to join or software you want to buy, READ the EULA.  You never know.  You might be signing away your first-born child.