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11/15/2006
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Second Life Shop Owners Threaten Suit Against Virtual World's Creator

Scores of Second Life shop owners on Wednesday closed their stores in protest against Linden Lab, saying the company was responsible for the release of an in-world tool that could be used to copy their virtual wares.

Scores of Second Life shop owners on Wednesday closed their stores in protest against Linden Lab and threatened the creator of the online fantasy world with a class-action suit, saying the company was responsible for the release of an in-world tool that could be used to copy their virtual wares.

Fearful of losing their intellectual property, store owners said their shops will remain closed until they're sure they could protect their property. The retailers, who pay a monthly fee for the virtual land to set up shop, accused their landlord of failing to respond to their concerns.

"I won't open 'til LL responds to its public," a person who went by the in-world name of Rick Curie wrote in a discussion group that attracted hundreds of Second Life citizens.

"LL is the problem, the fact that they don't care," shopkeeper Szentasha Salome wrote.

The revolt has the potential of causing serious problems for Linden Lab, which operates what has grown into a multimillion-dollar online economy. In the last 24 hours, for example, the 3D world's more than 1.3 million registered users did more than $690,000 worth of business, according to Linden Lab. In September, they did $7.4 million.

Second Life has also attracted major companies, which have rented space to set up their own stores. Computer maker Dell officially kicked off its in-world shop on Tuesday to sell computers to Second Life residents. Reuters news agency recently opened a bureau to cover Second Life events. Other companies active in Second Life include carmaker Nissan and clothier American Apparel.

A search of stores that were closed on Wednesday showed more than 110. Shopkeepers, however, reported the number at 600. Much of the goods sold in Second Life are clothes, jewelry, and other accessories for avatars, the in-world representations of the real-world users. Objects such as furniture and art are also sold to place in buildings created in the virtual world.

The controversy revolves around the software tool CopyBot, developed by the open-source group Libsecondlife. The group works with Linden Lab to identify vulnerabilities in the system that could be exploited by malicious users. CopyBot was created as a debugging tool, but was altered by someone outside the group so it could be used to copy objects within Second Life. "Even avatars have been copied right in front of people's faces, so that they were looking into a mirror," in-world resident CaveCub Milk wrote.

Shopkeepers on Wednesday held a protest in front of the in-world office of Libsecondlife, holding signs that read "Stop Buying. Stop Selling. Start Protesting," and "Linden Lab once again did hurt our world."

Linden Lab declined a request for an interview, saying all the company had to say for now was in its official blog. In that message, the company acknowledged that Second Life needs features to protect people's assets and promised to have tools available in the first quarter of next year. In the meantime, users who made unauthorized copies of other people's property would be banned from Second Life. In addition, the company advised victims to sue perpetrators for copyright infringement.

The company also warned residents that theft would be an ongoing threat. "Like the World Wide Web, it will never be possible to prevent data that is drawn on your screen from being copied," the company wrote. "While Linden Lab could get into an arms race with residents in an attempt to stop this copy, those attempts would surely fail and could harm legitimate projects within Second Life."

Nevertheless, Tommy Parrott, owner of Smart Art in Second Life, wasn't swayed, saying in a telephone interview that the tool was created for Linden Lab, so it was responsible for preventing its release and preventing any damages. "If they don't get their butts in gear here really soon, I smell a class-action lawsuit happening," Parrott said. In the discussion groups Wednesday, other shopkeepers also warned of a possible lawsuit.

CopyBot first surfaced in Second Life on Tuesday in a store owned by someone whose first name was Prim, Parrott, whose real name is T.R. Lifter, said. The shopkeeper was selling the tool, which is downloaded and used within the Second Life client, and then started offering it for free.

Once the tool was discovered and word got out, hundreds of residents started forming discussion groups and headed to Prim's store, Parrott said. One resident told Prim, "If this was real life, I'd walk over to you and poke you in your eye."

Prim could no longer be found in Second Life, but it wasn't clear whether he had been thrown out of the fantasy game.

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