Virtual Commons and Copyright

01Dec06

Here is a link to a nice article in Linux Journal by Glyn Moody about the need for open source involvement in Second Life and similar virtual realms.

I confess to having no experience with Second Life or any of the similar virtual worlds. But I suspect that virtual economies may be the future of economic modeling and experimentation. According to the article, Second Life has 1,700,000 participants/residents who spend $600,000 in real dollars per day on their activities within Second Life’s virtual economy. That has to a better basis for research than the few dozen graduate students who too often constitute the sample for published economic experiments.

The topic of user-created virtual worlds is fascinating and the article argues that these virtual worlds may evolve into something much more important than we can see now. I can only agree with Moody that a new social and economic area like this needs to be accessible, or even managed, in a common, open source compatible manner.

But in some ways the most notable part of the article for me was its brief consideration of how often the open source world seems to be left playing catch up to private companies on new developments like this. The Second Life situation seems like a perfect illustration of the central issue of patents and copyright: how creating the possibility for private profit through patent and copyright encourages innovation that might not otherwise occur. Open source development did not launch this new world and is not leading the way in exploring it either. That fact is an argument for private control and profit. And yet if the virtual world becomes successful, extensive, and important, then at some point allowing it to be managed strategically by private players and constrained for their private profit, rather than providing universal access, will lead to serious social losses.

It’s just another reminder that the issue is not private property versus commons; the issue is private property and commons. My argument is with people who insist on one without the other, which in today’s political climate usually means marketeers.

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