The “List”

Open up your dresser drawer, a cupboard in your workshop, the trunk of your car … and without much effort you can quickly organize the contents of any of those into a List. Lists are very convenient assemblies of related items arranged in some order or sequence that makes them easy to communicate, easy to manage and very easy to memorize. Lists are overall very handy. If you’ve ever been shopping, performed a task with more than two steps, or put together a kit of some sort then you’ve no doubt created and/or depended on a List. All in all, they’re very handy things.

But from time to time, we humans engage in creating a type of List that really should not be put together. It’s not that the members of the list are so unrelated as to defy arrangement in a list format, nor that organizing the members into a list does not help understand their relationship to each other. It’s more the purpose of the List, how it is created, why it is created and by what process it gets updated and managed. The type of List I’m talking about is … the “List of Very Bad People in Second Life”.

The Very Bad People in Second Life

Before I get started, I’ll need to define what is meant by the phrase “Very Bad People”. The problem is, the exact meaning really depends on who created the list in the first place and what they intended as the purpose of the list. Not too long ago Second Life was all abuzz with controversy over a list of people that were accused of being Copybotters. The source of that list was a product called RedZone created by zFire Xue. The problem with the list was that it was incredibly easy to get yourself added to the list, and virtually impossible to get removed. zFire was the sole administrator of the list (so he claimed) and he was very adamant in proclaiming that the only people on the list were known to be Copybotters; people that made it a habit to copy the creations of others then either sell them or give them away as though they were the actual creator.

It didn’t take very long for a number of issues to crop up. Chief among them was the fact that the method zFire used to determine if a person was engaging in Copybotting was flawed … in fact it was very flawed. Lots of very knowledgeable people expended massive numbers of pixels describing in deep technical detail how horribly flawed his method was. But then after you get past the errors in determining who should be added to the list was the fact that zFire was the only one that could remove a name from the list. Emotions ran very high as various people with sterling reputations found themselves mysteriously added to zFire’s list. When they contacted him and requested their name be removed, his routine response was to cite how accurate and dependable his methods were, and thus he would end his responses to such requests with a flat refusal to remove any names because his methods were so accurate. Needless to say, tempers got really cranked up.

Eventually Linden Lab took action against zFire, banning him from using Second Life and further banning the use of devices such as his RedZone system. They cited the various provisions in their Terms of Service that protect a user’s privacy, claiming that RedZone’s capture of a person’s IP Address was violating that privacy. No matter what the official reason though, what really needed to be removed was the list itself .. and the whole purpose behind the list. That purpose being to label certain people as “Very Bad People in Second Life.”

The Problem with Blacklists

This type of list .. a list that essentially labels the members of the list as being “Bad” for some reason .. almost always have a very nasty end result and usually wind up harming a lot of innocent people before the list is finally deleted. The reasons this happens almost always include the susceptibility of the list to abuse and misuse for personal vendettas. Even when the original purpose of the list is very noble, and even when those in charge of maintaining the list are of impeccable credentials, at some point in time the power imbued by the list pulls up a hangnail in someone’s character, and from there on out the list is more a weapon of destruction than a service for good.

The Copybotter List created by zFire is one very good example of this, but there have been other even more noteworthy examples all throughout history. Most everyone alive these days has heard of the list of Communist Sympathizers assembled by Joseph McCarthy in the 1950’s. Many people in the entertainment industry found themselves unable to find work because their name had been added to McCarthy’s blacklist. When he first started off on his anti-Communist agenda, he was heralded as a protector of American Ideals and Liberty. But as time progressed and the abuses wrought by the list on perfectly innocent people became more and more evident, McCarthy fell further and further from grace.

A New List Rears Its Ugly Head

Just recently another one of these poison pen Black Lists has come to light in Second Life. A post on the Merchant’s board of the SL Forums has stirred up a hornet’s nest of opposing opinions. Because the subject matter at the core of the debate is Intellectual Property Theft and its effects on Creators, emotions have been running high and words have been used that sometimes cut deep. If there is one thing that Second Life does not lack, that is passion. When it comes to protecting one’s own creations, passion doesn’t begin to express it fully. You’d have to write it in 72 pt. boldface underlined italics .. just to start to capture the level of emotion.

The list that is the focus of today’s post is one that was ostensibly created to help protect Animators. Creating animations in Second Life is a very time-consuming and resource expensive proposition. Those people that have built a solid business from creating and selling animations have a lot invested, both in capital and in time/effort. They take great care to ensure that their creations are protected using the permissions system in Second Life.

Rampant IP Theft

Unfortunately there are also a small number of SL users that take great delight in stealing those creations, setting them to full-perm, and selling them to anyone and everyone. Thus it’s quite understandable that when an animator, having spent untold hours and dollars creating top-quality animations find that their creations are being sold for pennies on the dollar and with full permissions, said animator goes a tiny bit berserk. Unless you’ve had the “pleasure” of finding your hard work compromised and distributed hither and yon, you really cannot begin to comprehend the feelings of violation, rage and disgust that flood into every corner of your thoughts.

Sadly Linden Lab is very much at a loss on how to protect content creators from this type of theft. The debates regarding methods to stop the glut of stolen merchandise cover every bit of the entire range from ludicrous to incredibly complicated and involved. However the sad bottom line is that the Lab has to date done nothing of any value in the way of stopping this theft. Thus it is quite understandable that Content Creators would want to take matters into their own hands and come up with some method to help protect themselves. One of those methods is the creation of a List.

The Purpose of The List

I am not in possession of “The List” so I cannot speak with absolute authority on how it came to be, but I can put forth some reasonable theories on its gestation. Based on the comments from one of the people posting in the above-mentioned thread, the List most likely was created as a way to keep track of those people who were suspected of stealing animations. No doubt when one of the animators involved filed a DMCA Takedown Notice with Linden Lab, they would provide the name of the account they filed against and that name would be added to the list. So far, so good, right?

But somewhere along the line, a few folks probably got the idea that since their stolen animations had been sold to others, and those others were most likely selling builds that included the stolen animations, those second-level people should also be added to the list. Suddenly the purpose of the list took on a whole new and very sinister secondary use. Not only did the membership of the list grow much larger almost overnight, but the qualification for adding a name to the list got a lot fuzzier and much less precise.

Qualifying for The List

How do you qualify a name to be added to the List? That’s a very good question to ask, and a very hard question to answer. The problem is that when Linden Lab removes a stolen asset from the Grid, they do not tell anyone who they have removed it from. Since it’s highly unlikely that the original thief publishes complete customer lists showing who bought what, finding names to add to the list becomes a guessing game of rather dangerous proportions. But remember that the original creators of those stolen animations are anxious to put a stop to distribution of their stolen property, so they may fall into the trap of adding names to the list based on speculation.

In the specific example described in the above-mentioned forum post, it appears that being a member of the original thief’s VIP Group was enough evidence needed to get your name added to the list. It didn’t really matter if someone in the VIP Group had actually purchased anything or not, because after all the IDEA behind the list was simply to warn other animators who might be in possession of stolen assets. So really it wasn’t any harm to be on the list … or was it?

Lost In Translation

Now we have to mix in the reality of how human beings behave when it comes to Blacklists and accusations. While the initial purpose of the list was to keep track of people believed to have actually stolen animations from the original creator, the way people tend to “buzz the treetops” when it comes to such a list means that most people will immediately assume any name on the list is guaranteed to be the name of someone that is known to have stolen directly from the original creator. Not only is this not true with the original members of the list .. as they were only people that were the targets of DMCA Notices .. but the list was suddenly expanded to include anyone that might have purchased a stolen animation from the thief. And yet people reading the list will continue to apply the same level of guilt to every name on the list, essentially calling as guilty people that just happened to have joined the thief’s VIP Group.

This fuzzing of the true level of guilt for names on the list, combined with the specious qualifications needed to add a name to the list, results in scads of perfectly innocent folks .. and a good number of them victims too .. suddenly being declared just as dirty and just as despicable as the real thieves on the list. Not only is this “Guilt by Association” in its more destructive and blatant form, but it’s not even an association that has any solid basis in provable evidence. It’s well known that people join VIP Groups when possible in the hopes of obtaining special pricing or even free gifts. After all, if you can save yourself a few thousand L$ just by joining an in-world group .. why not?

Seeing the List and Getting Removed

Those responsible for maintaining the list, believing in all earnest that they are performing a service of great value for the residents and creators of Second Life, will protect the list will intense fervor. They will make sure that it stays secret so that the real thieves don’t get spooked and switch to a new account, thus escaping true prosecution by LL or their own legal team. They will also fight with great energy to keep names on the list, resisting removal of a name unless there is really solid and irrefutable proof that the person named is absolutely innocent. After all, if someone is on that list, you can’t just take their word for it that they’re not stealing your stuff. If they’re gonna steal from you, they’ll lie to you just as easily. So while it’s all too easy to get your name on that list, getting your name off is pretty much impossible.

Then we come to the use of the List. When is it used, who gets to see the names on the list, and what are they told when they get a copy (or just receive confirmation that a name is on the list)? To be honest, we don’t know. The list is secret … double-super-top-secret … with a blood oath to boot. So being allowed to view it, getting a copy of it, or being allowed to verify a name on it is something that is only shared with very special people. Except …

The people on that list, y’know those scum that have been stealing “My Stuff” and really have no respect for anyone at all .. they probably deserve to get screwed a bit in return, right? So what if you hand out copies to your 150 closest friends. And so what if they don’t really pay attention when you tell them that the names are of people that might have maybe possibly purchased something that you think was stolen. They’re probably bad folks anyway, and they’d probably sell your animation anyway without the least bit of concern about how much that’s stealing from you. (One of the folks posting on the forum thread said as much in fact.) So if a few folks get a wee bit of heartburn … that’s no big deal because you aren’t losing money anymore.

Nibble, Nibble .. CHOMP!

As you can see, with a very short path of very small and totally understandable pushes against the edges, the original purpose of the List has become completely corrupted. A whole slew of people that have already been victimized because they purchased stolen assets they cannot use (and thus lost their money with no recourse to recover it whatsoever), those people are suddenly “Blacklisted”, their reputations damaged and their future viability as business people compromised.

The real rub here is that no one that originally created the List ever intended nor really wanted to do harm to innocent bystanders. They only wanted to make sure their hard work and precious creations were protected. But with each tiny little nibble on the limits, eventually the result is a giant chomp that can permanently ruin someone’s source of income. It becomes a classic example of unintended consequences … and the parties on both sides are truly innocent. Sadly though, innocent or not, honest and decent people have been harmed .. and there is only one thing that can be blamed as the cause.

Shout Down The List

Whether you have been affected by such a List as I’ve described, or whether you’ve been tempted to start a list of your own like this, I hope that you can see how such an effort can easily turn poison despite all the best intentions at every step of the way. I know this to be true because I was a participant in such a list almost 20 10 years ago. While the initial goal of our List was very noble and was meant to help protect those on a particular Internet Chat site that were perhaps naive or incapable of protecting themselves, almost overnight and without full realization of what was going on, our List transformed into a weapon that resulted in dealing some very rough emotional blows to people that were completely innocent and never should have been involved.

When I realized how our good intentions had suddenly turned into a monster, I did my best to shut it down, delete it permanently and warn those that might have been about to get hit about what was going on. As a result, I too found myself on that list … a turn of events that I fully expected. But even though I did my best to undo the damage we had wrought, to this day I still carry that hard-earned lesson very near the top of my memory. On my “List of Regrets”, that one still has a place of high visibility. This is one of the primary reasons I work so hard to stop such lists whenever I encounter them now. You may think me jaded, but that’s a label I’m more than happy to risk as long as the damage that can occur is stopped as soon as possible.

If you know of such a list, if you’ve contributed to or used such a list, I hope that you’ll read my words here and take appropriate action to curtail its misuse as soon as possible. No matter what happens though, I hope we all can learn a lesson from this incident .. and learn it without having to add it to your own personal List of Regrets.


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Comments

2 Comments on The “List”

  1. Emuna Zamani on Tue, 16th Oct 2012 2:31 PM
  2. As the person that started the thread on the Merchant’s Board on the Second Life Forums, thank you for writing this.

    I surely empathize with those that create tons more content than I am able to. Without them, most of us would not have the businesses that we cherish so much. My issue is when certain creators place everyone in the same bucket as the thieves just because they made the mistake of purchasing from them or accepting a gift.

    My hope is that some good comes out of what I posted although the conversation grew to high levels of passion, to put it nicely.

  3. Darrius Gothly on Tue, 16th Oct 2012 4:28 PM
  4. “High levels of passion” is decidedly an understatement. 😀 It appears it continues on as well. I agree with you though, if the only thing that comes out of this is that a few people think twice before sending off messages to others, before taking an adversarial tone, and before striking out at others because they feel hurt or taken advantage of, then all of the drama and tension will have been worth it. Keep your chin up Emuna. I think it took a lot of courage to post as you did, and I have to respect that whenever I see it demonstrated.