In a prior post we described our plan to use a blockchain to store both currency and digital assets. Here are more details about how we think content protection will work in open virtual worlds, and specifically what we are planning for High Fidelity.
Intellectual Property in Virtual Worlds
First, let’s start by talking about what intellectual property is in a virtual world, and why it is important to have some common agreement on how it should work. Imagine that, as a creator, you spend a bunch of time inventing a cool pair of sunglasses for avatars: The sunglasses have a unique visual design, and you also program them to change their ‘tint’ according to how ‘bright’ it is outside (which you cleverly measure by looking at the surrounding area with the script). So your sunglasses are a digital asset that you as a creator might want to be able to sell to other people, and have some degree of protection that if someone made a very similar copy, you could complain about it. But how can you do this in a virtual world, where many people will operate their own servers, copies are easy to make, and restrictive techniques like ‘DRM’ are going to be as unsuccessful and annoying as they were for digital music? We believe that the right solution is to have a public registry of digital assets, along with the ability to issue digital certificates for instances of these assets that can be inspected by anyone to determine if an asset is authentic. By making it easy and even fun to see/verify these certificates and also easy to use them to buy your own copies, we think that the right kind of social pressure and balance will be struck. Like the internet itself, there will certainly be theft and lawless servers where anything goes, but most of the time people will visit locations and use products that are certified in this way because it will be easier.
Registration with Review
When a creator makes a digital asset that they want to protect, they will submit it to High Fidelity for registration. We will put the details of the proposed registration in public on our website for a period of time (probably a few days). This process will be similar to how patents and trademarks work — there is a period where you get a chance to review something and object. If we receive a legitimate objection, or we find in our review that the proposed asset is too similar to other registered assets (or RL trademarks or copyrights), we will refuse the registration. Note that this doesn’t mean that the item can’t ‘exist’ in the virtual world, because as an open system, people can put whatever they want on their own servers. But what it does mean is that the item cannot be registered as unique and therefore cannot be sold in the High Fidelity marketplace, as well as any other marketplaces that use our registration system.
Once something is accepted for registration, we will write information to the HFC blockchain (a permanent public ledger that everyone can read) proving that the item is officially registered and is the property of the initial creator. As the creator, you will hold a private key that allows you to prove at anytime that you are the creator of the original asset that was registered, and also allows you to make official copies of your asset for others.
Certificates for Unique Assets
When someone buys your sunglasses from you, you create a digital certificate (basically a proof-of-purchase) that officially states that they now own a pair of your sunglasses. Minimally, this certificate points back to the original registered asset, is signed by you as the creator, and is also stored in the public blockchain with a key that can be used by the new owner to prove that they own it (or to re-sell it to someone else). So there are now two ‘official’ documents in the blockchain — the registration of the original design for the asset, and the certificate proving that a copy of it is owner by the buyer.
Inspecting Digital Assets
When the new buyer wears your sunglasses and visits somewhere in VR, anyone nearby can ‘inspect’ the sunglasses. This will be done by pointing at them and bringing up a helper UI that will have a link back to the original registration, and which may also have a link to the marketplace if the item is for sale, so that anyone looking at the sunglasses can easily buy their own pair! If someone made a copy of the model file for your sunglasses and just wore it on their avatar, there would not a certificate to go with them, and when you tried to inspect them you would see nothing come up. This will make it very obvious to anyone that the copy was unauthorized, and server operators will have the ability to set whether they want to allow unauthorized assets to exist, or optionally whether to restrict them to have a limited lifetime.
Transferring Assets to a New Owner
The new buyer of your sunglasses could also choose to re-sell them to someone else, by adding data to the blockchain indicating their price and that they are available for sale. In this case when you inspect them you will see the option to buy them, and if you transfer the price in HFC to the owner, they will automatically sign the certificate over to now belong to a key that you control. Note that this process of transferring an asset is peer-to-peer — not facilitated or approved/enabled in any way by High Fidelity (or any other third party). And even if High Fidelity and it’s marketplace were to shutdown altogether, you would still have ownership of and ability to transfer your assets through your ability to read and write to the public blockchain.
Protecting against Unauthorized Copies
Because there is an unique entry in the blockchain for each copy of the sunglasses that have been purchased from you, and because this entry is signed with a private key, we can protect against duplicate copies in one of two different ways: First, if the owner is present, anyone can challenge the owner to ‘prove’ that they own the object by asking them to sign a message with the sunglasses’ private key. This process can be automated in the inspection step described above. So basically when you inspect something like the glasses someone is wearing, they can securely say to you “my owner is standing right here”.
But what about the case where you might leave many copies of a digital asset (in this case let’s imagine a lovely Japanese Maple tree) around different parts of the world, even on different servers, but with the same certificate? And further imagine that the owner isn’t there. How do we know which one is the ‘real’ version? In this case, what we do is require that the owner update the blockchain with the latest location for the asset. So if something is going to be left sitting around somewhere, you have to write it’s current location to the blockchain. Since anyone can look up that latest entry, it can only have one ‘official’ location. Servers can automatically delete assets with certificates that have the wrong location — so if you leave a copy of something somewhere and logout and then place it somewhere else, it will automatically be deleted from the old location. And if you, as a visitor, inspect something and find the location doesn’t match what is written in the blockchain, you’ll know it’s not the official copy.
We think this is a simple and workable system for creating a public registry for unique digital assets and their designs, allowing individual copies to be sold, and reasonably protecting the rights of owners and creators. This system will work across an open network of many different servers, does not need to use ineffective DRM systems, and is not dependent on or controlled by any central agency (other than the initial first registration of unique assets) for it’s operation. Furthermore, there can be more than one marketplace or registry, in a manner similar to how there are multiple registries for things like domain names on the internet. We are excited to get this launched in the coming months, and will continue to have public meetings in-world to invite discussion and contribution to the detailed design.
Thanks to Howard Stearns.