Here’s one from the It-Was-Only-a-Matter-of-Time file. Somebody in SecondLife, a popular multiplayer virtual world, created a gadget called the CopyBot, which can make a perfect copy of any object in the SecondLife world. (Here’s a Reuters story.) This raises some interesting technical issues, but I want to focus today on how it effects SecondLife’s economy.
If you’re not familiar with virtual worlds, you might think the word “economy” is a stretch. But really it’s not. SecondLife has about 1.5 million residents. Residents are given a sophisticated toolset they can use to design complex objects, specifying the objects’ shape, appearance, and behavior. Objects can be sold for a currency called Linden Dollars. Linden Dollars are real money – they can be traded for U.S. dollars on currency exchange markets. Quite a few people make their living in SecondLife, running businesses that make Linden-Dollar profits, which are then cashed in for U.S. dollars. Most days, the SecondLife economy sees transactions worth a total of between $500,000 and $1,000,000 (real U.S. dollars). This is clearly a real economy.
To understand the possible impact of CopyBot, imagine such a thing existed in real life. Point this CopyGadget at any real-world object, push a button, and you get a perfect copy of that object. Want a new Lambourghini sportscar? Just find one in a parking lot and copy it. Like the lime sorbet at the local ice cream parlor? Buy a cup, take it home, and fill your freezer with copies. When you get down to the last cup in the freezer, just copy it again. You get the idea.
Needless to say, this would cause Big Trouble in the real-world economy. Lambourghini would have trouble selling cars. There would be no waiting at the ice cream parlor, even on the hottest summer night. Could these businesses survive? Could any business that provided goods survive?
A SecondLife business that designs and sells virtual objects faces the same challenge. If you design an object in SecondLife, the system lets you make copies of the object, but if you mark the object as uncopyable, the system won’t let other users copy it. So if you design a cool virtual widget, you can “manufacture” copies to sell to people, but your customers can’t re-copy the widgets they buy. Only you can make widgets, so people have to come to you to buy them. Like Lambourghinis and sorbet, manufactured virtual objects couldn’t easily be copied – until the CopyBot came along.
It’s too early to predict all of the impacts this will have. All we can say for sure is that it will be fascinating to watch. Already the story has several interesting facets, which I’ll write more about next week.