Virtual World enthusiasts should boycott SpotOn3D

There was some buzz in the OpenSim arena recently because SpotOn3D released a browser plugin client for their customized OpenSim-based virtual world.

Why is this significant? Truthfully, the reason it's significant is because people have very messed-up perceptions about computer software. For years, I've heard people say that Second Life and other virtual worlds would be easier to use if you could "just run it inside a browser" rather than having to download a whole separate client program. The problem with this is that browsers don't support the entire client rendering engine and protocol layer that Second Life or OpenSim needs. That means that you do in fact have to download a plugin, and the plugin that you download has to do basically everything that the software package you would have downloaded will do. In other words, you're just doing exactly the same thing, downloading a fairly substantial piece of software. The only difference is perception; people seem to perceive, somehow, that if it's inside their browser, it's easier to use than if it's a separate program. (And, from my point of view, just like everything else that's run "inside a browser", it will tend not to be as smooth or as good as when you have a dedicated program for it. That's changing, as browsers are converging towards operating systems, but they're not there yet.)

Ah well. The truth is, though, that browsers have plugin managers that make it marginally easier to download and run plugins than it is to download a separate software package... and for many users, that margin of difference matters. (For people like me, it's a negative; browser plugin installation, because it's designed to be easy, is opaque. I like to know where software being installed on my system is going!) What's more, plugin download lets you do an end-run around institutional IT molasses, where you can't get software regularly installed and updated on systems you need. This matters in particular for education, where IT is used to installing things before a semester or a school year... but virtual worlds, being alpha in nature, have necessary updates on a much shorter timescale. Plugins, however, often get installed in your own user account (which from my point of view is horribly inefficient), and so you can install them without having to wait for IT to approve and do it. So, perhaps browser plugins are important.

The real problem with SpotOn3D, though, isn't that they've created a browser plugin. Indeed, although I think it's more smoke and mirrors than real innovation, they would deserve some approval for doing this. No, what we should boycott them for is patenting the idea of a browser plugin. (Edit: the patent isn't approved, however; they've just applied for it. It's possible the patent will get turned down, although the USPTO has granted a lot of patents that should have been turned down. Nonetheless, SpotOn3D has already done the foul deed by applying for the patent.)

Software patents are bullshit. Indeed, increasingly, patents in general are. If you read the US constitution, nominally they are there to foster progress in the useful sciences and arts. In practice, today, however, they hamper innovation. One person or company pisses all over a general area of doing something with software, and now nobody else can do anything with it for two decades unless they pay protection money. Supposedly, this is to protect people from having their inventions stolen. But, again, in practice, the vast majority of software patents aren't a surprising new innovation; they're things that many programmers can (and have) come up with, things that developers have already come up with, or an obvious extension. Patents are supposed to be a way of making surprising new innovations public so that everybody can benefit from them; they are there to provide an incentive to make things public. However, they way they're working in today's economy, especially with regard to software and "business methods", is that they turn first-to-market (or "first to claim to want to get to market") with a straightforward idea into a government-protected monopoly that lasts two decades. And, indeed, there exist parasite companies out there that do nothing but acquire patents and sue other companies and people for violating those patents. In other words, they exist only to stop people from doing things. That's completely absurd.

And, even if the patent is bullshit and would eventually be overturned if somebody fought it, just going to court to fight it is expensive, often prohbitively so. The result is that a lot of people settle for patents they shouldn't have. It's bullies on the school yard. If you actually went to the teacher and told them the bullies were trying to take your lunch money, you wouldn't lose your lunch money. But on many school yards, the cost of doing that is frightening enough that you just give in to the bullies. This is not fostering innovation.

A company that gets patents in good faith— for instance, only to use defensively against other patent assaults (which doesn't work against trolls, by the way)— is marginally better. But only marginally. Unless that company is huge enough that we can count on it not going away, like PanAm or Borders, there's always the possibility that a few years (or even a decade) down the line they (or their assets) will be bought by another company who has no qualms against using "defensive" patents to get undeserved income from other people who are actually doing anything.

Open Source is particularly vulnerable to patents. The nature of open source is that you distribute what you've done and let other people use it. However, if your code is patent encumbered, it may not matter that you've open sourced it; anybody else who wants to use it may face the threat of attacks from patent trolls. So, it's particularly galling that SpotOn3D, which is built on top of open source— the OpenSim server code and the Second Life client code— would enter the software patent arena.

So, amidst all this excitement about SpotOn3D providing a browser plugin, we need to remember that they are acting in extremely bad faith, and that they are participating in a legal activity that can only harm virtual worlds, and is especially a threat to the open source virtual world effort. For this reason, I strongly urge any virtual world enthusiast to boycott SpotOn3D. Do not reward companies that behave in such bad faith.

19 responses so far

  • John Westra says:

    Pure "Open Source" is an ideal that with the exception of browsers, continues to fail to generate either mass consumer adoption and/or economically viable channel (VAR/Reseller) business models.

  • rknop says:

    John -- that's not completely relevant. First of all, why except browsers? Second, something need not have a viable business model to be valuable. If you believe it must, then you have mistaken economics and finance for reality.

    However, you're also wrong. To think that Open Source isn't tremendously economically important would be to ignore that the majority of web servers are running Apache (an open source web server suite), and most of those Apache installations are running on Linux.

    No, Linux hasn't taken over on the desktop. (Although I would point out that Open Source is a strong contender in the handheld/tablet domain!) There's more to the world than that.

  • Vanish says:

    Hi Rob,

    thanks for this post. While what you say is correct and true, I fear the point is lost on SpotOn3D and similar thinking companies. Luckily, their scheme rarely comes about as planned, and even more rarely will bring in the revenue they hoped for; it mostly keeps patent attorneys in businesss. Personally, I don't feel threatened by this, and I don't think any OpenSim developer / grid provider should. SpotOn3D have been pulling their weight about for the longest time now, and to little gain, so this, too, shall pass. In the end, I hope the lesson learned will be that this is not the way to do business in a free software environment. Someone will find a way around your patent, and set it free.

  • You are absolutely right Rob. The same thing applies for ReactionGrid for attempting to patent OpenSim deployment method.

  • Gaga says:

    Thanks Rob for your insight and posting to my own blog on this subject. I knew little or nothing about SpotON3d when I decided to try their plug-in. I like it a lot and it did hit me as a very useful way to get more people into virtual worlds. It is a kind of slight of hand approach - you get a plug-in but actually your downloading a viewer without initially realizing it. Clever eh? Plug-in apps never sound as big as full viewers with learning curves and all. I can see why SpotON3d are rushing to patent it even though they are not exactly the inventors. Anyway, I am learning a more about SpotON3d I am not comfortable with.

  • Ilan tochner says:

    This is the "Official Statement from SpotON3D's CEO Stevan Lieberman"

    http://spoton3d.blogspot.com/2011/08/official-statement-from-spoton3ds-ceo.html

    I read it and, since they misrepresented what I said, I posted the following in their blog, I doubt they will publish it:

    "
    Hi Stevan,

    Having read your official statement I wish to state that:

    (A) Stating that I claimed that the reason the viewer may need to be licensed under the GPL is because "the browser is installed at the same time as the plugin, thus it is essentially the same software" is a blatant misrepresentation of what I said. I said:

    "
    First, the GPL program (the original unmodified SL viewer that their viewer is derived from) is not designed to accept plugins that take over the rendering target and have keyboard and mouse commands rerouted from another process. They may have added this capability to it (I haven't checked) but then it would no longer be "unmodified" and therefor no longer qualifying for the exception you believe SpotOn3D can use to relieve themselves from the requirement to release their code under GPL.

    Second, you've seemed to overlook the quotations I provided from the GNU site specifying that:

    "However, in many cases you can distribute the GPL-covered software alongside your proprietary system. To do this validly, you must make sure that the free and non-free programs communicate at arms length, that they are not combined in a way that would make them effectively a single program."

    http://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl-faq.html#GPLInProprietarySystem

    "By contrast, pipes, sockets and command-line arguments are communication mechanisms normally used between two separate programs. So when they are used for communication, the modules normally are separate programs. But if the semantics of the communication are intimate enough, exchanging complex internal data structures, that too could be a basis to consider the two parts as combined into a larger program."

    http://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl-faq.html#MereAggregation

    Unless SpotOn3D do some very frowned upon hacking their plugin would need to modify the SL viewer in order to work, thus (A) not qualifying it under your quoted exception, i.e. it does not work with an "off-the-shelf, unmodified, program" and (B) making it very likely that their combined program will be considered by a court of law as "effectively a single program" thus needing to be licensed under the GPL.
    "

    http://nwn.blogs.com/nwn/2011/07/opensim-in-facebook.html?cid=6a00d8341bf74053ef0153904b5a61970b#comment-6a00d8341bf74053ef0153904b5a61970b

    (B) You ignored all that I and the community have said about the inherit anti-competitive and exploitative nature of SpotOn3D's conduct. Instead you chose to just restate the various claims that have been made by SpotOn3D in the articles that have been written about this. People have had a lot to say about the validity of those statements, I recommend you read all that they have written.

    Repeating the statements that have gotten you in the hot chair in the first place is probably not the best way to calm the situation. Please take a step back and reconsider.
    "

    Whomever drafted their response did not take Public Relations 101. Restating falsehoods is not the best way to respond when you are caught with your hand in the communal cookie jar.

  • rknop says:

    Yeah, it's a typical corporate press release.

    I also commented below it, and also expect them not to approve my comment. Here's what I wrote:

    ---

    You are not improving the metaverse by bringing the minefield of software patents to those who would develop for it.

    The US constitution establishes patents as a way of promoting the progress of the useful sciences and arts. However, there's a lot of legal (and other!) opinion out there that the patent system is not in practice doing that today, but are in fact getting in the way of innovation. Software patents are particularly bad. You can claim that you're doing this for selfish reasons, to try to grab control or to try to grab money. But you are either misled, or prevaricating, when you claim that this has anything to do with supporting the development of virtual worlds.

    The World Wide Web started 20 years ago, roughly the duration of a patent. It was created originally by particle physicists and released for free. Imagine what would have happened if in the early days of the development of the web, some of the core technology needed to use it had ended up patent encumbered. We would not have the web we have today; we'd have a web where key parts were under the control of one company, perhaps a company who didn't do any innovation but simply bought the assets of another company, that was allowed to demand licensing fees from anybody else, even if those others were implementing their own software... so long as the software looked too much like what was described in the patent.

    Until and unless you are willing to describe what your patent actually covers, we in the community have to assume that it's going to be a very broad patent that will cover very standard ways of interfacing 3d virtual world clients with a browser. As such, SpotOn3D, with its action, has become a threat to the further development of any virtual world other than its own.

  • BlueWall says:

    "Software patents are bullshit."

    +1 on that. A lot of things are bullshit, but people do them anyway because they can get away with it. Our system should be better. But, the system serves it's self. And, for now, it works as intended.

    Remember Hippo viewer?

  • Gaga says:

    Yes, and still they haven't posted any comments to the press release or given the number of the patent application. I haven't posted anything to their press release statement myself yet so I expect it isn't worth the trouble since they seem to said all they want to say or offer any more answers to the many question being asked. Perhaps they hope it will just quiet down and people will forget the issue.

  • Ilan tochner says:

    Hi Gaga,

    I suspect that is exactly what they hope will happen. As I've said previously, it is up to the community to decide whether we are willing to accept such anti-competitive behavior amongst our midst.

    If people don't care enough to continue pressuring SpotOn3D then they'll just get away with it and others will start pursuing patents themselves as well (bogus or not it wouldn't matter, just so they'll be able to say they have patents pending and stifle competition).

    The more noise open metaverse activists make about this the less likely we will all be drawn into a patent cold war.

  • SpotOn3D Press says:

    This is an official statement from SpotON3D

    Due to the reaction of the OpenSim community about our World on the Web plug-in and the pending patent, we’ve decided to take the debate to another level and give everyone - BOTH SUPPORTERS AND NON-SUPPORTERS, the chance to bring their ideas and questions directly to us one-on-one. Our goal here is not to win anyone to a particular way of thinking, but to try answer the biggest questions and at least understand each other's POV. And who knows? Maybe this can help start a continuing dialog between the OpenSim community, SpotON3D and the many other grids out there.

    Stevan and I will try and answer as many questions as possible in a 1-1.5 hour period of time. Due to a previously schedule business trip, Stevan will most likely only have one hour. I will be staying an extra half hour or more if necessary. I can not answer any legal questions, because … well, I’m not a lawyer! Any questions about the legal aspects of the patent, plug-in or other legal matters not answered at this event can be addressed directly to Stevan via email at Stevan@spoton3d.com.

    THE VENUE< TIME< DATE – August 7th at 8 am PDT/SLT/MVT
    The meeting place will be in SpotON3D in a Quad MegaSim called OUTREACH. Any and all voice chat in the main sim will be relayed over all four sims, so please be patient and fair to everyone else. This mega sim will hold about 150 people, so it will be on a first come first serve basis. Below you’ll find some general guidelines

    This event will be filmed, archived and uploaded to our media page, as well as the usual web sites for everyone, so that everyone will have something to review and point others to.

    We are looking forward to this being a productive event for both SpotOn3D and the community. You can teleport directly into OUTREACH ISLAND, if you have the World on the Web Plug-in installed on your Windows PC, (sorry MACers and Linux guys ... that's next on our to do list) and just click on the 3DURL below - works just like a SLurl. http://3durl.com/map/veesome/Outreach%20Island/135/126/22

    Thank you!
    Tessa & Stevan

  • rknop says:

    I will have to say, though, that my goal is to win people to my way of thinking. Software patents are a threat and a problem, and people need to understand that. Ideally, companies need to understand that people will understand that...! Regardless of what they manage to say at this meeting (and market-speak can often convince people that "things are OK"), if SpotOn3D is going to proceed in the process of applying for patents in the virtual worlds arena, we should not take our business to them. Other companies need to see that there is a serious cost to choosing the ethically challenged path of pursuing software patents.

  • rknop says:

    Also, kinda funny that in the name of trying to assuage everybody's fears, they're encouraging us to install their patent-encumbered viewer.

    Does anybody know, can one get to SpotOn3D with a standard viewer? As I remember, when I last looked at the grid a few months ago, you couldn't get there without a customized viewer. At the time, I just figured why bother. There didn't seem to be a compelling enough reason to log into the grid if I couldn't just do it with Imprudence.

  • Ilan tochner says:

    Hi Tessa & Stevan,

    If you truly wish to talk to people in an open exchange of ideas then why not address them where they are asked in public forums instead of in your own closed venue?

    Do you wonder to why I object to having this discussion inside SpotOn3D's grid, here's why:

    If you are really open to what other people are saying why misrepresent what I said in your previous press release then block my rebuttal comment on your blog? Its text was included here as well:

    http://metaverse-traveller.blogspot.com/2011/07/spoton3d-to-patent-open-sim-in-browser.html?showComment=1312419040769#c6470783078774706412

    If you are open to a public discussion then why hide the reply comment from Rob Knop who also posted a reply on your forum:

    http://scientopia.org/blogs/galacticinteractions/2011/08/03/virtual-world-enthusiasts-should-boycott-spoton3d/#comment-4372

    As of now both our replies are still missing from the comment section below your press release even though this comment section now includes two other comments - people can see you are hiding our comments you know...

    We know you read at least some of the various articles that have been written about your conduct as you've added your comments to them. Why force people to register to your grid, and attend at the time that is convenient to you instead of just answering people in blog comments like people from the community are doing?

    There are several people who have written replies in almost all those comment threads that discuss your patent threats. Are those people, myself included, more willing to spend time talking to other people in forums they do not control than you are?

    I will not condone having this discussion turn into a marketing opportunity for your grid, under your own timetable, with you controlling how long people can discuss the issue. If you want a truly open discussion then begin by taking the time to address the many questions people have already asked you in the multiple threads that deal with this:

    http://metaverse-traveller.blogspot.com/2011/07/spoton3d-to-patent-open-sim-in-browser.html

    http://scientopia.org/blogs/galacticinteractions/2011/08/03/virtual-world-enthusiasts-should-boycott-spoton3d/

    http://cityofnidus.blogspot.com/2011/08/spoton3d.html

    http://www.hypergridbusiness.com/2011/08/controversy-erupts-over-spoton3ds-patent-claims

    http://nwn.blogs.com/nwn/2011/07/opensim-in-facebook/comments/page/1/

    http://www.hypergridbusiness.com/2011/08/spoton3d-responds-to-patent-concerns-will-license-plugin-to-other-grids/

    http://iliveisl.com/patents-or-how-browser-access-will-cost-you/

    http://iliveisl.com/how-your-online-voice-matters

  • Dale Innis says:

    Didn't they just pluginify the Hippo Viewer using Firebreath? No big innovation there, technically, although it might turn out that bothering to do it is a big marketing win, the market being the irrational creature that it is.

    As to the patent, I'd guess it's one of those "embedding a virtual world viewer into a web browser using a plugin architecture while standing on your head and reciting Hiawatha" patents, in which case it's be relatively easy to avoid by, say, not reciting Hiawatha. 🙂 I could be wrong, of course, but that seems like the only way they'd avoid the prior-art and obviousness objections...

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