GioCities

blogs by Gio

Tagged: enforcement

🎮 Notes on the VRC Creator Economy

  • Posted in gaming

My friend Floober brought some recent changes VRChat is making in chat, and I thought I’d jot down my thoughts.

The problem with the VRC economy is the same problem as with most “platform economies”: everyone is buying lots in a company town.

The Store🔗

This was the precipitating announcement: VRChat releasing a beta for an in-game real-money store.

Paid Subscriptions: Now in Open Beta! — VRChat Over the last few years, we’ve talked about introducing something we’ve called the “Creator Economy,” and we’re finally ready to reveal what the first step of that effort is going to look like: Paid Subscriptions!

As it stands now, creators within VRChat have to jump through a series of complicated, frustrating hoops if they want to make money from their creations. For creators, this means having to set up a veritable Rube Goldberg machine, often requiring multiple external platforms and a lot of jank. For supporters, it means having to sign up for those same platforms… and then hope that the creator you’re trying to support set everything up correctly.

(The problem, of course, is that “frustrating jank” was designed by VRChat, and their “solution” is rentiering.)

Currently, the only thing to purchase is nebulous “subscriptions” that would map to different world or avatar features depending on the content. But more importantly, this creates a virtual in-game currency, and opens the door to future transaction opportunities. I’m especially thinking of something like an avatar store.

I quit playing VRChat two years ago, when they started to crack down on client-side modifications (which are good) by force-installing malware (which is bad) on players’ computers. Since then I’ve actually had a draft sitting somewhere about software architecture in general, and how you to evaluate whether it’s safe or a trap. And, how just by looking at the way VRChat is designed, you can tell it’s a trap they’re trying to spring on people.

The Store of Tomorrow🔗

Currently, the VRC Creator Economy is just a currency store and a developer api. Prior to this, there was no way for mapmakers to “charge users” for individual features; code is sandboxed, and you only know what VRC tells you, so you can’t just check against Patreon from within the game1.

But the real jackpot for VRC is an avatar store. Currently, the real VRC economy works by creators creating avatars, maps, and other assets in the (mostly-)interchangeable Unity format, and then selling those to people. Most commonly this is seen in selling avatars, avatar templates, or custom commissioned avatars. Users buy these assets peer-to-peer.

This is the crucial point: individuals cannot get any content in the game without going through VRC. When you play VRChat, all content is streamed from VRChat’s servers anonymously by the proprietary client. There are no URLs, no files, no addressable content of any kind. (In fact, in the edge cases where avatars are discretely stored in files, in the cache, users get angry because of theft!) VRChat isn’t a layer over an open protocol, it’s its own closed system. Even with platforms like Twitter, at least there are files somewhere. But VRChat attacks the entire concept of files, structurally. The user knows nothing and trusts the server, end of story.

⚖ How Nintendo Misuses Copyright

When I’m looking for an example of copyright abuse, I find myself returning to Nintendo a lot on this blog. Nintendo is a combination hardware/software/media franchise company, so they fit a lot of niches. They’re a particularly useful when talking about IP because the “big N” is both very familiar to people and also egregiously bad offenders, especially given their “friendly” reputation.

Nintendo has constructed a reputation for itself as a “good” games company that still makes genuinely fun games with “heart”. Yet it’s also infamously aggressive in executing “takedowns”: asserting property ownership of creative works other people own and which Nintendo did not make.

You’d think a company like Nintendo — an art creation studio in the business of making and selling creative works — would be proponents of real, strong, immutable creative rights. That, as creators, they’d want the sturdiest copyright system possible, not one compromised (or that could be compromised) to serve the interests of any one particular party. This should be especially true for Nintendo even compared to other studios, given Nintendo’s own fight-for-its-life against Universal, its youth, and its relatively small position1 in the market compared to its entertainment competitors Disney, Sony, and Microsoft.

But no, Nintendo takes the opposite position. When it comes to copyright, they pretty much exclusively try to compromise it in the hopes that a broken, askew system will end up unfairly favoring them. And so they attack the principles of copyright, viciously, again and again, convinced that the more broken the system is, the more they stand to profit.

Introducing Nintendo🔗

Nintendo, even compared to its corporate contemporaries, has a distinctly hostile philosophy around art: if they can’t control something themselves, they tend to try to eliminate it entirely. What Nintendo uses creative rights to protect is not the copyright of their real creative works, it’s their control over everything they perceive to be their “share” of the gaming industry.

Let me start with a quick history, in case you’re not familiar with the foundation Nintendo is standing on.

Nintendo got its start in Japan making playing cards for the mob to commit crimes with. It only pivoted to “video games” after manufacturing playing cards for the Yakuza to use for illegal gambling dens. (I know it sounds ridiculous, but that’s literally what happened.)

Nintendo got its footing overseas by looking to see what video game was making the most money in America, seeing it was Space Invaders, and copying that verbatim with a clone game they called “Radar Scope”:

Then, when that was a commercial failure, they wrote “conversion kit” code to turn those cabinets into a Popeye game, failed to get the Popeye rights they needed, and released it anyway. They kept the gameplay and even the character archetypes the same, they just reskinned it with King Kong. They didn’t even name the protagonist after they swapped out the Popeye idea, so he was just called Jumpman.

Popeye/Donkey Kong comparison

But then Nintendo was almost itself the victim of an abuse of IP law. “Donkey Kong” derived from King Kong, and even though the character was in the public domain, Universal Studios still sued Nintendo over the use. Ultimately the judge agreed with the Nintendo team and threw out the lawsuit, in an example of a giant corporation trying to steamroll what was at the time a small business with over-aggressive and illegitimate IP enforcement.

This was such an impactful moment for Nintendo that they took the name of their lawyer in the Universal Studios case — Kirby — and used it for the mascot of one of their biggest franchises. It was a significant move that demonstrates Nintendo’s extreme gratefulness — or even idolization — of the man who defended them against abuse of IP law.

You would hope the lesson Nintendo learned here would be from the perspective of the underdog, seeing as they were almost the victim of the kinds of tactics they would later become famous for using themselves. But no, it seems they were impressed by the ruthlessness of the abusers instead, and so copied their playbook.

⚖ Apple's Trademark Exploit

Apple puts its logo on the devices it sells. Not just on the outer casing, but also each internal component. The vast majority of these logos are totally enclosed and invisible to the naked eye. This seems like an incredibly strange practice — especially since Apple doesn’t sell these parts separately — except it turns out to be part of a truly convoluted rules-lawyering exploit only a company like Apple could pull off and get away with.

Remember, trademarks are a consumer protection measure to defend against counterfeits. Apple’s registered logo trademark protects consumers from being tricked into buying fake products, and deputizes Apple to defend its mark against counterfeits.

The Loaded Gun🔗

While some counterfeiting happens domestically the major concern is usually counterfeits imported from foreign trade. This brings us to Customs and Border Patrol, which you might know as the other side of the ICE/CBP border control system. You might be surprised to see them involved with this, since Border Patrol agents are fully-militarized police outfitted to combat armed drug cartels.

But among its other duties, Border Patrol takes a proactive role in enforcing intellectual property protection at ports of trade — backed by the full force of the Department of Homeland Security — by seizing goods it identifies as counterfeit and either destroying them outright or else selling them themselves at auction.1 To get your property back, you have to sue Border Patrol — an infamously untouchable police force — and win.

🖱 So you want to write an AI art license

  • Posted in cyber

Hi, The EFF, Creative Commons, Wikimedia, World Leaders, and whoever else,

Do you want to write a license for machine vision models and AI-generated images, but you’re tired of listening to lawyers, legal scholars, intellectual property experts, media rightsholders, or even just people who use any of the tools in question even occasionally?

You need a real expert: me, a guy whose entire set of relevant qualifications is that he owns a domain name. Don’t worry, here’s how you do it:

This is an extremely condensed set of notes, designed as a high-level overview for thinking about the problem

Given our current system of how AI models are trained and how people can use them to generate new art, which is this:

sequenceDiagram
    Alice->>Model: Hello. Here are N images and<br>text descriptions of what they contain.
    Model->>Model: Training (looks at images, "makes notes", discards originals)
    Model->>Alice: OK. I can try to make similar images from my notes,<br>if you tell me what you want.
    Curio->>Model: Hello. I would like a depiction of this new <br>thing you've never seen before.
    Model->>Curio: OK. Here are some possibilites.

The works🔗

The model and the works produced with the model are both distinct products. The model is more like processing software or tooling, while the artistic works created with the model are distinctly artistic/creative output.

Models do not keep the original images they were trained on in any capacity. The only keep mathematical notes about their properties. You (almost always) cannot retrieve the original image data used from the model after training.

sequenceDiagram
    Curio->>Model: Send me a copy of one of the images you were trained on
    Model->>Curio: Sorry, I do not remember any of them exactly,<br>only general ideas on how to make art.

There is a lot of misinformation about this, but it is simply, literally the case that a model does not include the training material, and cannot reproduce its training material. While not trivial (you can’t have a model if you can’t train it at all), when done properly, the specific training data is effectively incidental.

AI-generated art should be considered new craftsmanship — specifically, under copyright law, it is new creative output with its own protections — and not just a trivial product of its inputs.

Plagiarism🔗

The fact that AI art is new creative output doesn’t mean AI art can’t be plagiarism.

Just like with traditional art, it’s completely possible for specific products to be produced to be copies, but that doesn’t make that the case for all works in the medium. You can trace someone else’s artwork, but that doesn’t make all sketches automatically meritless works.

The inner workings of tools used in the creation of an artistic work are not what determines if a given product is plagiarism, or if it infringes on a copyright. Understanding the workings of the tool can be used in determining if a work is an infringement, but it is not the deciding factor.

🖱 Ethical Source is a Crock of Hot Garbage

  • Posted in cyber

There’s this popular description of someone “having brain worms”. It invokes the idea of having your mind so thoroughly infested with an idea to the point of disease. As with the host of an infestation, such a mind is poor-to-worthless at any activity other than sustaining and spreading the parasite.

A “persistent delusion or obsession”. You know, like when you think in terms of legality so much you can’t even make ethical evaluations anymore, or when you like cops so much you stop being able to think about statistics, or the silicon valley startup people who try to solve social problems with bad technology, or the bitcoin people who responded to the crisis in Afghanistan by saying they should just adopt bitcoin. “Bad, dumb things”. You get the idea.

And, well.

Okay, so let’s back way up here, because this is just the tip of the iceberg of a story that needs years of context. I’ll start with the most recent event here, the Mastodon tweet.

The Mastodon Context🔗

The “he” Mastodon is referring to is ex-president-turned-insurrectionist Donald Trump, who, because his fellow-insurrectionist friends and fans are subject to basic moderation policies on most of the internet, decided to start his own social network, “Truth Social”. In contrast to platforms moderated by the “tyranny of big tech”, Truth Social would have principles of Free Speech, like “don’t read the site”, “don’t link to the site”, “don’t criticise the site”, “don’t use all-caps”, and “don’t disparage the site or us”. There are a lot of problems here already, but because everything Trump does is terrible and nobody who likes him can create anything worthwhile, instead of actually making a social networking platform, they just stole Mastodon wholesale.

Mastodon is an open-source alternative social networking platform. It’s licensed under an open license (the AGPLv3), so you are allowed to clone it and even rebrand it for your own purposes as was done here. What you absolutely are not allowed to do is claim the codebase is your own proprietary work, deliberately obscure the changes you made to the codebase, or make any part of the AGPL-licensed codebase (including your modifications) unavailable to the public. All of which Truth Social does.

So that’s the scandal. And so here’s Mastodon poking some fun at that.