Monday 15 August 2011

SpotON3D: Patent Challange to Open Sim?

Since I published my last bog entry about SpotON3D's application for a patent on Open Sim in a browser a furious row has been continuing which accuses SpotON3D of effectively trying to hijack the open Metaverse by attempting to patent key features in blatant disregard for the open source community and the hundreds of programmers who have dedicated a huge amount of their time and skill for little or no reward. In a recent meeting on the SpotON3D grid called with just three hours notice, co-founders, Tessa Kinney-Johnson and Stevan Lieberman, a patents attorney, gave limited answers to questions put to them by the few who turned up. However. far from settling the concerns of the community, Leiberman revealed the company is seeking more patents totaling five presently but has not ruled out filing for more. All of the patents relate to the emerging 3D Web.

In a recent article on Hypergrid Business, however, Lawrence Pierce questions the motives of those most vocal in condemning SpotON3D and asks why 3D Web related patents filed by IBM has not drawn the same reaction. In December 2010, said Lawrence, HB ran an article indicating that IBM had filed a patent on sim design methodologies here. He noted it drew little reaction from the Open Sim community and certainly none of the outrage characterized by the controversy focused on SpotON3D but he failed to mention that last year Deva Canto ( a core developer and inventor of Hypergrid) had already warned Here that patents could pose a serious threat to the open source development of Open Sim.

Ilan Tochner of Kitely Virtual responded, "While many big corporations hold patents relating to virtual worlds, those companies very rarely try to enforce them against small businesses because the money they could get from licensing would be far less than the potential PR damage that going after small businesses can cause them." He went on to say, "Small companies, however, do frequently try to extract patent licensing fees from small businesses that can't afford the legal costs of protecting themselves. SpotOn3D is a small company that has explicitly stated they intend to do go after other small businesses once their patents are granted."

OSgrid, which is Hypergrid enabled, has served the Open Sim
communty from the beginning and allows anyone to attach
their standalone sim.
Vanish, who runs Opensim Creations, also commented "Personally, the thing that's pushed this over the edge is SpotOn's history of using every chance they get to advertise their own products, combined with taking the platform (OpenSim) their whole enterprise is built on for free and for granted, while calling their own improvements and innovations too valuable to contribute any of them back to the project, and finally filing for patents that could effectively prevent others to contribute a similar technology of their own to the OpenSim project, which would effectively stifle OpenSim itself."

Lawrence Pierce dwells on the wider issues surrounding patents and dose not explore the reasons why the Open Sim community is apprehensive. He appears to take the view that those opposed to SpotON3D's patent bid are just motivated by competitive interest while ignoring the fact that many other advocates of a free and open Metaverse have strong reservations about SpotON3D's aims too and have done since they first announced what their business plan, grid structure and objectives are in a notice to SLUniverse Forums Classifieds back in June 2010. In that announcement Tessa states "By design, SpotON3D is setup to interlink Virtual Environs and Grids in an organic fashion, linking them together via a common gateway, enabling avatars to travel seamlessly from one Metaverse to another." That is clearly a reference to Hypergrid. She goes on, "With context sensitive memberships (reference to Open centralized Avatar IDs), built in Web Window interface (reference to Browser plugin), the ability to purchase items that deliver to multiple grids (reference to multi-grid vendor system) and in essence replicate their inventory legally and responsibly, users can experience a rich network of grids that form the emerging 3D Web." She goes on to list various individuals and business interests that endorse SpotON3D, amongst which I noticed Mana Janus of the OpenSim Hippo Client (the browser plug-in uses a modified version of the light weight Hippo viewer) and Mana has also been posting comments in support of SpotON3D recently.

The references to key features of the emerging 3D web include Hypergrid, Open Avatar IDs, Browser plugin and multi-grid vendor system are all possible targets for patenting and Tessa has made it clear in comments to this blog they will be controlling what viewer can be used too. Moreover, in January of this year, SpotON3D, in a press release, announced, "SpotON3D is most happy to announce our partnership with the Phoenix Viewer team in creating a Phoenix-flavored viewer just for SpotON3D Web Worlds!" In the same statement they listed the following key features...

1. Our BoostCloud dedicated servers to let you entertain up to 125 users without impacting your neighbours, or they you.

2. Our Universal Registration, Avatar & Inventory System

3. SpotONSynergy and Double Dutch Delivery system backed by PayPal® using real USD to create a truly portable economy system

4. Integrated SpotOn3D EZPrezTools and much more coming at you this year.

Above, in the SpotON3D statement they say they are developing a "Phoenix-flavored viewer just for SpotON3D Web Worlds!" And it so happens that Phoenix, which is currently the most widely used TPV (third party viewer), only lists Second Life and SpotON3D in it's grid list when there are much bigger grids like InWorldz and Avination. Moreover, I read that SpotON3D are actually employing some members of the Phoenix development team to work on their viewer and, clearly, there appears to be a partnership or working relationship with Mana Janus too. The statement concludes with, "The teams look forward to the exciting changes that will undoubtedly take place as the Phoenix team helps to further develop SpotON3D’s network of Web Worlds and associated grids." Here again we see SpotON3D staking a claim to the 3d Web when they refer to "SpotON3D's network of Web Worlds and associated grids" SpotON3D's network of web worlds is at the centre, the hub if you like. The associated grids are on the outside paying licence fees for any amount of patented features that the Metaverse depends upon to exist at all. Those who don't want to pay for a licence to connect with each other run the risk of a law suit. So, it adds up to one thing; you can pay SpotON3D licence fees or use their grid services which puts you inside their network. If you chose otherwise then patents will ensure you will never experience anything that can be described as free Metaverse.

Here, the people behind SpotON3D clearly state their long term aims and ambitions...

"CEDA Holdings, the parent company for SpotON3D, began development of their SO3D Grid Systems in November of 2008. With the help of a team of dedicated programmers, web developers, modellers and grid experts they've succeeded in creating an exciting new experience that answers many of the complex problems seen in their contemporaries, with a ten year vision for the development of the 3D Web. SpotON3D's secure and business centric focus caters to an augmented reality experience that embraces existing 2D web assets, real world meeting functionality, attracting a diverse pool of users from the business, academic, technology, and artisan communities online. Short term goals are to provide a stable beta grid platform for early adopter businesses and organizations to use, either as a member of the SpotON3D grid, or on their own affordable private label grids. The long term goals are to create the infrastructure to enable these professional grade grids to interconnect via the SpotON3D's client, a blend of open source and proprietary software."

If there is any doubt the statement above is in their own words for the record. Their long term goals are to create the infrastructure to enable grids to interconnect via SpotON3D's client and, a wealth of ready made open source to utilize as they strive to bring it about. Their statement pays no acknowledgement to the countless hours of unpaid work put in by the developers of Open Simulator, without which they could not achieve any of their goals. It totally ignores the pioneers too who have worked to developed the grids and community, made the content, sent in the bug reports and publicised the whole idea of a free and open Metaverse these past four years. Like robber Barons it appears like, SpotON3D are simply doing the dirty deed and attempting to take over the open Metaverse, or control it, by utilizing a legal devise. The patent.

Novagrid is based on Aurora Sim and is also Hypergrid enabled allowing connections freely to OSgrid and other worlds. Nova sets a model for commercial grids in that they offer low cost hosting for as little as $10 a month and permits anyone to connect their own standalone without charge.
 Lawrence Pierce has written an interesting article but, in my view, he totally fails to understand what the community is worried about and prefers to rather dismiss the whole issue as competitive interest between competing virtual world companies. Well, that may be in part true but it is not the whole story. The whole story goes something like this...

Open Sim has been in development for four years. In the beginning it was just a haven of dreamers and code geeks then came the Open Spaces fiasco when Linden Labs used bate & switch tactics (as they were described) to force though a price rise with the introduction of Homesteads. This out-priced small users who built their labour of love virtual homes and small worlds on Open Space sims. Nineteen hundred servers got returned and land Barons and opportunists bought up the rest at knock-down prices. This resulted in the first wave of refugees seeking affordable sims in the few start-up grids based on Open Sim. Very little worked well at that time but a small community did come into being. These people persevered and overcame the problems of working with alpha software, and many contributed back one way or another. The free Metaverse had a very shaky beginning.

As time passed more things began to work and the platform became more stable. More people abandoned Second Life attracted by the lower costs and the sheer freedom to explore and express their creativity without corporate overlords breathing down their necks telling them what was good for them. Some of us did see that patents could snuff out the dream in it's infancy and we blogged about it warning what could happen. Even I did not notice SpotON3D until now which goes to show how much anyone was interested in their business model. SpotON3D had announced their intentions two years ago and, unfortunately, no one really took them seriously because there has been big talk before from start-ups who promise great things on the back of alpha software and it rarely meets with approval or acceptance.

In recent times Open Sim has become more stable and the level of innovation has grown which is a testament to the pioneers that have seen it through the bad times. Today, Open Sim, the platform and infrastructure of future virtual worlds, be they forked versions like Aurora Sim or as yet unknown developments, are on the threshold of providing the open source software on which to base a truly open, and connected, Metaverse. But, just as the dream is about to come true, the patent Jackals are gathering.

SpotON3D could have kept their source secret. Everyone would have understood that but seeking patents on key components of the free Metaverse to stop competition is clearly going to hurt innovation and impose higher costs through licensing on a community that has been there under Linden Labs. The unemployed, low income people, stay-at-home carers and the disabled are amongst the many that have found an affordable virtual haven to express their creativity and escape the stress of the real world for a few hours. Sure there are commercial grids which have software they keep secret but even Avination CEO and core developer, Melanie has stated her intention to open up to Hypergrid. And InWorldz lead developer, Tranquility has said if the community asks for Hypergrid then we will try to fulfill their wishes. Neither talks in terms of controlling the free Metaverse. There is room for both commercial and none-profit concerns but not for patent Jackals. There are some brilliant coders working to build this free and open Metaverse and they will find a way over those patents. Mark my words!