"Every man shuts himself up in his own
and affects from that point to judge the
-- Alexis de Tocqueville --
Flashback. One day we received a very interesting cease
& desist letter in the mail from a corporation based in Great Britain. I
think they were called Unlimited Content Ltd, or something like that. Let me
check the archives for a second. Right. What this corporation does,
essentially, is purchase copyrights on creative content of all kinds. The
entire business consists of purchasing, and then reselling, the legal use of
content. They negotiate with distributors and repackagers, and otherwise spend
their time preparing legal suits.
UC Ltd was very upset that one of our vCitizens had taken
the name Elrond HalfElven and had designed a virtual reality castle in the
Forest/Woodlands outland called Rivendell. Apparently one of the contracts
which UC Ltd had purchased was the right to the use of all characters and ideas
created by the Tolkien family, J.R.R. and his son Christopher. Exclusive right,
I might add.
Not knowing whom to sue, exactly, they decided to attack
Now, legally, this case was about as dense and foggy as
Mirkwood itself. The VR world files were not located on our server, and
therefore our culpability was limited. To make a case for copyright
infringement, UC Ltd would have had to prove, in somebody's court of law, that
there was intent to profit without negotiating a settlement or paying royalties
for the use of the name "Elrond Half-elven" and the scenes and descriptions
from Tolkien's book. A lesser charge might have been easier to prove, namely,
that the unauthorized use of the content materially damaged UC Ltd. by lowering
the value of the copyright in subsequent negotiations.
Anyway, since I had never seen the site before, I decided
to check it out so that I could say in good faith that I had seen it and did
not believe it would be harmful, fattening, etcetera.
Rivendell was stunning. It was more than beautiful; it was
captivating. Even in PC mode (there is no other for this site), it was a
breathtaking, accurate rendition of Imladris as described in various
passages in the book. The slopes, the trees, the horses in the valley, the
Bruinen river -- all of it was superb VR design.
J.R.R. would have been proud, for he had been something of
a painter himself. The old linguistics professor had once written that he hoped
that others would flesh out the sketches of Middle Earth, to carry on the
tradition. Well, here it was, a dynamic, three dimensional representation of
Imladris sometime in the early Fourth Age, before all the Elves had
departed to the Sea and before Rivendell vanished into memory.
Rivendell had Elves. Not cute, Keebler corporation elves
manufacturing snack food. Not Santa's elves, either. These were tall, elegant,
Tolkien-type Elves. I don't know what they were doing there -- manufacturing
Those Elves were a big problem. I liked them, I really did.
But right away, I realized they were a problem. Because if Elves were allowed
to run around Rivendell, then what was to prevent somebody else from throwing a
few hobbits into their sites, or dragons? Pretty soon the entire vCity would be
overrun by fantasy figurines, and the whole simulation would degenerate into
So I asked the designer of the site (Registry Protected for
legal reasons) to get rid of the Elves. She said no. We agonized over the issue
for weeks by e-mail.
"Look," I wrote her, "Tolkien himself said that the Fourth
Age would be the Age of Man, right? Okay. So here we are. No more Elves -- they
all emigrated to Eldamar."
Finally, she agreed to a little airbrushing, and bulked up
the Elves into tall, elegant humans that merely looked like Elves. Or like
Elvis, depending upon the resolution of your monitor.
This still left the problem of what humans would be doing
running around in medieval garb, armor and footwear. She argued that just
because this was not the current style of fashion did not mean that at some
future point in time we would not return to it.
As a matter of fact she had a point. With all the weapons
available today and the new concealment laws in effect, a little
carbon-steel-titanium armor-plating and a cloak big enough to hide a
semi-automatic might be just the ticket. Come to think of it, swords -- or at
least electric personal defense technology -- might even make a comeback.
Certainly crossbows did. But is that a desirable future? It's kind of an
aggressive fashion statement.
I was loathe to put the site up for a referendum because I
knew that either way I would lose. If the site were banned, the vCity would
lose a magnificent, stirring example of the promise of VR art and architecture.
And if the site were not banned, the entire vCity concept as we envisioned it
would collapse like a shoji in an earthquake.
So I kept at it. After a few more weeks of exhaustive
negotiation, we came to the following understanding. First of all, she needed
to negotiate a separate agreement with UC Ltd. to use content that belonged to
them. UC Ltd. agreed to charge the very minor fee of $50 to maintain its
corporate face and because the site and the name "Elrond HalfElven" was not
being used for profit, but merely to extol the virtues of the Tolkien world. It
was, in effect, a form of advertising for them. Secondly, she needed to
explain that what viewers were looking at was not the Rivendell, but
merely a virtual reality reproduction of what Rivendell would look like if it
were reproduced in its entirety today with modern materials.
Thirdly, she needed to point out that the humans running
around looking like Elves were actually virtual representations of actors in
period costumes. Why? Well, because the entire site would be sort of like a
fantasy theme park or a historical simulation park -- like the Renaissance
festivals that sweep across North America, or the annual recreation of Civil
War battles popular in Virginia and Tennessee. It would be interesting to see
if a market exists for creating theme parks based on fantasy novels.
So there it is. Everybody's happy, and the Rivendell site
Soon after that, we got another letter from UC Ltd.
complaining about the use of the name Minas Ithil.
Sheesh. The things a First Citizen has to put up with. I
punted that one to Stan.