January 19, 2006 2:14 PM PST

Larry Lessig visits 'Second Life'

SAN FRANCISCO--As a well-known author and legal critic, Larry Lessig is used to talking to large crowds. But on Wednesday night, the Stanford Law School professor had an entirely new kind of public audience.

That's because Lessig made an appearance in the virtual world "Second Life" to promote his book "Free Culture" and to talk about what he considers to be the government's counterintuitive approach to copyright.

Linden Labs

Taking the persona of an avatar--a digital representation of a person or character--designed to look like himself, Lessig found that talking about complex legal, social and technological issues in a 3D digital environment, where he could read questions and type out answers, gave him freedoms that no real-world appearance ever could.

"It took a bit of time to get comfortable with being there," Lessig told CNET News.com. "But then I didn't have to worry about how I was. I could just concentrate on the ideas....This is just pure communication."

Lessig is the latest in a series of high-profile authors and thinkers to visit "Second Life," the open-ended virtual world published by San Francisco's Linden Lab. Others who have appeared are science fiction author Cory Doctorow and national security strategic planner Thomas Barnett.

"Second Life" differs from rivals like "City of Heroes," "World of Warcraft" and "EverQuest" in that it doesn't revolve around a game with specific goals.

Instead, members live and move in an almost entirely user-created environment, doing almost anything they can imagine and even sometimes bringing in luminaries like Lessig to talk about books and ideas.

Wednesday night, Lessig and an audience of close to 100 "Second Life" members gathered in a digital amphitheater in a section of the virtual world known as Pooley. The audience was no normal book tour gathering. Instead, it comprised avatars such as a giant Gumby, a huge white cat, a lion and many other bizarre and unusual characters.

Many of those on hand were toting digital "copies" of "Free Culture" that had been created for the event, and that contained the book's entire contents. Lessig also stuck around afterward to "autograph" the books, a process that involved his avatar touching the books and applying a digital signature.

The visitors series is the brainchild of Wagner James Au, who writes an official "Second Life" blog called "New World Notes" for Linden Lab.

As the organizer of the series, Au appreciates the opportunity to bring in people like Lessig and expose them to the world of "Second Life."

"You have quite literally an international audience, and you get to see them all come together," Au said. "And because it is international, you see all sorts of different interests."

And while the discourse at the event was lively--as Lessig talked about his views on how the government is overreaching in its granting of decades of copyright protections to authors and content owners--it was in stark contrast to the scene at Linden Labs' offices, where Au and Lessig sat in front of computers typing their questions and answers and the tapping of their fingers on their keyboards was just about the only sound in the room.

In any case, some of those in attendance found the opportunity to listen to Lessig in a largely user-created world exciting.

"It's a brilliant use of a world where consumer-generated media is so celebrated and promoted," said "Second Life" member Eric Rice. "Lessig's content is also a great fit here. We might want to poke at traditional media, but this is the DIY (do it yourself) ethic here, and we can exercise the ideals of free culture."

But not everyone thought the environment was conducive to unfettered discussion.

"I found it pretty frustrating," said Peter Ludlow, a philosophy professor at the University of Michigan and author of the blog Second Life Herald. "I found it really hard to express anything subtle in this format....(Lessig) is telling us what he thinks, but not telling us why he thinks it."

 

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