'Second Life' avatar sued over virtual sex device

Kevin Alderman didn't bring sex to Second Life. He just made it better.

The 46-year-old entrepreneur recognized four years ago that people would pay to equip their online selves — which start out with the smooth anatomy of a Barbie or Ken doll — with realistic genitalia and even more to add some sexy moves.

Business at Eros, Alderman's company, has been brisk. One of his creations, the SexGen Platinum, has gotten so popular that he's now had to hire lawyers to track down the flesh-and-blood person behind the online identity, or avatar, that he says illegally copied and sold it.

The $45 SexGen animates amorous avatars in erotic positions. It is software code, written in the scripting language of Second Life, and placed in virtual furniture and other objects. Avatars click on the object and choose from a menu of animated sex acts.

Alderman filed a civil lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Tampa, last month alleging an avatar named Volkov Catteneo broke the program's copy protection and sold unauthorized copies. Alderman, who runs his business from home in a Tampa suburb, allows users to transfer his products, but prohibits copying.

"We confronted him about it and his basic response was, 'What are you going to do? Sue me?"' Alderman said. "I guess the mentality is that because you're an avatar ... that you are untouchable. The purpose of this suit is not only to protect our income and our product, but also to show, yes, you can be prosecuted and brought to justice."

Catherine Smith, director of marketing for Second Life-creator Linden Lab, said she knew of no other real-world legal fight between two avatars.

However, Linden Labs itself has been sued more than once by subscribers over seizures of virtual property. In 2005, Japanese media reported that a Chinese exchange student was arrested for stealing virtual items from other players in an online game, "Lineage II."

"Second Life" isn't a game. There are no dragons to slay or other traditional game objectives. San Francisco-based Linden Lab describes it as "an online digital world imagined, created & owned by its residents."

Linden Lab provides a free basic avatar, a 3-D virtual representation of the user in male or female form. Everything else costs real money. A 16-acre virtual island costs $1,675 plus monthly maintenance fees of $295. Virtual money, called Lindens, can be exchanged with real dollars at an average rate of about 270 Lindens to the dollar.

Avatars can be equipped with flowing gowns and tiny tattoos, and users with programming and Photoshop skills can reshape themselves into a virtual Greta Garbo or just about any shape imaginable. With a little cash, users can also have people like Alderman transform the avatars for them.

At Alderman's virtual storefront inSecond Life, shoppers can try out a dragon bed powered by one of his SexGen engines. Along with programmers and designers, he employs a sales staff who hang around the shop like real salespeople to pitch the perfect sex toys. He is investing in a $25,000 motion-capture suit, a low-end version of one used to create digital characters in movies, to create more realistic sex moves for Second Life avatars.

As customers demand more real life in Second Life, though, these virtual creations can collide with reality.

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