Frank Lloyd Wright Virtual Museum to Close Sunday

The popular SL destination just celebrated its first anniversary in August.

We have learned today that one of the best known sites in Second Life – The Frank Lloyd Wright Virtual Museum (FLWVM) –  will be closing this weekend. And the reason isn’t, for once, the high cost of land, or even the price hike foisted on nonprofits and educational sims (Virtual Museums Inc., the management group behind the FLWVM, obtained nonprofit status a couple of days before the price rise was announced).

The Frank Lloyd Wright Virtual Museum has attracted high praise and considerable attention from people across the grid and beyond.  It was the subject of an episode of Designing Worlds, and features in the Linden Lab showcase. It has hosted exhibitions, lectures, building competitions and parties. It has drawn people together, informed, entertained and educated them.

Now, however, it is being forced to close because the organisation that monitors the legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright in real life has decided to cancel their licensing agreement. Rowan Derryth, our Ekphrasis correspondent, is also on the Board of the Museum and she takes up the story.

The FLWVM version of Fallingwater, built by Ethos Erlanger and Lox Salomon. Photo by PJ Trenton.

It is with a heavy heart that I must report that the Frank Lloyd Wright Virtual Museum will be closing this Sunday, the 5th of December, at 6pm SLT. The decision was made after the museum’s management company, Virtual Museums Inc., received legal notification, in the form of a Cease & Desist Order, that their License Agreement (LA) with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation was being terminated, rendering the ability of the museum to continue functioning obsolete.

The Foundation order came as a shock to the VMI, who had recently sent the museum Co-Director, Ethos Erlanger, on a trip to Taliesin West (the FLW Foundation Headquarters) in Arizona to meet with them in person and discuss the continuance of the LA. Although some contractual details needed to be negotiated, the Foundation seemed very excited at that time, and Erlanger left with positive feelings that the relationship would continue. However, a letter from VMI Board Chairman Ethan Westland announced the abrupt turn of events to members last night:

Over the past several months, the Board of Directors of Virtual Museums, Inc., the RL company that has operated the museum have been in discussions with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation in Arizona working towards the renewal of our licensing agreement that has been in place since January of this year. Our representative, Ethos Erlanger, undertook the journey to Taliesin West in September and met in person with their representatives, discussed the museum, our goals and their goals for future development and growth and gave them an online tour of the museum campus while at their facility. The possibility of a new licensing agreement that would better fit the scope of a virtual world was also broached in the event that the current agreement could not be renegotiated…

We have waited patiently while the Foundation discussed and deliberated the museum, what it could be used for, the time by Foundation staff that would be necessary to devote to this project and ultimately, its potential for royalty revenues for the Foundation. On November 29th, we received a communication from the Director of Licensing informing us in amiable terms that they had reached the conclusion not to continue with the program or license agreement.

We were later notified by their legal counsel that our license agreement, which would have expired at the end of 2010, had been terminated. The termination of the licensing agreement removes all rights we may have had to use the name of Wright, trademarked materials, protected designs such as buildings, furnishings and so forth-in essence, everything that made the Frank Lloyd Wright Virtual Museum what it was and is.

Without the assistance of the Wright Foundation and the authorization of their licensing department to operate our museum under their guidance, without access to materials that allow for the most realistic builds possible and without a positive and productive working relationship in the future, the Board of Directors of Virtual Museums, Inc. feel that it is no longer possible to continue operation of the museum at the present time.

[Read the full letter here.]

As a member of the VMI board, and an art & design historian, writer and educator in both worlds, I am of course deeply saddened by this turn of events. The FLWVM was one of the first places I visited when I entered Second Life nearly a year ago, and it was one of the reasons I kept coming back. I was amazed not only at the quality of the builds, but also excited by the potential of the project to educate on Wright and architecture on a global scale. I was thrilled to have been asked to join the Board, and alongside my colleagues had many great plans to connect our activities to real world educational programmes.

The closing of FLWVM is a huge loss for not just the education community, but also as a site for the development of virtual architecture. It has enjoyed contributions by some of the most talented and creative builders of historic replicas on the grid, from the museum founder Frey Bravin, and including Ethos Erlanger, Lox Salomon, Miltone Marquette, Bacchus Ireto, and Terra Tepper. Through the build-off competitions, we have enjoyed the work of many more amazing virtual architects, including Granelda Oh, Sandi Glas, Kendra Ling, Jadyn Firehawk, Marcan Aridian, and Apollo Reinhard, to name just a few.

 

Museum Cafe at the FLWVM: Photograph by PJ Trenton
Museum Cafe at the FLWVM: Photograph by PJ Trenton

Even those who have promoted more radical and avant-garde building styles have found purpose in  the museum: DB Bailey (architect David Denton in RL, a former project manager for Frank Ghery who worked on the Guggenheim Bilbao) once told me it was the first stop he took his international coterie of students who participated in his US State Department-supported virtual architecture exchange project. He felt it showed them an excellent example of how virtual architecture worked in a manner that was more easily accessible (because of it’s ‘real world’ look), and he and I were talking about ways to strike up a more formal partnership for the next phase of his work.

But beyond the loss of such a beloved institution, this Cease & Desist order sets a precedent that could have wide-reaching implications for content creators. This is, of course, an issue of copyright, and perceived copyright infringement.  This is an area which I consider vitally important, and am very careful about in my own professional practice. All of the images I use in all my work – and that includes exhibits that I designed for the FLWVM (which you will see when you visit this weekend) are ALL either compliant with Creative Commons licensing, or are used with the permission of the author (some images are even my own). We have been very conscientious about copyright, and credit to content creators, at the FLWVM.

Thus for me, the most surprising complaint the Foundation aimed at us was the erroneous assumption that items on the SL Marketplace which were being sold under the name Frank Lloyd Wright (and of course not approved by the Foundation) were somehow the responsibility of the FLWVM/VMI [Edit: please see my clarification in the comments below]. The FLW Foundation is of course well within its rights to pursue copyright infringement against anyone making a profit on anything being sold without their approval, and I would support them doing so. However the VMI does not sell anything on the Marketplace, nor are we a licensor of anyone in Second Life. It is not reasonable to expect that we were responsible for – or could have possibly managed – the policing of all sales of FLW material in Second Life.

I wished to bring up this point here not as a defense, for we have decided to comply with their demands, but rather because copyright is an important issue for all educators and content creators. There are many gray areas in the issues of copyright, ‘fair use’, and the internet. In the art world, there are many debates about whether a museum, for example, has the right to charge for images that are faithful representations of works out of copyright. Likewise, there are questions whether a 2D representation of a 3D work may be considered derivative or not; what is the case then for a 3D virtual model?

Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House, built in SL by Miltone Marquette. Photo by PJ Trenton.

All of this said, as a member of the Board, I have supported the decision to close because even though I personally have several questions about the order, we are not in a position to engage in protracted legal battle. We must comply with this in good faith, because, as well, everything we have ever done was not for personal gain, but to engage, educate, and inspire the public about the life and work of Frank Lloyd Wright. And in that, we must also respect the wishes of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, even if we may have irreconcilable differences.

The light at the end of the tunnel is that this will not be the end of Virtual Museums, Inc. We will regroup, and will think – and plan carefully – our next project; and I for one already have many ideas! But for now we hope we will see you this weekend, and in particular, that you will join us on Friday evening for a Winter Ball (7-9 SLT), to celebrate the hard work of all our volunteers, the support of all our members and donors, and the legacy of a great American architect whose work is loved around the globe.

Wright once said, “Every great architect is – necessarily – a great poet. He must be a great original interpreter of his time, his day, his age.” The architects of the FLWVM – whether builders, administrators, educators, or patrons – were poets in making his work available in a new and innovative way, for the international community. Wright would have approved, I think.

~Rowan Derryth, VMI Board Member and Writer for Prim Perfect Publications

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Although the Board have declared their intention to close the Museum, some people have decided they wish to write to the Foundation to express their regret that this situation has arisen, and hoping that, even now, a solution could be found. It does not, alas, seem likely. Instead it seems more likely that builds inspired by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright will be disappearing from the grid, and, in addition to the Museum itself, we’ve already heard of one creator intending to remove their build entirely.

29 comments

  1. One of the ironies here is that the FLW stuff being sold on the SL Marketplace won’t be taken down, because the Cease & Desist notice was sent to Virtual Museums, Inc., not Linden Lab. If the FLW people want the FLW stuff on the SL Marketplace gone, they have to send a DMCA Takedown Notice to Linden Lab, which apparently they didn’t do.

    “There are many gray areas in the issues of copyright, ‘fair use’, and the internet. In the art world, there are many debates about whether a museum, for example, has the right to charge for images that are faithful representations of works out of copyright. Likewise, there are questions whether a 2D representation of a 3D work may be considered derivative or not; what is the case then for a 3D virtual model?”

    All of FLW’s work is still protected under copyright; it is not public domain. Why? He hasn’t been dead 70 years yet (which is how long copyright lasts in the USA; he died in 1959). Also, there’s absolutely no question whether a faithful 3D model of an FLW work is a derivative work: it is.

    So the FLW foundation is within their rights to send the Cease & Desist letter. They’re also crazy to do so: they’re shutting down good work being done for them, by people with genuinely good intentions. Sigh…

    Incidentally, the reason the spaceflight museum (in SL) doesn’t have to worry about this kind of thing is mostly because NASA IP is US Government IP and Government IP is public domain (with a few exceptions, like the images on USPS stamps).

  2. Troy, you are absolutely right about the FLW material being within copyright, which is exactly why we were working with the Foundation. My comment was related to things like charging for reproduction rights for a Turner painting, for example; and recent debates over images for the National Portrait Gallery, London, (similarly out of copyright) being put up my someone on Wikimedia Commons. My point is, it is still a new frontier, and I know some experts in copyright law who freely admit that some of these areas have yet to be clearly defined.

  3. This is extremely sad news and I wonder, Rowan, or any other reader, if you can provide contact names and details for the exact correct people at the Foundation so we can write to them personally and point out how they are shooting themselves in the foot by taking these actions against the FLWVM.

    I know there is broad contact info at http://www.franklloydwright.org/fllwf_web_091104/contact_us.html – but the exact names and email addresses would be very helpful.

    Thank you.

  4. Yet again saddened by such short sightedness by a team (the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation) that is meant to promulgate the works of FLW & instead of working with the Board of Directors of Virtual Museums, Inc to further people’s exposure & understanding …. have built an Iron Curtain.

    All thanks to Virtual Museums, Inc, all it’s volunteers & supporters for having made such a virtual display possible for the time they have done

  5. I heard this news yesterday and wondered why the Foundation had chosen to act this way. To discover, from your correspondent this was primarily about the selling of items on the Marketplace, for which you state you are not respoinsible merely demonstrates the incomptenece of their legal team. As Troy McConaghy points LL would immediately act if the ‘C & D” had been issued to them.

    I wonder if perhaps VM Inc have not opened the FLW Foundation eyes to the importance of VWs for educational and marketing uses. Perhaps we may see the FLW Foundation buying their own sim and constructing buildings ? At which point – LOL I would love to see the bottom line when they try to balance expenses against sales on the Marketplace.

    How typical of the short sighted, while the FLW Foundation may have stopped the trickle of a few dollars in lost copryright fees their greater loss is the team of passionate individuals who cared more about the art and architecture of FLW than a few Linden dollars in revenue, and equally the educational loss to individuals who will never manage to visit the RL buildings.

    arklo galicia (SL)

  6. This is a very unfortunate decision. I only just visited the museum a couple of weeks ago and was thinking what a wonderful resource it is for people who can’t see the buildings in person (or for someone wanting to compare buildings). The builders did an excellent job, and it’s really sad to see them being punished because other people are using Frank Lloyd Wright’s name in the marketplace. Arguably, this actually makes matters worse, since it now removes any sort of officially sanctioned presence for Wright’s designs in-world and won’t do anything to address the actual infringing content.

    It’s a pity and a loss for all concerned: except maybe for those who made the infringing content in the first place. I doubt they even know about this.

  7. Every Foundation or individual with copywrite protection deserves that protection in full.

    Having said that, if the FLW Foundation visited the museum in Second Life they should be smart enough to figure out one obvious fact: At any given time there are around 60,000 people in-world, and the Museum gave those people access to Wright and his work. I, for one, would have never given Wright a second thought if not for the Museum in SL.

    FLWVM was an opportunity for the Foundation to reach people who they would never reach any other way, and those people might have become donors to the foundation itself. Oh well.

  8. The potential for second life to be used as an educational tool has taken a big step backwards. I was so impressed with the Foundation to be setting the pace in this direction. I understand this project must be faced with huge challenges. I also believe that anything worthwhile always does….

    Thanks to all those that brought it here in the first place. I have been exposed and educated by it. I am very sad to see it go.

  9. Thank you everyone for your wonderful and supportive comments. Elrik, the VMI is not encouraging any letter writing, as we have made the decision we must comply, so my apologies for not providing detailed contact information.

    I would also like to make one clarifying comment. The issue surrounding the SL Marketplace is only one point, and I mentioned it, as I said, because it has wider implications in a general sense, and also it was something that was unclear in our ongoing conversations with the Foundation well before this order came. I think part of our communication break-down may have been seated in the fact that Foundation representatives were unfamiliar with Second Life and its operations – an issue we hoped we had resolved by sending a representative to visit in RL. However, it should in no way be construed that the Marketplace issue was the sole reason this has happened. It would be inappropriate for me to comment further about this as we work through this process.

  10. Although it was with great pain that we made this decision, we are already thinking of other ways that we can expand our reach and continue to bring the best of architecture and the education of those who desire to know more about it into the virtual realm.

    While some might view this as a major setback, I see this as an opportunity we must seize now and make it happen. Your support and outpouring the past few days has been staggering and inspires all of us to keep reaching and aspiring to even greater goals.

    Thank you all
    Ethan Westland
    Chairman
    Virtual Museums Inc.
    FLWVM
    ethan.westland@theliteratepen.org

  11. As the founder and former CEO of the Frank Lloyd Wright Virtual Museum, I am of course deeply saddened by the events that have taken place over the past few months that led to its closure. However I am in no way shocked by it, in fact I spent a good deal of time attempting to convince the Board that exactly this event was bound to take place. At the last Board meeting I attended before my resignation I presented a proposal that would have seen, among other things, the formation of a second general architecture museum under the VMI name. My sole reasoning behind this was, as I had discussed with Ethan Westland and other Board Members on a number of occasions that it was obvious that when the current agreement with the FLLWF expired on December 31, 2011 there was no chance that we would get a renewal and I felt that it was better to be prepared for such an event. In hindsight, it appears that I was correct.

  12. While Frank Lloyd Wright was a visionary, clearly those charged with furthering his legacy are not. Their short-sightedness misses opportunities to both fulfill their mission and enhance their fundraising efforts.

    Bonnie Staiger, Hon. AIA

    (SL: Dakota Dreamscape)

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