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Telstra hit over virtual Uluru

The Australian

May 24, 2007 01:00am

Sexcond life / Supplied
Vandalism fears ... Uluru on the Second Life website / Supplied
TELSTRA is being investigated by Uluru's administrators and the Sydney Opera House Trust after cashing in on the images of Australia's two most famous landmarks as part of its extensive investment in the online world Second Life.

Telstra's move is focusing legal minds on the commercial use of images in the booming area of virtual worlds, with thousands of Australians visiting Telstra's virtual "island" - known as The Pond - each day.

And now tribal elders are also wrestling with the implications of the sacred sites being used for commercial purposes online as significant questions begin to emerge about famous landmarks such as the Opera House, Sydney Harbour Bridge and Uluru being used in websites and games.

The Sydney Opera House has also revealed it is investigating commercial exploitation on the Telstra site.

Telstra's BigPond opened its Second Life destination, The Pond, in March and it has since become the most visited destination in the virtual reality world.

Designers of the BigPond site included a scaled down Uluru, with a barrier to stop people walking or flying over the sacred site. However, representatives of the traditional owners, the Anangu people, warned that even with the restrictions it may be possible to view sacred sites around Uluru, although they were continuing to investigate the issue.

Concerns have also been raised that Uluru and the opera house could be exposed to digital vandalism, following an attack on the ABC's Second Life island earlier this week.

On Tuesday unknown vandals cracked security codes and destroyed ABC Island, the third most popular commercial site in Second Life, leaving it a cratered mess.

A spokesman for Telstra confirmed the company had not sought the permission of Uluru's landowners.

Legislation has been in place to limit photography, filming and commercial painting at Uluru for 20 years, with tight restrictions on what is and is not allowed.

Capturing images of parts of the northeast face of Uluru is banned and all pictures taken of that part of Uluru must be submitted to the landowners for approval.

While visitors in the game cannot touch Uluru or fly over it, they can virtually fly in the no-fly zone to the northeast and take snapshots.

However, while the rules governing photography, filming and paintings have been in place since 1987, a spokesperson from National Parks said the issue of digital images online had never been raised before.

National Parks, which administers the area on behalf of the traditional landowners, now has lawyers looking at Uluru in Second Life and is considering sending a delegation to meet landowners to discuss the situation.

The Sydney Opera House Trust also keeps a tight rein on the commercial exploitation of images of the building, which is one of the most recognised in the world.

"We are looking into the use of the Opera House image on that website at the moment and that's all we have to say," an Opera House spokesman said.

"It's very new to us."

Tony Anisimoff, a partner at commercial and intellectual property law firm Anisimoff Davenport Solicitors, which specialises in marketing and advertising issues, said the whole issue of recreating iconic buildings and sacred sites in commercial websites and games was a grey and untested area.

Mr Anisimoff said that in general copyright only protected blueprints and not the buildings themselves.

"The law does not recognise any such thing," he said.

"I know the Sydney Opera House Trust does occasionally object to the use of the Opera House and puts forward an argument that it's such an iconic commercial building that its use in a certain context implies an association, a sponsorship or an endorsement. But that sort of argument has never been run in court."

Mr Anisimoff warned that the exploitation of Uluru for commercial gain was a dangerous move.

"Anyone who puts Uluru in advertising asks for controversy," he said.

"As far as reaction of the Aboriginal bodies is concerned ... they do tend to react aggressively against commercial use of Uluru."

In 2003 the traditional landowners moved to stop the publication of a children's book, Bromley Climbs Uluru, because the book showed photos of a toy bear climbing it.

Although the book had been in circulation for nine years, National Parks threatened legal action on behalf of the Anangu people if the publishers printed a planned second edition.

The threats were later dropped when the authors revealed the photos were taken in 1986, a year before the legislation protecting Uluru came in.

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