Yes, WebGL is open - here we go again

The other day, I was reading this blog post “Protecting WebGL content (and why you probably shouldn’t)” from Brandon Jones. While reading, I got all these flashbacks from the 1990s. Here we go again, I thought!

What is the problem? In short WebGL are Javascript calls as part of a larger javascript program running inside the browser. Due to the nature of the web, javascript — and HTML, CSS and all other web page assets — are open for everybody to see and inspect. When the web was gaining traction, I saw the same reaction to HTML and GIF images. Designers and companies were afraid due to the openness that their site design and image assets were copied all over the place. At the time, it was really hip to obfuscate HTML source code and disable the right-click action inside the browser, so that nobody could copy the web page and its content. Of course, this proved to be fruitless since circumventing these “protections” was trivial.

Now we are in 2012, and nobody is protecting their web page assets anymore. You do see obfuscated javascript code from time to time. But most sites have no protective measures. And you know what? It did not really led to any problems. I am even of the opinion that the open nature of the web accelerated the growth and innovation. People could learn from and get inspired by each other’s accomplishments.

Now we are entering the next evolution of the web with WebGL. I think the reason this question arises again is that 3D on the web brings in a new set of people and companies who were not delivering content on the web before. I am thinking about 3D designers, game designers and their respective companies. They have the same fears as the web designers and developers of 2 decades ago.

In my opinion, the reason that it did not lead to any problems is, that the value of internet services is not in their online digital assets. Those assets are the result of a creation process. The value is in that creation process. Next to that is the interaction. Interaction is mostly a server-side affair — though it partly moved to the client with the advent of AJAX. Server side is maintained and under control of the creators and cannot be copied. If you take games as an example, the value is in the creation of digital assets, the game scenario and playability of the game. If you copy the digital assets, you just end up with just the assets. There is no game.

Just copying the homepage of Google or a timeline of Facebook does not give you the ability to copy their services. You need the whole package.

Of course, there are copies of assets or (parts of) whole sites, but it is really not wild west on the internet. If everybody is benign in nature, why can shops have you freely walk around without supervision. Shoplifting is a problem but shops still exist and make money. The same applies to the internet.

At Shapeways, we use WebGL for our creators. WebGL allows our users to interact directly with the product and see it change in realtime. The generation of the product is done server-side. This is part is valuable to us. It is our intellectual property. At the same time, we use a 3D HTML viewer with generated JPEG sprites to show uploaded 3D models. The reason is that we cannot allow any 3D model information to leak onto the internet. Using WebGL it is theoretically possible to copy a 3D mesh from the GPU and save it. That is not acceptable for a lot of designers in our community.

So yes WebGL is open. You can freely look into the work of others and even copy the work others. But no it is not a problem. HTML javascript and CSS work in a similar way and web designers / internet services thrive regardless.