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Nine-Tenths of the Law

Jaime Skelton Posted:
Columns Player Perspectives (Archived) 0

Earlier this week, CNN reported about a new lawsuit against Linden Research, Inc. (aka “Linden Lab”) in regards to Linden's virtual world Second Life. The suit asserts that Linden promised players ownership of their virtual property (virtual land and assets they contain and create), but has not actively protected or asserted those rights. The suit actually claims Linden acts like a dictatorship, in that they have promised virtual property ownership for several years, but do not uphold the ownership of an individual's property in their virtual world and, in fact, seek to “reclaim” the virtual assets as their own.

The Second Life virtual property ownership dispute has a long and interesting history, one that begins not with the 2006 Bragg v. Linden Research, Inc. case, but one that begins with the company's shift to the first “virtual property” MMOG. In reading through the history, the detailed media campaigns that Second Life launched, and commentaries from legal experts, I actually found myself lost in hours worth of research that left me puzzling over the fate of the virtual world and its laws.

Like many of you, I'm actually not too concerned about Second Life. It holds no real interest for me from a gaming or development standpoint; however, it does offer an interesting (and popular) testing ground for the legal boundaries of the virtual world. Both users and Linden Lab have tried to stretch the boundaries of law in the world, creating not only questions of virtual property, but also of censorship, education, sociopolitical boundaries, and ethics – to name a few.

This latest lawsuit against Linden refreshes the idea of ownership for all virtual world players, not just those in Second Life. Although Linden is one of the rare few companies that offers, or suggests it offers, actual ownership of virtual goods and property, most players still have a sense of ownership when it comes to their account and the game world. Most of us think of accounts, characters, equipment, in-game housing, guilds, and other miscellaneous things that exist in the virtual worlds we play in as “ours.” There's no reason to think otherwise: we create them with our own personally identifying information, pay for them with our own money, and put long hours of time into developing them.

While much of what we believe we own we do not actually create, so much as alter, arrange, and gather, there is still a sense of ownership. If we didn't have a sense of ownership, or entitlement, then we would count our accounts as lost when hacked into by a third party and simply force ourselves to claim a new one or steal one ourselves. Without ownership, we would refuse to release personally identifying data since any other person could claim the account at any time. Most of all, we would have to accept that the game company had the right to reclaim the account at any time for their own use.

That last claim is the major concern of the new legal case against Linden Lab, and what should have the attention other virtual world participants. In the Linden Case, the plaintiffs are alleging that Linden Lab reclaimed their account as part of banning them from the virtual world, causing them to lose virtual property that had real monetary value as well as currency, which also had real monetary value, in their account. Linden did not return this value or currency to the players, causing a significant financial loss. Keep in mind this is not estimated valuation (“what this account would be worth if I sold it on eBay”); this is actual monetary value derived from purchasing currency and property with real world cash.

The problem for the players is the lack of true ownership rights. Visit any terms of service agreement for any well-known virtual world or MMO, and you will find that the Terms of Service outline that you only own a license to the virtual content which can be revoked at any time. That is, whether in Second Life or World of Warcraft, you are only paying for access to the virtual world itself, and that everything – from your character and its equipment to the account itself – is actually property of the game company. In fact, the Terms of Use for World of Warcraft even claim the ownership of chat transcripts belong to Blizzard Entertainment and not to the player, despite the fact that the chat content is created by players.

The allegations in the Second Life case are that Linden built a sense of value and ownership through their media campaigns, compiled through a long history of self-created statements on Second Life's websites as well as interviews and statements to the press. It isn't just that Linden Lab said “you can own your own property” and left it at that. Linden indicated that the virtual property rights could be enforced both virtually and offline; several statements asserted that Linden released all claims to rights of ownership on virtual property. Although Linden has claimed that this was merely a metaphor to help people to relate to the idea of a license to access the virtual world and partake in its various business dealings, there's no doubt that their words had the effect of impressing on its members that they, in fact, had actual ownership rights to their property.

You may have the impression that these Second Life players were merely naïve. Consider, however, the fact that most of us operate under the same principle with our characters in MMOs. We believe that because we have paid for an account – either through subscription fees, micro-transactions, or simply hours of work – that we have the right to the work that we've created: the characters, the virtual places, the guilds, and the gear. The game companies, however, could decide to take that away at any moment, by removing our account, or any of those things we hold so dear to consider “ours,” and we would have no legal right to protest against it.

The laws overseeing virtual worlds go beyond the ideas of eminent domain. They are, instead, like pitting man versus God. With little legal precedence or oversight, game companies have relative freedom in creating and changing the rules at whim, and we must accept not only the rules they create, but their right to alter them at any time. This is not something that players can simply stand up to on a singular basis, not the fault of a few companies among the masses. The entire industry operates on the same general legal principles of “we own everything, we just let you pay us to enjoy it.” While few companies actually go so far as to abuse their penultimate power over their players, every company has a right to exercise that power with no possible recourse from the player. Player protests are like shouting at the heavens; the world below may hear and agree, but the gods above may laugh and dismiss the mortal pleas.

There's no denying that there is some sort of 'worth' in our accounts, our characters, our virtual spaces and relationships. It may not be easy to place a monetary value on the overall collection of our virtual assets, especially since a market value requires demand on an exchange (the selling of accounts or goods) that is generally taboo. That worth should be placed on more than just an access license. It isn't the passkey (the account) that has value, but what the passkey unlocks (the characters and virtual property associated with it). Despite over a decade of existence, however, the legal rights of players in virtual worlds is just barely coming to light. It will take many more years, and a great deal of grassroots effort, to establish among the non-virtually inclined that virtual worlds need legal oversight.


Jaime Skelton