A multiplayer online game is sued
for allowing its players to dress up like comic book heroes. An upstart
company winds up in court for creating a Tijuana sweatshop to
manufacture digital weaponry.
A funny thing is happening in
these sprawling online multiplayer arenas. The ultimate in digital
escapism, virtual worlds keep ending up in the ultimate in depressing
reality: the courts.
Massive multiplayer games have
exploded in popularity, with games that range far beyond the quests and
giant rat killings of a traditional title such as "Everquest
II." Some skip Dungeons & Dragon-style role-playing altogether
in favor of a free-form world not unlike a virtual "Burning
Man." What they have in common is virtual worlds built to
accommodate player interaction. The designers create the world and code
the boundaries of behavior; the players add the drama with their social
What happens in Norrath doesn't
always stay in Norrath, however. Virtual currencies and goods now appear for sale in
the real world. Daily Exchange rates of virtual currency
to U.S. dollars are published on sites like GameUSD.com.
An island in one virtual world recently sold for $26,500!
That kind of money attracts
attention. Digital sweatshops, businesses where Third World laborers
play online games 24/7 in order to create virtual currencies and goods that can be sold
for cash, are also on the rise. One such business, Blacksnow
Interactive, actually sued a virtual world's creator in 2002 for
attempting to crack down on the practice. The first of its kind to
center on virtual currencies and goods, the case was eventually dropped.
Beth Simone Noveck, an associate
professor of law at the New York Law School and director of the
Institute for Information Law and Policy, isn't surprised that virtual
conflicts are winding up in court.
"Now that there's commerce,
trading and the exchange of virtual currencies and goods in virtual worlds, the law is
going to come in," she said.
To get a handle on the boundaries
between virtual worlds and real-world law, MSNBC.com asked Noveck to
highlight several legal hot buttons as they apply to virtual worlds.
Is virtual property,
Take virtual property. "One of the questions is,
how do we treat property in virtual worlds," said Noveck.
"Should we accord them the same protection as property in the real
Imagine your virtual world avatar
wore a little amulet that was then stolen by another avatar, she
suggested. Would that be classified as theft?
Probably not. In many virtual
worlds, particularly MMORPG's (massively multiplayer online role playing
games) theft is allowed; it's considered part of the role playing
But money has a way of changing
everything. If virtual world goods and virtual currencies can hold value in a
real-world economy, why can't they hold value in the courts? Actually
it's already happened -- although the court ruling was in China.
In 2003, a court that a virtual world developer had to compensate a
player in cash after a hacker stole his virtual currencies.
Noveck takes the idea of digital
property one step further.
Imagine someone investing time and
money (via a monthly subscription) into a virtual world. She's
made friends, built a reputation and spent a fair amount of time
collecting and creating virtual currencies and goods. All of a sudden,
"poof!" her work disappears when the game creator, faced with
a losing business, pulls the plug.
"Time to get a life," may be the easy response. But for many,
the virtual world is their life. The average player spends 22
hours a week online, according to Nick Yee, a virtual world
anthropologist who has been documenting MMORPG's since 1999.
"As we spend more time in these worlds, it's not enough for
companies to say that 'we own everything and we can turn it off at any
time,'" said Noveck. "The question may soon be should we
have recourse against a game for obliterating assets?"
in the virtual realm
A more recent case involves Marvel Comics, owners of
"Spider-Man" and "The X-Men" franchises. Concerned
that players in the critically acclaimed online game "City of
Heroes" were using the game's character building tools to outfit
themselves as Marvel-owned heroes, the company sued the game's maker,
South Korean online gaming giant NCsoft. It was up to NCsoft, Marvel
charged, to prevent its players from infringing on its trademarks.
"There's this larger question
concerning virtual worlds on the legal treatment of the people who
create and provide this service," said Noveck. "Should
they be protected as an ISP or should they be responsible like Napster."
Internet service providers are not legally responsible for the content
of Web sites, that responsibility lies with the owner of the Web site.
Napster, on the other hand -- well, everyone knows what happened with
Napster. The Feds went after both the company and its customers.
The case is still in the courts.
Meanwhile, there's an interesting theoretical parallel.
After all, a Marvel comic character is protected by the law in every
medium. But what if a player in "City of Heroes" created his
own virtual character and that character was promptly used in a Marvel
comic book. Would that be illegal?
"The laws haven't approached that yet," said Noveck. "But
it wasn't too long ago that we were talking about whether"
trademarks and brands could be protected on the Web.
Creating an item in a virtual world worthy of branded status will
depend, in the future, on whether the player is allowed ownership of the
object created in a virtual world owned by a private company. Most
virtual world designers maintain that anything created in the world
belong to the company.
But already one virtual world, "Second Life," cedes
intellectual property rights over player creations to players
themselves. That position, combined with "Second Life's"
robust tools and scripting, has led to some fantastical creations.
"Right now there's this intense disagreement over intellectual
property," Noveck said. "Some say recognizing property is good
because it enhances creativity, others say, 'Come on! People create
things in virtual worlds for the love of it.'"
Should virtual worlds be regulated by law at all?
Of course all this talk about the law and virtual worlds
may sound silly to most people; conjuring up images of tiny digitized
courtrooms with a seventh-level dwarf pleading his case.
But as the virtual world and the real world grow more alike, the legal
questions will mount.
Noveck played host to a number of
cyber-philosophers and virtual world creators at State of Play II, a
conference on virtual worlds in New York last fall.
There were no Merlin hats in
sight. Instead, discussion centered on the future potential of virtual
world technology, according to Noveck, "as not just a place to
play, but also a place to work or create culture."
In other words, the same
technology and multiplayer cooperation that has fostered
many-a-dragon-quest in the past could some day be applied to more
practical applications like encouraging political participation or
fostering a collaborative environment for real world decision-making.
Already, some players use virtual
worlds as a sort-of public square, voicing their opinion on everything
from real-world presidential politics to the problems they have with the
game creators. And this brings up another potential legal issue: Using a
privately run space to voice public opinions.
"If this is a place where
people are socializing than one of the questions is, should we be
thinking of virtual worlds as something different, like a company
town" said Noveck.
Company towns are often mentioned as a possible legal precedent for the
legal status of virtual worlds. A 1946 Supreme Court ruling found that
towns created and run by companies could not restrict the First
Amendment right of free expression. Despite their private origin, the
court found, the towns served a public function.
Applying the Constitution like a sledgehammer to online arenas
originally created for escape may sound like the ultimate bad trip --
going against the "we're in this together" camaraderie that
has sparked many a virtual world quest.
But if virtual worlds are to reach the full potential that Noveck and
like-minded scholars and enthusiasts espouse -- as a not just a place to
play, but to work and create -- they will need people who understand
both the strengths of real world law and virtual world collaboration.
"We now have this technology that allows people to create their own
place, their own rules," said Noveck. "We need to preserve