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Role Playing (Games) The Almighty Buck The Courts

Making the Case That Virtual Property Is a Bad Idea 184

Posted by timothy
from the contrarians-just-can't-get-along dept.
pacergh writes "Many legal commentaries on virtual property argue that it should exist. Others argue why it can exist. None seem to explicitly spell out what virtual property will look like or how it will affect online worlds. Lost in the technology love-fest are the problems virtual property might bring. The Virtual Property Problem lays out a model for what virtual property might look like and then applies it to various scenarios. This highlights the problems of carving virtual property out of a game developer's rights in his creation. From the abstract: '"Virtual property" is a solution looking for a problem.' The article explains the 'failure of property rights to benefit the users, developers, and virtual resources of virtual worlds.'"
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Making the Case That Virtual Property Is a Bad Idea

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  • by Ksevio (865461) on Thursday August 13, 2009 @03:15PM (#29056089) Homepage
    Of course the value in virtual property by itself is not worth much. It's trivial to add another server to expand the property available. What is more valuable is the property's relation to other properties. In Snow Crash there was the Metaverse with a virtual city. It was mentioned that the most expensive property was at the center where all the hip places to hang out (as well as the geek/wealthy neighborhoods). At the other side of the world there was lots of emptiness - suggesting that the property value, while in supply, was not in demand.
  • by arth1 (260657) on Thursday August 13, 2009 @03:40PM (#29056393) Homepage Journal

    Personally, I find the entire concept of someone saying they own your stuff to be strange. Or, indeed, someone else saying they don't own your stuff.

    Personally, I find the entire concept of unconditional ownership strange.
    Where there is a scarcity of objects to be "owned", ownership should follow usage -- if you don't use it, you should lose it. Society isn't enriched by hoarding.
    In a digitial world, however, there is no scarcity of resources as such, and anything can be duplicated effortlessly and for almost free. What does ownership matter then?

  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Thursday August 13, 2009 @03:59PM (#29056615) Journal
    It'll be trickier than that, though. A virtual object's value is derived, more or less, from its "scarcity context": that is, within the confines of a given virtual environment(swords in WoW are not worth less just because CoD2 has guns), how many copies of the item exist, how hard it is to make new ones, what percentage of the population has one, or has something better, or has something worse, how likely it is that you will lose your copy, etc.

    This isn't too different from real property, which is also affected by scarcity, complementary and substitute goods, etc., except for one crucial detail: In a virtual world, basically all elements of the "scarcity context" are purely matters of choice and under the complete control of somebody. In the real world, the scarcity context can change; but it is possible to make reasonable inferences about how it will change(because changes require scientific advances, political changes, market movements, or the like). In virtual environments, the scarcity context is entirely dictated by the whim and pleasure of whoever controls the virtual environment.

    This makes "ownership" more complicated. If, for instance, Ford could change the color, passenger capacity, cargo room, and gas mileage of any car, by any amount, at any time, what it means to "own" a car would be quite different. In the virtual world, every single item is like that.
  • Second Life grants its users the right to copyright their creations.

    This is neither true nor relevant to the situation described in SL.

    * In US law, you have a copyright in your creations when you create them, unless you grant that copyright to another. The Terms of Service in Sony's "Little Big World" state that to access the service you have to give up your rights in what you create, YOU grant YOUR rights TO Sony. The terms of Service in SL grant Linden Labs a right to your creations... Linden Labs isn't granting you anything... they are merely limiting the rights you grant them in the Terms of Service.

    * The grant allows Linden Lab to use your works within the SL service. What they do with those rights is to set up a mini-economy based on a permissions model that controls the copying and transfer of objects in the game. The mechanism of duplicating objects in SL does not depend on a bug in the permissions system, but on the realities of copy protection in the real world... what you're doing is the equivalent of taping a song from the radio and selling copies of that tape out of the back of your car. The applicability of the law in this situation is clear, and it doesn't matter whether the so-called virtual property consists of two minutes of music or two megabytes of texture files.

    This paper's analysis only applies to a situation where either (a) the content of the virtual world is only created by the game developer, or (b) where the terms of service require a transfer of copyright to the game developer. It's completely irrelevant to content in SL where real-life copyright laws are in play.

    There is an analogy in SL, ownership of virtual land, but the existing case law is at best unsettled (Bragg vs Linden Lab [wikipedia.org]).

  • by brkello (642429) on Thursday August 13, 2009 @04:36PM (#29057197)
    Umm, my bank account doesn't pretend to represent something tangible. It does represent something tangible. I can go in and get stacks of $100 bills any time I want.

    When we are talking virtual property, one example is your MMORPG characters. I can't withdraw anything from Blizzard without violating the ToS since it belongs to them as is clearly stated. In this instance, this property has no bearing on the real world (at least in the sense that I have no rights to it). If it did, then I would be taxed on my loot from Ulduar. That would be stupid. And unless a game is set up to do real world money trade with its consumers, it should stay that way.

    It annoys me that you state your arguments as "any insightful person can see". Virtual property is only blurry when you talk about it in a general sense. When you are talking about a specific instance, it shouldn't be blurry. It should be stated in the legal documents what rights you do and don't have.
  • by mrchaotica (681592) * on Friday August 14, 2009 @06:23AM (#29063427)

    In America, the British (and other colonial powers) took the land from the indigenous people by force and claimed it in the name of the Crown. The Crown, in turn, granted/leased/sold (not sure of the terminology) it to the colonists (such that colonists had non-alloidal ownership, which they could sell amongst themselves but reverted to the Crown if they failed to pay taxes, died without heirs, etc.). Then the colonists became revolutionaries and took the land from the Crown by force, which works out the same as I just explained before except that the ownership ultimately reverts to either the Federal government or the government of each state (I'm not sure which, and it could vary between states) instead of the British Crown.

    There is such a thing as "alloidal title," where property is owned absolutely (in that not even the government has legal authority to take it away, no matter what), but that's extremely rare (at least in the U.S. -- it's more common in "civil law" countries) and, of course, it could still be taken by force.

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