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When Lawsuits Cross Over From The Real To The Virtual

from the problems-on-the-way dept

It's been almost three years since we first raised the issue about how all of these virtual gaming communities would deal with issues of crime and whether it should be dealt with within the game or outside of it. While there's been lots of discussion on the idea, there's been very little resolution -- and that's going to present a problem eventually. As we've pointed out, where it gets really tricky is that since these virtual worlds are completely controlled by those who made them the legal issues get very complicated, very quickly. The creators of these games didn't necessarily take into account the fact that they weren't just creators, but effectively took on the role of dictatorial governments in these worlds -- and that can have a serious impact. You can easily say that if a theft takes place, especially if the game can generate real money, then obviously the real world police should be involved. However, what if the point of the game includes theft? Some would argue that if theft is bad within the game, the programmers never should have allowed it in the first place (even if it happened by accident). One situation that we expected to get particularly problematic was that of Linden Lab's popular Second Life virtual world. The company announced (to great fanfare) that they were granting real world ownership to products within Second Life, basically bringing all the problems of today's real world intellectual property system into the game world, and then throwing the issue to the courts, rather than the game creators when inevitable conflicts came about. That's resulted in some problems for Second Life before -- but the latest situation highlights the problem clearly.

The Business 2.0 blog points out that a lawyer is now suing Linden Lab for what they describe as "a land deal gone sour." The specifics seem to be that the lawyer discovered an exploit that would allow him to buy land within Second Life at below market value. He invested several thousand dollars in doing so -- and then tried to turn around and sell it for a profit. Second Life discovered what he had done and killed his account, without letting him recoup his money. Now, obviously, the guy was exploiting a hole in the system for financial gain (which likely means Second Life could sue back with a case for fraud). However, this gets tricky again because it's within the world that Second Life has built themselves -- and some might argue that, even if it was by accident, the game is free-form enough that what's in the game is in the game -- whether Linden Lab intended it or not. Given Linden Lab's earlier proud announcement in 2003 that players in the game are given actual ownership of goods within the game, it's entirely possible that a judge may point out that they set themselves up for this. They've clearly said that the buyer, not Linden Lab, owns the property -- and thus, for them to strip the property without recourse could be a problem, partly of their own making. Neither party comes out looking very good in this situation, and it's certainly hard to side with the guy who was exploiting a cheat to make money within the system, but it does show one of the big questions that are going to face many more online worlds, as events within the virtual worlds end up in real world courts.

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  1. identicon
    Matthew, 10 May 2006 @ 8:03am

    Re: I hardly agree. by Andrew Strasser on May 10th

    This was their idea of gross misuse of game conduct. Being a merchant buying low and selling high with someone who has a super high trading skill is smart business not cheating.

    Not knowing the details of your case, I don't think this quite applies. This Bragg character "bought" land not available to the public (if I'm reading this right), and then tried to sell for a profit. Other player comments appended to the original article dispute the possibility that this reached thousands of real dollars so the lawsuit seems frivilous, but this sounds like a form of insider trading or something Halliburton gets to do. And they should be dragged behind horses down Main Street as well.

    Furthermore, the implication that this treatment will scare away Alpha & Beta testers is ridiculous and smells like sour grapes. A&B testing is always done with a grain of salt, and if a tester is foolish enough to be paying real money for items/gifts in an Alpha or Beta version not likely to be carried on to production then that tester deserved to be parted from his or her cash. Finding bugs is not equivalent to coding the thing in the first place.

    There is an invisible badge of pride in being a tester if not some sort of in-game rewards involved, and if a product is worthy the line will be long to be of that group. However, the Developers should keep in mind that the product needs to be worthy and that no one is infallible.

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