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
    csven, 10 May 2006 @ 2:09pm

    I was aware of this when it first came to light on the SL forums. Like others, I went to see the "closed auctions" that signaled someone was scamming the system. Where the website clearly spells out that auctions for sims (a computer Linden Lab maintains and which hosts a section of the virtual world) begin at US $1000, I saw closed auctions indicating the winning bid was US $2.01, $5.01, aso. As I've stated elsewhere, I doubt thousands of dollars in cash was spent since had that been the case, hundreds of sims would have likely been sold at those prices. I'm unaware of this occurring as such a large number of sims would have triggered the developers attention - not some lone voice on the SL forum. It's worth noting that the "Land Store" system is quite new, so this would have had to occur over a relatively short period of time. What I suspect is that this individual included his own time (calculated at lawyer's fees) in with the rest to make the damages sound worse than they are (which then gets more attention from the media and gives his legal firm plenty of free publicity).

    I don't know. But that's what I'm thinking based on what I've seen and read.

    With regard to Linden Lab granting intellectual property rights, apparently people aren't aware that a computer game coded entirely within Second Life has migrated to the handheld market and the objects built by residents inside the world have been fabricated by the same rapid prototyping machines used by manufacturers (and product designers like myself). If not for this first step, there'd be little incentive for people to push the limits. By all means there should be virtual spaces which remain segregated from the real world. However, this doesn't mean everything should be. Variety is ... you know the saying.

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