Saturday, August 7, 2010

Hard Mode 3: Virtual Property Rights

"The Infinity Plus One Staff -- Defeat your foes twice as fast as the old Infinity Staff! Only available within the deepest reaches of the Nine Hells and after mowing through a horde of demons... ...or you can have one RIGHT NOW, for just 5,000 gold pieces, payable in virtual currency or PayPal!"

Reading through the article "A Brave New World for Intellectual Property Rights" in the Journal of Law, Information and Science rekindled my interest in Virtual Property.

The concept of virtual property is simple. It is:
  1. In a virtual world (be it an online game, forum, etc.)
  2. Persists with a given user account
  3. Has value because of certain effects (improved gameplay, improved social value, etc.)
The degree of how everybody wants them, and how much of it is out there in the virtual world depends on too many factors to be discussed here.

As future lawyers, we're not interested in the economics of it all. We're interested in what happens when there's a conflict arising over a piece of virtual property?

We know them and we love them. They can range from simple breaches of contracts of sale (what if your online friend jumped out on you?) to massive infringements of copyrighted virtual property (see Second Life), or from simple theft to homicide over an online sword.

So who you gonna call? Not a lawyer!

In the first place, there is the problem of Crossing the Jurisdictions (tm). Your buddy lives in China. Your item is stored in a server in Australia. Your game is owned by a company in California.

Secondly, the virtual world's EULA/Terms and Conditions will most likely disclaim the developer from liability, or will outright provide that all your base are belong to us, the developers.

And also, Philippine law arguably does not recognize virtual property. For something to be legally called "property," it should be (1) useful, (2) separable, and (3) capable of appropriation. And when an agreement is entered over something that does not have all of these properties -- that is, outside the commerce of man -- the courts just won't do anything.

In conclusion, all is not lost yet. One remedy is to hard-code inherent limitations in the virtual property, making transfers enforceable or rescissible by the virtual world's administrators themselves. Another remedy, and one connected with the first, is to establish an online dispute resolution system.

As for any other legal, lawyer-related remedy, that's for to us to think about.


Marcelino G. Veloso III said...

I actually wrote a paper about this when I was a sophomore. My main argument was that virtual property shouldn't be treated as property per se but as an usufructuary right (of intangibles) which can then become useful, separable, and capable of appropriation. Whether this argument will be applied by our courts is something I'm keen on finding out, haha.

Paulyn Duman said...

Cool! I have also been wanting to write about the remedies of people who own "virtual properties". But having read Mr. Veloso's paper, I felt so inept and ignorant. Haha. But I am still exploring this topic for my SLR, if Dean Carlota will approve of course.

Marcelino G. Veloso III said...

Thanks Pau! Considering that my focus was limited to virtual property found in MMORPG's, different rules - not to mention ethical standards - may be found applicable to other forms of virtual property (e.g. email, online identities). Would love for the issue/s to be explored further. Hope Dean approves the topic!