Sunday 23 May 2010

Second Life: intellectual property and virtual property are not the same thing

Second Life is website where users can live, well, a second life. It is a role-play game in which users imagine meeting virtual people, doing virtual things and buying virtual property – for real money. Tens of millions of dollars have been spent and some commentators, such as Lawrence Lessig and Chris Anderson, have held the site up as a paradigm of how to make money out of online communities where many are giving their time and energy for free.

Now some of those who bought virtual property are suing in a class action, saying that Second Life has been misleading users about their ownership of virtual property. The plaintiffs’ accounts had been terminated, depriving them of access to their virtual property. And when Second Life went open source, the claimants say property was devalued, as anyone can now create their own land.

Confusion seems to have stemmed from the conflation of two types of ‘ownership’. Firstly Second Life asserts that users retain copyright ownership of content they create. Secondly they have said users can own virtual property. The first type of ownership is real-world ownership. The second is metaphorical ‘ownership’.

Where a user becomes an ‘owner’ of virtual property by buying it from the site or another user, it seems they are paying for a licence. This licence presumably may or may not incorporate an intellectual property licence. For example, the design of property may not be sufficiently original to attract copyright. There must invariably be aspects of what is paid for that has nothing to do with copyright: a house next door to a virtual celebrity’s house might cost more than an identical house in another location. The consideration here is a place in a game, not something that is protected by copyright.

On the other hand, if Second Life terminates an account they do not remove the user’s intellectual property right of owning copyright in content he created. Rather they stop making use of a licence the user has given.

Second Life is a game, so it’s hardly surprising that ‘owning’ something in a role-playing game should be something different from owning the real-life equivalent. The court must decide whether Second Life has been misleading users with statements like: ‘We started selling land free and clear, and we sold the title, and we made it extremely clear that we were not the owner of the virtual property.’


Pablo said...

Second Life is not a website. It *has* a website. Similarly, you *have* a website, but you are not a website. Second Life is an online, three-dimensional world. It requires its users to download and install a client or "viewer". What you can do from their website is manage certain aspects of your account, buy and sell currency, etc., but you can't go into the Second Life world from there.

Unless you define your life as a game, Second Life is not a role-play game. Role-playing is merely a speck in the wide variety of activities you can engage on. By "game", I understand a set of rules or procedures that will eventually make a distinction between winners and the other players. So, no, the fact that it's in 3D and that you can play games in it does NOT make Second Life a game, and it certainly doesn't make it a role-play game. I've been in Second Life for four years and yet, I've never done the role-play thing. I don't play games in there, though I did have some fun times with that Tringo game they made back in the day.

Feel free to "decline" this comment and keep it to yourself, for the sake of your blog. I suggest you delete the article, get rid of your misconceptions, research, talk to some content-creators and other people who might be directly involved in what your article is about, and then rewrite the article. You'll get a storm of negative comments if many Second Life residents see this article the way it is now. Good luck!

Crosbie Fitch said...

Copyright is no more 'real world' property than 2nd Life's insinuation that 3D scenery can be.

Copyright is not the natural property of a basket in the hand. It is a legal creation, a transferable privilege that people buy and sell - they do not own the art, but the privilege of suing people for a act of cultural liberty. There may also be repercussions to violating 2nd Life's rules, but rules don't make something property. The physical boundaries of possession and occupation make something property.

I wouldn't buy a copyright today, let alone a plot of virtual land in a virtual world (unless it was with virtual currency).

You have to make it very clear to people whether they are depositing funds into a financially regulated trading system, or buying non-refundable credits to expend upon features of an amusement game.

Celestial Elf said...

I must admit it is all vvery confusing....
Fortunately The Raven King explains Copyright here...