Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Virtual Resident Sues for Real Profits

The first suit over virtual real estate has been filed in Pennsylvania. The case of Bragg v. Linden Research concerns a purchase of land in Second Life (SL) at an extraordinarily low price by manipulating an online auction. As a citizen of Second Life, I think this is intriguing. One of the extremely cool steps that Linden has taken (and one of the reasons I pay for an account with benefits rather than simply using the free accounts) is that the things I create belong to me. They are my copyright, my patent, my property. Further, Linden dollars, or L$ as they are more commonly known inworld, have a worth of about $1/L$300, so when this guy's account was suspended for a real estate deal, he lost access to a lot of inworld property that has realworld value. He claims damages in excess of $8,000, which is not unrealistic given the amount of property he owned.

Joshua Fairfield, a specialist in internet law at Indiana University, thinks this case is unlikely to set major precedent in the area of online property because the arguments will likely revolve around whether Bragg violated the user agreement. Since that agreement constitutes a contract, any breach would entitle Linden to suspend his account, realworld value or not. I'm cautious about picking sides just yet due to the lack of information available on this case, but irrespective of the legal issues involved, my first instinct here is to side with Bragg. Sure, he took advantage of a security hole in Linden's auction system to bid on properties with no minimum and no competition, but the appropriate measure is to rescind the land deal and impose some smaller sanction, not to summarily ban someone so heavily invested in the SL world.

Bragg, from what I understand, made a substantial amount of money from his activities inworld, and though I don't know the extent of his involvement, I do know that there are some people who make their RL living entirely on SL. I understand the magnitude of having so much effort simply taken away because I own land, create content, and buy and sell virtual objects myself. The economy of Second Life, if it is to be a successful virtual economy, must not be subject to the whims of Linden; those who work and play there must have legally protected rights.

Is the right way to do that through the courts? Probably not, at least not yet. The owners of such virtual worlds should not all be legally required to handle their residents in the same way at this vital stage in the development of the technology. The goal of Linden's project, however, is a stable virtual world which mirrors the real one, and by unilaterally banning people for infractions like this, they undermine confidence in the stability of the gameworld and access to the things one creates and theoretically owns.

Creating something good enough to sell on SL takes a while. The object creation system is very intuitive and easy to use, but the precision of the work demands a very large investment of time and patience. Further, creating objects that do something rather than simply looking pretty requires a knowledge of LSL, the Linden Scripting Language. For people like me with a limited background in programming, the learning curve can be pretty steep. The amount of time I've spent learning to use the SL system and creating objects is not something I take lightly, and I only use SL for fun. If I made real money doing what I do, I would be furious. Mad enough to sue, in fact. What Linden needs to do is give its users assurances not only that the content they create belongs to them but that they will have access to it except in cases of extreme misbehavior. A fradulent land deal can be solved with sanctions and a rescision of the contract of sale, and Linden would do well to remember its citizens are watching.

Addendum: Thoughts On Re-Reading the 6,300-Word SL License

Some of the provisions Linden has made are good common sense, like the insistence that Linden Dollars are "not redeemable for monetary value from Linden Lab." Other provisions, though helpful for corporate autonomy in regulating the SL world, are going to have to give way for virtual economies to truly take off. Example: "Linden Lab has the absolute right to manage, regulate, control, modify and/or eliminate such Currency as it sees fit in its sole discretion, and that Linden Lab will have no liability to you based on its exercise of such right." In fact, the term "sole discretion" shows up in the agreement fifteen times. This is like the U.S. government telling you, "Our money is the only way you can pay for things in America, but we can give or take away money on a whim." Linden further reserves the right to regulate the currency exchange in any way they like. Would you invest in a country like that?

Here's the real kicker, though, and the thing that convinces me Bragg is going to go down in flames:

"Linden Lab has the right at any time for any reason or no reason to suspend or terminate your Account, terminate this Agreement.... In the event that Linden Lab suspends or terminates your Account or this Agreement, you understand and agree that you shall receive no refund or exchange for any unused time on a subscription, any license or subscription fees, any content or data associated with your Account, or for anything else." [Emphasis added]

So, even though you own the content you create, Linden reserves the right to deny you access to it or even to delete it. "But Q!" you say. "This is intellectual property, not subject to the vagaries of physical property. Shouldn't you just regularly back up what you create so that it will be available to you if you should ever lose access to your account?" And to you I say YES! But you CAN'T! You cannot so much as save to your hard drive a texture file that's embedded in an SL object, let alone save the form of the object itself. No, once Linden takes your account, everything you built inworld is just gone.

But they don't reserve the right to keep it, just the right to destroy it. In fact, they expressly limit their use of user-created content to marketing, debugging, and support. When you consider that Geocities owns everything their users have written and posted there, this is a pretty big deal.


Mr. Bragg has been kind enough to agree to an interview. I'll let you know what I find out.


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