Rights and Protections in the Virtual World

November 13, 2007 by Ashleigh Leon

  The past two decades have been marked by extreme technological advances. 
The internet has opened many doors in the way of business transactions,
availability of resources and research and most notably a new
communication ability and efficiency.  In 2003, Linden Research Inc.
launched Second Life which is one of the newest developments in the online
realm.  It is a virtual reality community offering all of the
opportunities, enjoyment and even disappointments that a person
experiences in real life.  Through ‘avators’, virtual characters created
by the real life members of the Second Life community, users can make, buy
and sell almost anything they wish from a ferrari to scripted t-shirts in
this virtual world.  One of the main features setting Second Life apart
from other online games and communities is its thriving economy and market
for the purchase and sale of virtual property.  Not only do members have
the ability to live in the community, they can set up businesses and own
the rights to anything they create (including their avators) in the
virtual world.  Where such rights are given to members of any group, a
method of protecting these rights must be established. Rights without
protection are illusionary.  With regard to this notion, many intellectual
property lawyers have been attracted to Second Life and have set up firms
to dispense legal advice to residents of the world and further to network
with potential new clientele.  However, just as rights in the real world
are difficult to ascertain and protect so come the same and possibly even
greater difficutlies in the digital realm.  The ability to protect the
rights Linden Lab has vested in the residents of Second Life seems to be
at the very best doubtful and the involvement of lawyers in the community
while likely helpful for informative and marketing purposes may be
problematic for practical and ethical reasons.
  Intellectual property law is a rapidly growing area full of contentious
issues and conflicting rights.  Property rights in the virtual creations
of Second Life members is a major attraction to the world and encourages
investement in the market of the community, however, this protection may
be nothing more than fiction.  Infringements of real world intellectual
property rights in products is rampid in Second Life (for example the
unauthorized use of a ferrari symbol) and it is seems inevitable that the
same infringements will happen to property created within the community by
its members.  The protection accorded for these virtual creations is thin.
 Linden Labs has set out an intellectual property policy giving rights to
creators.  However, what it would seem that the chance of receiving
compensation for an infringement of intellecutal property within Second
Life is doubful.  Infringers may be disciplined within the community or a
lawsuit outside of the community may also be launched.  Either or these
options will be equally time consuming and expensive.  Even if action is
taken by the rightholder, there is no guarantee that the infringer has
been truthful about his/her offline identity.  The possibility of
punishment for infringement may just be an empty threat for those people
who are cunning enough to enter Second Life with false or incomplete
personal information.  Similarly, if punishment occurs within the
community there is nothing stopping the infringer from closing his/her
account and just re-opening a new one likely with different information. 
Therefore, community members are granted rights but afforded little
protection for such rights.  
  Further still, while intellectual property rights are seemingly given to
creators in the community, these rights are drastically limited by the
overarching power of Linden Labs.  Everything that occurs in Second Life
is subject to the discretion of Linden Labs.  People may purchase, sell,
invest, and create as much as they like but if Linden Labs decides that an
account is being used improperly it has the right to shut down the
account, as occurred in the ongoing complaint of Mr. Marc Bragg.  How then
are the intellectual property rights in Second Life anything more than an
enticement to create in the community? As Linden simply has the right to
close any account it wishes or can even decide to close the community down
entirely, the creators may not have any recourse for the lost property and
rights pending the outcome of Mr. Bragg’s complaint.
  Recognizing the opportunity to network in this expanding community,
lawyers have entered into Second Life and have established businesses. 
With the flourishing market, lawyers have also had the chance to dispense
legal advice to members who can make and lose real money in Second Life. 
The legal profession is founded on ethics, trust, and professionalism. 
Inevitably, in such a community there will be a need for governance and
lawyers may be a positive addition. Unfortunately, unless lawyers are held
to the same or similar standards as they are in the real world their
appearance in Second Life could be dangerous.  Currently the lawyers
practicing on Second Life are being trusted by their colleagues to act
appropriately and are not being monitored. This could prove to be
extremely problematic as practicing law in a virtual world where real
rights and money are at stake should be as closely monitored as practicing
law offline.  A process of accredation should be a requirement before a
member can advertise themselves out to the community as being a lawyer.  
If no such requirement is necessary, any person belonging to Second Life
could potentially be giving legal advice without the requisite knowledge
and with possibly bad intentions. 
  A virtual world that puts real rights and real finances at stake needs to
ensure that its members are adequately protected.  The protection of
rights given at this time is unstable and weak.  Allowing lawyers to
practice law in Second Life could be valuable as long as proper and
thorough safeguards are taken to ensure that the staple features of the
law profession are not forgotten in the digital community.

  1. One Response to “Rights and Protections in the Virtual World”

  2. I agree that there is a need for strong legal governance in the virtual world of Second Life. I also feel that such governance is easily attainable.

    True to its nature as a model of real life, Second Life is rife with legal disputes. In response, there has been a flood of lawyers vying for virtual clients, with established law firms like Davis LLP getting into the mix. Fortunately, Second Life has taken action to regulate the practice, by establishing the Second Life Bar Association. This is an excellent first step and this new legal system will operate at its strongest if it continues to be modeled on the “real” world. Our current legal system has adapted as our society has evolved, and so should it continue to adapt by expanding into the virtual world of Second Life.

    Take, for example, trade-mark infringement. In the real world, the owner of a trade-mark must take positive steps to enforce their rights. Accordingly, in Second Life, trade-mark holders should be under the same obligation. If companies like Ferrari are concerned that their trade-marks are being used illegally, they should be required to enter the virtual arena and make a claim. Further, Second Life has a body in place designed to deal with such infringements. If a complaint is received, they will investigate and remedy the situation. This is just one example but it demonstrates that Second Life can achieve a legal system that is as successful as its real world counterpart.

    By Thomas Kurys on Nov 29, 2007

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