Sunday, August 21, 2005

Property Essay Question

Brian
If you create, earn, trade for, or buy a virtual possession in an online role-playing game, does it belong to the real you? Can you sell it on eBay? If you virtually beat up another character in a game and take such possessions, are you a real-life thief? A Chinese student arrested in Japan might have an answer:

Players were attacked in the game, Lineage II, and their items were then sold for cash on auction sites.

The attacks were carried out using automated bots, which are difficult for human game players to defeat.

The student, who was abroad on an exchange program, was arrested in the Kagawa prefecture of southern Japan.

In Japan, as in England, there are no specific laws to govern trade in virtual possessions.


Link. There have been thorny questions about issues of property in these virtual worlds for at least a few years. F. Gregory Lastowka and Dan Hunter wrote a year and a half ago about the legal issues that arise when an entrepreneurial company "outsources" the menial levelling that is required to get to the meaty part of a game, then sells the upgraded avatars:
Virtual economies have created real--world opportunities to cash in. Some denizens of virtual worlds buy virtual property at low rates from those who have no idea what the item is worth, then resell it on eBay for real--world profit. Some make a six--figure U.S. dollar income this way, and one or two individuals may make even more. Moreover, the possibility of arbitrage creates incentives for indirect employment. If the effective hourly wage is greater in Norrath [the game EverQuest's fictional world] than in the real world, then surely it should be possible to extract this differential? Of course, it is. A fly-by-night operation called Blacksnow Interactive set up a "point-and-click sweatshop" in Tijuana, where the hourly wage is considerably less than $3.42 [the real-world value of an hour spent in-game building up one's avatar's virtual skills, money, and chattels]. The company paid unskilled Mexican laborers to play Dark Age of Camelot around the clock, then sold the virtual assets they created. When Mythic Interactive, the owners of Dark Age, cracked down on this practice, claiming intellectual property infringements, Blacksnow sued on the basis that Mythic was engaging in unfair business practices. Blacksnow's lawyer threw down the gauntlet:

What it comes down to is, does a . . . player have rights to his time, or does Mythic own that player's time? It is unfair of Mythic to stop those who wish to sell their items, currency or even their own accounts, which were created with their own
time.


Though the plaintiff dropped the case when its other legal problems forced a hasty retreat, the issues it raised remain. Virtual "property" has real-world value. Does that mean it is really property? The remainder of this section is devoted to a consideration of ways that virtual property might be descriptively different from real-world property. The two most obvious differences [are] that virtual property is intangible and that virtual property is evanescent.

F. Gregory Lastowka and Dan Hunter, The Laws of the Virtual Worlds, 92 CALIF. L. REV. 1, 39-40 (2004). Still, that's property law, the kind of thing that would end up an issue in a civil trial. This--and maybe I should consider changing the title of the post--is criminal law. Is someone who breaks the equivalent of real-world laws in a virtual world a criminal? Alternately, is taking someone's virtual property--property that can be sold for real money--against the actual law? There remains the question of whether what was taken is actual property. But now there is a new complication: is the taking of it actually wrongful taking? This has profound implications for cheaters everywhere.

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