Sunday, March 23, 2008

Virtual property rights

I'm trying to split off the discussion of the Blizzard vs. MDY lawsuit away from the short posts where I just linked to the court documents. Because I don't really want to talk about Glider, which anyway is a program I need about as much as a machine that watches TV for me. For me playing World of Warcraft is entertainment, and having a bot do it for me is counterproductive. But I am interested in that lawsuit, for the simple reason that if it actually gets far enough in a court, we might get some interesting rulings on virtual property rights.

If you look up "trespassing" in law books, you will find a wealth of information and law that developed over hundreds of years. You can find out exactly what your rights are to for example cross somebody else's land which is the only way of access to some landmark. Property rights are one of the oldest forms of law. But virtual property laws are new, and jurisdiction hasn't really evolved all that far yet.

At the heart of the virtual property debate is the question of whether you actually own your character and his possessions. Most players instinctively think they own their characters. Game companies think they don't, players only have limited use rights for anything that happens on the company's servers, including characters. If you really owned your character and that gold in his pocket, then who could legally stop you from selling that character or gold? Or who could stop you from running a program that plays your character 24/7 to level him up to 70, if getting to 70 is all you are interested in? The horror vision of a game company is a court decision that says that virtual property is property of the players, which would mean that players could sue the game companies for decisions that affect the value of said property, for example shutting the game down, or causing virtual inflation.

So you might have noticed that in the lawsuits of Blizzard vs. Peons4Hire or MDY the game company is careful not to invoke any virtual property rights directly. They claim, and with some justification, that the actions of gold farmers and botters have a negative effect on players, and thus on Blizzard's business. The goal is to either reach an early judgement in favor of Blizzard to shut the small company disturbing their business down, or if that fails, to scare them into a settlement. That is why Blizzard is asking for several millions of dollars of damages from MDY, but would probably settle for Glider just going away and MDY stopping to do business. But such an outcome would leave the underlying question of what exactly you can and cannot do in a virtual world unresolved. And that wouldn't be the best possible outcome, so I kind of grudgingly have to admire the fighting spirit of MDY.

Companies shouldn't be in the business of making laws. Sure, there have to be rules. If I enter a McDonald's restaurant, there are certain house rules I'll have to obey or get kicked off the premises. But there are also laws and rules of the real world that take precendence over the house rules. Virtual worlds aren't any different. I totally agree that Blizzard should have house rules for World of Warcraft, telling people how to behave, and threatening to kick them off the premises if they don't. But I do not think that real world laws don't apply at all in the virtual world, and I do not think that Blizzard could make any sorts of rules. Just like McDonald's can't refuse to serve someone based on his color of skin, religion, or sex, Blizzard isn't the final judge of what is and isn't allowed in World of Warcraft. There are limits where their jurisdiction ends, and the real world jurisdiction starts. If the CIA is looking for terrorists in World of Warcraft, they clearly think that this is outside Blizzard's jurisdiction.

We just don't know where exactly these limits lie, because they haven't been explored very well yet. This is why lawsuits like these are important, no matter on which side your sympathies are: If there is no law of the land, you'll one day do something that you considered totally okay, but the game company didn't, and is banning you for. Can a game company delete your character which might be worth $10,000, or do you have real world rights that could prevent that?

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