Virtual worlds and the law

There is growing interest about the legal implications of MMORPGs. Terra Nova has a good post about the growing trend to emphasize the technology and ascertain the inherent difference of virtual worlds when compared to real life. The questions are generally centred around American freedom of speech arguments (as most American discussions about new technology tend to do), but they can be boiled to this: some people want claim ownership over what they produce in increasingly rich worlds because these works have value, be it commercial or sentimental. Some MMORPG user agreements have clauses where users transfer all assignable IP to the company.

I tend to agree with the idea that these worlds are no different than any other worlds, and that therefore the legal questions should not differ to what we already have. However, I also think that there may be some new questions lurking in here, questions that have been missed by the freedom of speech arguments. If people spend hours and hours putting together a character and creating a viable online world, shouldn’t that be recognised in some way? Could we argue that agreements that force users to give away their IP when they sign up to the game would be abusive?

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