Virtual Property Rights

There has been much talk about the eventual role of virtual worlds in modern society. Games like Second Life specifically has caused various media storms around it's Linden currency and life-like economy, which some predict will be traded alongside the dollar and the euro sometime in the future. One of the biggest problems theorists have yet to solve is that of Virtual Property Rights. When I acquire land or items (resources of any kind, really) in virtual worlds such Second Life, World of Warcraft, or Everquest, can we enforce American property law on those objects? When I build a house in Second Life, are you liable for damages when you break in and steal something? John W. Nelson has written an eye-opening paper discussing the various forms of property law in America and whether or not these ideas can be applied in the virtual realm.

It's a long read, but well worth it. There are some really fascinating ideas in here that may change the way we look at virtual assets. Should virtual resources be considered Intellectual property or physical property? maybe it's both. Maybe the hardware the resources reside on is the physical property that the intellectual property of swords, houses, and in-game resources simply represent to the consumer?

He tackles the the idea of the Lockean view of property rights (man's toil + nature = ownership) and how it can't give second life users rights to their areas (after all, it ultimately started with the developers code).

If you don't feel like reading the whole thing, I'll spoil it for you. He doesn't think that physical property laws will ever make an effective policing system for virtual worlds. While it may seem like a great idea in theory, in practice there are too many differences to make it worthwhile.

This problem really makes one wonder what property is, anyways. Is it a title given to an object (this land is property), or is a right given to an owner (I have property rights to this land). Ultimately, I think this will be the deciding factor when it comes to virtual property. Since it is by definition not real, you can't call it property. But if you're referring to property as rights given to a user, then the fact that I can sell my high-level rare WoW sword for real money automatically gives legitimacy, real or imagined.

I like this kind of intelligent, informed, discussion about the world of games and geeks, and I hope to engage in more of that in the future.

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