Online Virtual Realities – Do You Know Who Owns Your Virtuality?

Second Life, a virtual reality simulation system available online, is a privately managed computer system that allows “real” people to participate in “virtual” activities within the system.  You can download a copy of the program and login for free at Second Life’s website.  But, if you do, you’ll notice that you have to consent to a rather lengthy (which is kind of normal for these sorts of sites) online agreement that governs the terms of service of the site.  Undoubtedly written by risk-conscious lawyers, the terms of service give users a more or less one-sided set of rules that govern the basic way that the site will operate.  These terms include a number of discretionary matters reserved to the good folks at Linden Labs, that creator of Second Life.

In reality, no one but you owns your right to exist or engage in interactions, so it is a little unsettling that a private company has, in its discretion, control or ownership over your virtual existence.  But, like most of us children of the internet age, we quickly breeze through such concerns.  What’s more interesting about the agreement relates to the copyright possessed by users of Second Life.  As students of copyright law can surmise, Linden Labs is an author under the Act.  The system it has created is a copyrightable work, which includes the audio visual presentation, along with the application code underneath that makes things work within the system.  Individual users have a license to access the system and roam its virtual landscape, but are also empowered, effectively, to create their own little derivative works.  The system gives users the ability to create new objects within Second Life, upload images and pictures, and then buy and sell those virtual objects to other users in the system, in exchange for a virtual currency that is managed by the system creator.

Normally, Linden Labs would have an exclusive right to create derivative works.  However, under the agreement with Linden, users are able to retain an exclusive copyright in the virtual objects that they might create within the system.  This likely includes programming code users can generate themselves within the system to automate or otherwise cause virtual objects to interact with Second Life in particular ways.  Section 3.2 of the current agreement describes this right and the limitations upon it.  So here’s an interesting question: how do you go about enforcing your rights under the Copyright Act in the event of a potential infringement?  Today, you generally have to sue in a real court of law somewhere, and gain personal jurisdiction over the alleged infringer, who may not even live in the United States (it is the internet where this system exists).  But Linden, to date, has not established an internal judicial system within Second Life that might have the ability to bind users of the system to the outcomes of adjudication of claims within the system – virtual complaints, claims, and so on.  Perhaps there will one day be a virtual 15th circuit in the federal court system that operates in systems like Second Life.

In the meantime, I think it would be interesting to see if it would be possible to create an informal arbitation or mediation system within Second Life that might provide an alternative way for users in the system to settle disputes over virtual land, goods, warranties of fitness, and the like.  See you in Second Life!

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Maryland technology attorney and college professor.

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