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Virtual Justice
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Virtual Justice

December 1, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

Before we deny legal rights to those who are defrauded of virtual property, we should consider where our technologies are headed. In the last decade, we've seen a boom in social gaming platforms, virtual item sales, and virtual currencies. A small but growing number of lawyers are specializing in the murky law of virtual currencies and virtual economies. Over two hundred law review articles have been published about virtual property and virtual economies. Slowly, governments are taking notice.

In the past couple of years, I've talked with both legislators and law enforcement agents about the questions raised by virtual property and virtual crime. Yet much of this is so new that the law is unsettled. Only a handful of virtual property disputes have made their way into courtrooms. Several involve Second Life, a few involve World of Warcraft, and many involve courts and laws outside the United States, like the arrest in Japan after a MapleStory "murder" and a pair of cases from the Netherlands involving virtual crimes by minors.

The status quo is probably reassuring to game companies. Player claims to virtual property have not yet been recognized by any court in this country to date. Yet should we be happy with our system of virtual feudalism?

Before you answer that, consider how we increasingly invest our time, creativity, money, and social lives in various "cloud" castles: the servers of Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon. Our presence in these online places gives us very little in the way of property rights, but we return to these services because they are enjoyable.

Our efforts are monetized by our virtual hosts. The feudal analogy is especially fitting for the millions of microserfs who voluntarily till the fields of FarmVille, paying real money for the privilege of owning virtual tractors and seeds -- yet legally owning nothing.

Some gamification proponents are seeking to expand these virtual economies. They want to bring virtual currencies into our work lives and social networks, persuading us to convert more of our cash and effort into points, tokens, badges, and virtual coinage. We will be asked to perform microlabors to earn new virtual variants of the old company scrip. The gamification dream seems to be that our lives will be spent playing (but actually working) in a mobile always-on massively-multiplayer alternate-reality game. We'll be in the Jixi labor camp, more or less, but laboring happily, without the beatings. Who knows if that dream will come true... but do we want laws that enable it?

Last year I published a book about these issues with Yale University Press. The title is Virtual Justice: The New Laws of Online Worlds. In the book, I go into more detail about the law of virtual property, and also explore questions about the law of copyright, computer hacking, jurisdictions, and games. If you're curious, my publisher gave me permission to share the electronic version, so you can download a full (and free) PDF version of the book here.

I admit that worries about the legal status of virtual swords may seem a little strange and silly today, but we are still in the early days of online law. The puzzles of virtual gold may be the canary in the coal mine of our future law. If the legal system says you don't own your virtual sword, how likely is it that you'll own your virtual life?

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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