How naive must one be, in this day and age, to spend months debating the question of virtual property without once wondering whether the question itself (or at any rate the phenomenon underlying it) wasn't already somebody's intellectual property?
Speaking only for myself, I confess the thought never crossed my mind. Not until last week, that is, when I received a friendly email from veteran game designer Ron Martinez, who alerted me to U.S. patent 6,119,229, "Virtual Property System," filed April 1997, granted September 2000, and jointly held by Martinez, Greg Guerin, and the famous cryptographer Bruce Schneier.
Here's the abstract. Game designers, read it and weep:
"A digital object ownership system is disclosed. The system includes a plurality of user terminals, where each terminal is accessible by at least one individual user. The system also includes at least one central computer system that is capable of communicating with each of the user terminals. A plurality of digital objects are provided, where each of the digital objects has a unique object identification code. Each of the digital objects are assigned to an owner. The digital objects are persistent, such that each of the digital objects is accessible by a particular user both when the user's terminal is in communication with the central computer system and also when the user's terminal is not in communication with the central computer system. The digital objects have utility in connection with communication over a network in that the object requires both the presence of the object identification code and proof of ownership."
It's hard for this layperson to see how the patent doesn't cover every MMORPG with an economy, but Martinez assures me not all games with property in them infringe. In particular, he notes, "[t]here is a distinction between [traditional multiplayer inventory systems] and a limited edition, ownable object, particularly one that can be exchanged for cash value." To the extent that that's a distinction with a difference, my guess is it means that the deeper designers build transaction systems into their games, the harder they step on this patent's toes.
IP lawyers and other masochists will want to read through the details of the claim and judge for themselves.