It looks like the Ultima Online Counselors lawsuit has reached some sort of settlement. While I can't track down any official info at EA, the main link everyone seems to be pointing to is over at Gamerifts (2 April entry) where they have an image of a purported check sent out to former counselors (if anyone finds other info, please do post it). The amount given to at least one volunteer - $1,267.21. Just a little background - a group of former UO volunteer helpers filed a class action lawsuit against EA in 2000 (they'd been previously hit with a suit about their quality of service but that was dismissed as far as I can tell). The main claim was for minimum wages and overtime compensation per the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). You can hit the Lum the Mad archives search for some additional background, an old Salon article for more past coverage, or an always entertaining Tweety Rant archive entry on the subject. The judge's order certifying the group as a class (issued 24 September 2002) is particularly interesting in the way they restate and consider the claimants case, trying to put into context the notion of wages and labor alongside stuff like shards.
I mentioned to Scott Moore (who has a lot of experience/hands-on knowledge with VEs) I was going to do a blurb about the matter here and he wisely suggested I try to pitch the discussion away from simple rehash to what this might mean for the future of volunteer usage in these kinds of spaces. I've certainly long thought the issue of "free labor" (be it via helper programs, content producers, or unpaid testers) remains one of most underexplored - but critically important - aspects facing games (and online communities more generally). So, is there anything new we can learn from this apparent settlement? Are there interesting related stories emerging in other places worth discussing? Are there good non-VE/game spaces who confront this same problem that we can learn something from?
(Thanks btw to Scott, Julian, and Dan's leads for this entry.)