A Project by Elizabeth Townsend Gard and Rachel Goda
After obtaining five arcane rings, Anya rushed back to the Lord Nagafen in the Solesek Eye to deliver the mystical rings and received a final mission from him to defeat Darather, the dragon residing in the Isle of Refuge. By dawn, Darather was defeated by the hands of her allies, twenty-four of the best fighters and healers in the land of Norrath.
This is the fascinating virtual life of my (Rachel Goda) avatar, a level 70 high elf wizard, in Everquest II (EQII). I was once one of the first twenty-four players (members of my fellow guild, Nerfed), who completed the end-game of EQII and were rewarded with the rarest artifact at that time, the Prismatic Rod of Scale, on the Oggok server. My real life profession may not be as exciting as a wizard but is also one that I enjoy: I am a second year law student, who passionately studies and researches legal issues surrounding Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG) and video/ PC games. My passion for the video/ online game industry eventually directed me to the journey into Second Life with Professor Elizabeth Townsend Gard and her first year property law class. It is such a privilege to have an opportunity here on TerraNova to share my unique experience with Professor Townsend Gard in launching the Second Life virtual property research project.
Significance of This Project (Personal Opinion)
It was when I was discussing with Professor Townsend Gard about my interest in the legal issues of the game industry last semester that she first asked me to assist her with the Second Life project (discussed further details in her article post on April 2, 2007) in her first year property course. The project interested me primarily for two reasons: first, the property issues in MMORPGs had been one of my strongest interests of study; second, I was interested in observing how quickly a law student could improve their competency in dealing with a virtual world like Second Life.
Growing popularity of MMOPRGs had already brought the issue of ownership rights in virtual worlds, and the appropriateness of what was called “real money transfer (RMT)” into an increasingly public light. However, the launch of Second Life took this issue to a whole another level. While Blizzard Entertainment (Blizzard) claimed all data on the World of Warcraft (WoW) service was the property of Blizzard and restricted the in-world property trading outside of WoW as well as RMT, the launch of Sony Online Entertainment's Station Exchange service seemed to indicate that the in-world item trading and RMT might be an acceptable part of MMORPGs. Linden Lab, a creator of Second Life, introduced a system in which players can freely trade their in-world objects (Linden Exchange) as well as a system to convert their virtual money, Linden Dollars, into real money, both US Dollars and certain foreign currencies (Linden X and other online permitted sites). More importantly, Linden Lab’ Terms of Service agreement recognizes residents' right “[to] retain any and all applicable copyright and other intellectual property rights with respect to any Content you create using the Service, to the extent you have such rights under applicable law.” This practice, significantly blurring the distinction between a virtual world and real world trading market, leads us to an ultimate question - “What do we really own in the virtual world?”
In addition, I was interested to see how law students in their first year would perceive and interact with this cutting edge issue, without having strong background knowledge in MMORPGs or virtual worlds. In the past, I had several opportunities to observe a local attorneys’ level of understanding virtual worlds and the relevant legal issues through regional conferences and seminars. Participating attorneys in general seemed to lack the awareness of how virtual societies and economies functioned. The majority probably did not even know what Second Life was. These experiences were discouraging to me as a law student, considering high probabilities of us encountering more virtual property cases like Bragg v. Linden Research, Inc. in near future (Bragg, a plaintiff, allegedly exploited the game play in Second Life and, thus, was banned from the Second Life community by Linden Lab. The plaintiff now demands compensations on his lost virtual property in Second Life). Needless to say, appreciating the system of virtual world is a key for law makers effectively regulate such an environment. But how can legal communities achieve that? Is it even practical to think that legal communities can increase their awareness over virtual worlds as they did so with the internet fifteen years ago? In this Second Life project, each student group received only one week to learn about Second Life and complete their research project of a given property issue. I believed that the project would not only allow me to observe how future lawyers interact with a virtual world but simultaneously provide students a fantastic opportunity to peek at the complex virtual world legal issues in Second Life.
Launching the Second Life Project in a 1L Property Course
My role in this project was mainly to guide students into the virtual world of Second Life. The entire class was divided into thirteen small groups, and I meet with a new group every week. Each group receives one week to explore news and legal issues surrounding Second Life. Students were scheduled to meet with me twice during the week and twice with Professor Townsend Gard. In the first meeting, I teach students how to play Second Life, including such things as how to move their avatar, how to take screenshots, how to change avatar appearance, how to find locations and events in-world, and how to store and retrieve items in Fizzy’s inventory (Fizzy Soderberg is our avatar). In the second meeting, I help students with technical difficulties they have experienced while conducting their research (i.e. how can I find out what happens to real property and improvements when the property owner is banned from the game?) and assist to identify legal issues and understand the implications (i.e. What are the reasons why Linden Lab may be liable to residents’ IP rights infringement? What are the underlying problems determining whether we should apply real property law on virtual property in Second Life despite Linden Lab’ terms of service assuring residents’ property ownership?). Professor Townsend Gard’s goal is to increase awareness among her students that virtual worlds and existing laws are trying to connect but the process is currently very unstable. My ultimate role was to help students to be exposed to the issues both in-world and outside of Second Life, understanding the nature of virtual environment and distinguishing Second Life from other main stream MMORPGs. During the third meeting, groups report their research results to Professor Townsend Gard (I may or may not be present). After completing these 3 meetings, each group screencasts its PowerPoint presentations with Professor Townsend Gard.
After careful preparations over a few months for the project with Professor Townsend Gard, our project finally took off on January 18th, 2007, with a guest speaker from Linden Lab, Daniel Huebner (Director of Community Affairs). He kindly gave us a speech about what Second Life was all about and how ownership in Second Life worked. And, of course, this meeting took place virtually in Second Life - at a junk yard in Dan’s virtual estate (Thank you, Dan!).
“What is Second Life?” to “How can we resolve property issues in Second Life?”
My biggest concern assisting students with the Second Life project was that students may end up wasting hours struggling not being able to operate smoothly in Second Life. The structure of MMORPGs often can be very complex, especially to those who have no or limited experience with this type of games. Although whether Second Life is a game or not is an undecided subject, it is fair to say that it still retains some complexities similar to those of traditional MMORPGs. The virtual world is enormous, and it could, for some, take days and weeks to learn how to play. For example, controlling the movements of an avatar in Second Life will not be an issue if one has played an online game before (i.e. Online gamers universally know that W, A, S, and D keys are to move forward, left, back, and right, respectively.) It could take hours for some people to figure out this most important, simplest movement if they have never played MMORPGs. Thus, I created a list of basic functions that are essential to play Second Life as well as more advanced techniques that may be required to complete a particular research topic assigned for each group. I demonstrated the “how to” in a classroom using a big screen projector and took additional questions either via emails or in later meetings. In general, students learned how to travel within Second Life fairly quickly.
As an example, I would like to briefly discuss what the first group has gone through with this project (the research works of groups have been screencasted and uploaded at http://fizzysecondlife.blogspot.com/). The first group’s tasks assigned were unique compared to those that were given to the rest of groups in two ways. First, being the first group to enter the virtual world of Second Life, its very first task was to create an avatar. Here, the group had an initial encounter to the online terms of service agreement during the process of avatar creation, which was also the first exposure to a unique concept of “virtual ownership” granted by Linden Lab to Second Life residents. This aspect was explored further when the group analyzed the terms of service as well as by laws of existing Second Life communities.
Second, while other groups were assigned to study more specific areas of property law (i.e. adverse possession), this group was assigned rather generic topic to research, “the rules of Second Life.” In my personal opinion, this group received probably the most difficult subject matter of all. Identifying the rules existing in Second Life” is not an impossible task; however, identifying the rules “governing” Second Life is not an easy task because it requires not only understanding of how communities co-exist in Second Life but also appreciation of how Linden Lab’s end user online agreement (EULA) assures the autonomy/ownership of each individual/community. However, this is not yet sufficient to determine which rules govern Second Life because the enforceability of Linden Lab’s EULA and the definition of autonomy/ownership given to individuals/communities are the ultimate questions, which have not been fully answered.
In order to direct students to the point of focus, I stressed the following aspects to the group:
- Second Life is a user generated virtual environment.
- Linden Lab seems to promise to grant users ownership rights over their virtual property, including their intellectual property.
- The definition of virtual property needs to be considered (i.e. are physical property and virtual property the same or different? If they are different, in what way?).
- Linden Lab currently reserves the rights over users’ accounts, including rights to ban users from having access to Second Life.
- The definition of loss of property needs to be considered (i.e. what happens to users’ virtual property when the users lose access to Second Life?).
I have used the current on-going case, Bragg v. Linden Research, Inc., to illustrate why these factors are potentially important in determining the outcome of the case (I am not going to discuss this point in this article). Because it is a complex question to untangle, I gave suggestions to read the relevant terms in Linden Lab’s EULA. Students seemed to have quickly grasped the issue once acknowledging: (1) the differences between Linden Lab’s business model (granting “ownership” rights to users as an incentive for creation) and that of other MMORPG developers (reserving all the property ownership) and (2) the ambiguity existing in the meaning of “virtual property (i.e. property or source code?).
As I mentioned earlier, the purpose of this Second Life project was to increase awareness of property issues in a virtual world like Second Life. However, after going through the issue-identifying process, many of the students (not limited to those who are in the first group but also ones in other seven groups I have already worked with) seemed to have reached the next level of analysis, “applicability of existing property law in Second Life.” As far as I recall, none of the groups has expressed to me that existing property law should apply to Second Life. On the other hand, some groups have indicated difficulties applying existing property concepts to Second Life because of the unique, computer generated environment. For example, one cannot adversely possess someone’s land because the entire world is monitored digitally, or one cannot lose an object because Second Life’s system detects and restores the item back to the owner’s inventory (these points are further discussed in the students’ screencasts at the URL above).
Where we are now is only the beginning of a long journey ahead of us to explore the bizarre concept of virtual ownership. However, these Second Life project groups have definitely made their first steps through the intricacies of virtual world: they started a project asking me “what is Second Life?” but left the project asking themselves “how can we resolve these issues?”
Lastly, I would like to thank Professor Townsend Gard for giving me this great opportunity to explore the virtual world, Second Life, with her amazing group of first year property law students at Seattle University School of Law. I plan continuing to explore the property and intellectual property issues surrounding virtual worlds as well as traditional MMOPRGs. I hope this project will aid the general legal communities to gain better understating of property issues in Second Life.