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Virtual Worlds, Real Problems

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One of the more intriguing elements of the social media revolution has to be the growth of “virtual communities” — simulated environments where people “live” and interact with others.  Some of these worlds are developed in the context of gaming (such as World of Warcraft) while others (like Second Life) simply seek to replicate physical interaction through animation.

Of course, like any other community — virtual or otherwise — quite rapidly people conclude that they need, in George Carlin’s immortal phrasing,  “stuff.”  In virtual worlds, of course, you need to purchase virtual products.  And this is where things get interesting. 

Last year, Americans (and yes, this figure only deals with purchases by Americans) spent $1.6 billion in fake stuff virtual goods.  Think about that for a moment.  They spent real money on things that have no real existence except as viewed on a computer screen.  And that ‘s with the limited technology of today — can you imagine how much money will be spent when we can jack our consciousness into a physical space and live inside our avatars?

In any event, the issues that suddenly begin to arise are both fascinating and bizarre.  If you take something from someone else in a virtual world, is it theft?  How can you control your brands in a virtual world?  If you create an “outfit” for yourself in a virtual world that incorporates what would be the proprietary rights of a third party were it done in the “real” world, is that still actionable?  Who actually even owns the content created by members of virtual communities?

There are already lawsuits arising out of these type of concerns.   In Pennsylvania, a class action was filed against Second Life alleging that the ownership rights promised by Second Life’s operator, Linden Research Inc., were undermined by unilateral changes in the terms of service.  This follows another case that held elements of the terms of service to be a contract of adhesion, and thus unenforceable.  The rights of “property” owners within these virtual worlds may be stronger than the creators of those worlds ever imagined.

And even social media games used on traditional platforms are beginning to feel for the limits of the envelope.  Zynga, the folks behind Facebook’s well-known Farmville game, sued earlier this year, alleging unauthorized sale of virtual currency and virtual goods without the permission of Zynga.  Courts will soon have to rule on who, really, is in control in these worlds, and what property really means when it is constructed out of bits and bytes (is it any different than property constructed out of carbon, after all?)

These may seem like esoteric questions, but there is little doubt that the world of social media will gradually move towards the creation of ever more sophisticated simulated worlds, and that means that these problems will eventually be your problems.  So think about whether your “communities’ are moving in that direction, and whether the terms of service you are using (or are subject to) address the realities of modern virtual commerce.