Thomson CompuMark M AY 2 0 0 8
The State of Business
and Law in Virtual Worlds
Dave Wieneke is a former technology Virtual Worlds Described
journalist, who is Interactive Marketing
Virtual Worlds are multi-user online environments where
Manager for Thomson CompuMark.
He recently attended the Virtual Law participants interact through the actions of avatars. Some of these
Conference as a writer for his blog, take the form of games, such as America’s Army® and MTV’s
Useful Arts.us. Neopets®. Others are environments where participants gather, and
socialize, conduct business, or create elaborate simulations: IBM
Until recently, virtual law was a
currently uses virtual worlds to connect remote work groups and
narrow interest shared by handfuls of
build community. Services are starting-up to provide virtual meeting
academics, gamers and technology
spaces which require little time or expense to ramp-up.
enthusiasts. But over the last few
years, virtual worlds have worked
their way up the issue hype cycle to
the front page of law journals from Canada to California. Are these
virtual worlds just the latest in a series of bright shiny online toys, or
are there deeper issues that are making this an important area for IP
law professionals to be actively engaged with?
Why advertise on a medium when your brand can
become the medium?
Today brand managers are deciding whether they want to
create immersive virtual worlds providing brand experience in
an environment they create, or to sit this medium out and allow
their competitors to experiment first. Legal practitioners who have
considered the vexing legal issues of the new space, will be better
equipped to help their clients make sound decisions which advance
their business goals.
Paramount, Mattel, Career Builder, IBM , France Telecom, MTV,
the NBA, Coke, BBC, McKinsey & Company and Reuters are all
operating in virtual worlds. Mattel recently announced that its virtual
world, BarbieGirls.com™, had exceeded 11 million registered users.
Imagine the media buy that would have been needed to engage
11 million girls for the amount of time they spent configuring their
Barbie avitars, decking out their virtual homes, and interacting with
online friends on BarbieGirls.com.
Besides being venues for brand engagement, virtual worlds hold
commerce and licensing opportunties for rights holders. The
virtual world, Second Life, reports daily transactions of nearly one
million dollars per day between their members. Further as the lines The days of clunky unprofessional graphics are largely a thing of the
between interactive gaming, social networking and virtual worlds past in virtual worlds. Objects represented in virtual worlds can be
continue to blur, what we refer to today as virtual worlds will be imbued with subtlety and beauty that rivals their physical attributes.
incorporated into publishing, educational and entertainment products. Some of the same modeling software used to design luxury goods,
automobiles, even furniture and architecture, can create files to
be loaded into virtual worlds and rendered as exquisitely detailed
virtual goods available for purchase.
Living in a Brand New World
“People like virtual worlds because they bring together the
immediacy of Skype, the community of social media, and the
rich branding of websites in immersive experiences,” said Amy
Pritchard, CEO of Metaverse Mod Squad.
I contend that the closer organizations are to media convergence,
the more likely they are to seek to extend their brand experience
into virtual worlds. Marketers like these new worlds because they
offer opportunities for large-scale personalized brand engagement, Virtual handbags, aren’t handbags, but they can infringe their
in what for them is already a disrupted media landscape. design. There are a handful of cases, such as Eros v. Leatherwood
Such worlds are not only the purview of big brands. Famous jurists, et al, which demonstrate that copyright can be enforced. Most
congressional hearings, even protests and demonstrations exist in virtual worlds that operate in the USA operate as Internet Service
these spaces. Earlier this month, Congress held hearings to better Providers for purposes of DMCA safe harbor, so they are responsive
understand virtual worlds. This kind of mainstream attention means to takedown notices. But, since safe harbor is specific to the US,
it’s time to consider a thoughtful strategy for proactively counseling and as virtual worlds are global platforms, all the uncertainties of
clients on in-world participation. Internet jurisdiction are in play.
Virtual Words Have Uncharted Legal Shoals Yet Evan Gourvitz, of Fross Zelnick Lehrman & Zissu, PC, notes
Sean Kane of Drakeford & Kane describes the broad themes that virtual worlds have responded to takedown notices he has
of intellectual property enforcement in virtual worlds like this: authored, just as Internet Service Providers would under the Digital
“The legal terms of virtual worlds are framed by End User License Millennium Copyright Act. This responsiveness is one factor that
Agreements (EULA) or terms of service which define user rights and has helped limit the number of case rulings involving virtual worlds.
obligations. If you will, these define the rules of the game to which
parties consent.”Kane suggests that this is similar to the “magic Taxation and Banking
circle” concept in sport, where athletes consent to waive some If a virtual world allows for currency to be converted into points,
rights and engage each other within the rules of sport, rather and for points to be converted back into real-world currency,
than law. a range of financial laws may come into play. Certainly when
participants realize income beyond the expenses of participating
assignment and disposition of points, scoring, victory, even censure.
Users have experiences, but derive no new assets for their activities. Jurisdictions around the world are only just starting to consider
It’s like going the beach and building a sandcastle; it’s yours for the whether such systems should be subject to banking and money-
day, but once you leave the beach, you leave the sand behind. transfer regulation. Sweden’s tax agency considers some business
transactions involving in-world points to be subject to sales tax,
However, when the goods and services of virtual worlds are even if the exchange is not in real currency.
converted to real-world currency, a far wider range of laws comes
into play. A sandcastle’s builder might claim his creation to be Some jurisdictions have considered if funds converted to virtual
sculpture, and therefore subject to copyright. Any number of world currency should be subject to banking law. Regulators in
designs or expressions that might otherwise not be eligible for Australia have officially declined to regulate games as banks;
protection as real-world items may be subject to protection in the however, in Brazil regulators have ruled against in-world banks.
form of running computer programs. Further, some online activities could be construed to be gambling,
or forms of illegal lotteries. While the details of specific circumstances
Are IP Rights Enforceable in Virtual Worlds? will frame these cases, there is potential for courts to initially
Rights holders should make strategic decisions in advance whether approach such cases with a wide variety perspectives creates
their enforcement objective is to litigate to stop misuse, to educate legal uncertainty.
to prevent misuse, or to promote the brand through active use.
Stephen A. Mortinger, VP, Associate General Counsel, IBM, says
counsel needs to work with clients to determine their virtual-world
goals and legal-action objectives. See an example of IBM’s use of
form of a guidebook may be a comfort. Lester recommends the
latest edition of the Second Life Official Guide. He says that, like a
film, Second Life is an immersive experience, so it’s good to try it out
when you have a block of time to yourself.
So, are there substantative business and legal issues in virtual
worlds. There certainly are for rights holders of all stripes, who are
interested in protecting their brands. And, there are an even broader
set of issues which face brands seeking new opportunties for brand
engagement, commerce, or licensing. The professional associations
have rapidly gathered thought leaders to help apply existing laws
and guide policy.
Plenty of Unanswered Legal Questions Remain Law Association’s for Further Learning
Though IP rights are enforceable, plenty of questions are still being • The Special Committee of Gaming and Virtual Worlds, part of
considered. Yes, it appears one may register a trademark for virtual the ABA’s IP Law Section
use only. But does use in a virtual-world business constitute use in • The Committe on Virtual Worlds & Multi-user Online Games part
commerce? Can you use a trademark in an avatar’s name? Must of the ABA Science & Tech. Law Section
companies who use their branding on virtual sites now register their • The Second Life Bar Association.
marks in the countries where the branding will be seen or used in
order to be able to protect such rights? Are they giving up such
rights if they do not?
If I render an image of a product, right down to its logo, and use
it for non-commercial enjoyment or as part of a portfolio, is that
infringement or art? And to what extent will parody be protected?
Can I create an interactive parody version of a famous person?
What about the dissatisfied customer who makes something
that looks like a mascot of a brand with the intent to ridicule it?
We should expect examples of these situations to arise, but it’s
currently unclear whether the courts will view such behavior as part
of a game, a public display, or use in commerce. As cases arise and
progress, blogs such as Virtually Blind, the Reuters Second Life News
Center, and UsefulArts are places where such news will be noted
Touring the World
Second Life is the most popular of dozens of virtual worlds.
According to its operator, Linden Lab, on a monthly basis they have
just over one half million active users. In Second Life participants log
over 29 million hours of use monthly, and conduct just under one
million dollars in-world commerce using a currency called Lindens.
If you have clients in media, entertainment, publishing, technology,
or another sector influenced by electronic convergence, it makes
sense to be aware of how similar firms are using virtual worlds, and
to stay abreast of cases as they emerge. There’s no substitute for
first-hand exposure to a new medium, so you might want to try
creating a character, called an avatar, and explore some of these
According to John Lester, Director of Second Life’s Boston
operations, people need three things before trying out Second Life:
motivation, time, and confidence. Signing up is free, but if you’re
making a first visit to a virtual world, having some extra help in the