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Rights To Virtual Property In Games? 167

Posted by Soulskill
from the you-stole-my-cloudsong dept.
With the rise of MMOs and other persistent environments over the last decade, the trafficking of virtual game property has become a multi-billion dollar industry. Regardless of whether the buying and trading goes on with the blessing of the content provider (or, in many cases, the owner of the account in question), the question of players' rights to virtual goods is coming to the forefront. The Escapist Magazine takes a look at how some companies are structuring their EULA in this regard, and what some countries, such as China, are doing to handle the issue. "... the differences between China and the West in this case have more to do with scale than cultural norms. So many people play online games in Asia — and play them so intensely — that social problems in meatspace society inevitably emerge in virtual worlds as well. ... The general consensus, therefore, is that paradigm shifts like the ones that have already occurred in Asia will inevitably come to the West, and with them, the need for legislative scaffolding that keeps us all from killing each other."
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Rights To Virtual Property In Games?

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  • by gandhi_2 (1108023) on Monday October 13, 2008 @11:45PM (#25364707) Homepage
    We don't believe in imaginary property.

    Careful there...you're about to make a non-car analogy about intrinsic value of said property and it's redeemable worth in corporeal markets. Aren't you?

    Even if your imaginary property is your livelihood, we don't believe in it.

    • We don't believe in imaginary property.

      Very true. I'd mod you up, but Slashdot hasn't given me any mod points... why haven't Slashdot given me my mod points! I've earned some mod points, dammit!

  • by MindlessAutomata (1282944) on Monday October 13, 2008 @11:58PM (#25364761)

    Ownership of online content of this is not clear-cut, like ownership of your chair or computer might be. You don't really own your character; the game company does--your character is subject to the alterations and whims of the company as needed, and access is even based upon whether they let you or not. They can kick you off if you are selling gold, selling your account, being a jerk, or because they simply don't like you.

    Some of you may have an entitlement complex going on--"But it's mine! I am paying for it!" No, you are paying to RENT it, to have access based on their terms. Remember, they're the one making the game, without the company you couldn't have a game in the first place.

    I think user agreement on MMOs are particularly important. If you don't like the terms of ownership or the rules, then don't play. They make no real guarantees. They make no guarantees that the in-game economy will remain just as stable, that they won't nerf rogues in a future patch, or that your character won't receive a huge revamp for balance.

    Too often, I think, consumers fist-pound over their rights when they are the ones who signed the contract conceding the terms in the first place.

    Can you imagine people suing Blizzard for devaluing their online property because Blizzard nerfed a certain set piece, or introduced better items?

    People seriously want to bring the government into this? If you don't like the terms, don't play. You aren't owed. You do not have a special right; you agreed to the transaction upon signing up. You pay to play a game, and nothing beyond that unless you agree otherwise.

    • Ownership is less clear-cut than you are making it, because virtual worlds introduce the idea of virtual labor. In some ways, it is as if you were being paid in factory scrip. Virtual worlds have introduced a new category of activity: play-labor, which acts a lot like regular labor, even though it occurs in the context of leisure. That's why there's markets for virtual-world currency.

      China has generally decided that you have first dibs on the rights of the product of your labor, even if its virtual labor in

      • by SL Baur (19540)

        There are limits to the rights you can give up even in a contractual setting: you can't sell yourself into slavery, you can't legally work for less than minimum wage.

        You don't get out much, do you? That's maybe how it works in rich countries, but not in the rest of the world.

        (Using an example I have plenty of experience with ...)

        In the Philippines it is the norm to pay (as a legal bribe) your first two months salary for the privilege of getting an overseas job. It is also the norm that the paycheck sticks to the fingers of the agency involved on the way through, so what is a minimum (or subminimum) wage in the target country, turns out to be much less for the poor sap

        • Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that these overseas jobs would not employ there if they couldn't get away with that practice. I assume you'd be OK with the locals starving instead, because at least there would be no "unfair" employment practices in play. Am I correct?

          • by SL Baur (19540)

            I assume you'd be OK with the locals starving instead, because at least there would be no "unfair" employment practices in play. Am I correct?

            Are you addressing me, or the guy I responded to? If me, you completely missed my point.

            My sympathies are firmly with the locals and if ever I am in a position to do so, I will open an outsourcing shop on Mindanao, hire as many locals as I can, train them as necessary and pay them as much as is profitable. Or my sons will do so if they follow in Dad's footsteps.

      • I knew the left-wing philosophy would pop in here.

        Ownership is less clear-cut than you are making it, because virtual worlds introduce the idea of virtual labor. In some ways, it is as if you were being paid in factory scrip. Virtual worlds have introduced a new category of activity: play-labor, which acts a lot like regular labor, even though it occurs in the context of leisure. That's why there's markets for virtual-world currency.

        China has generally decided that you have first dibs on the rights of the p

      • by rich_r (655226)

        virtual worlds introduce the idea of virtual labor. In some ways, it is as if you were being paid in factory scrip. Virtual worlds have introduced a new category of activity: play-labor, which acts a lot like regular labor, even though it occurs in the context of leisure.

        Best summary evar!!!11eleven

    • by SL Baur (19540)

      Can you imagine people suing Blizzard for devaluing their online property because Blizzard nerfed a certain set piece, or introduced better items?

      I can and obviously you have never browsed the online WoW forums. There were plenty of kids who were pissed off when Blizzard devalued the level 60 epic mount training. I'm sure there will be plenty more when they devalue the level 70 epic flying mount training after WotLK has been out for awhile.[1]

      Not to mention the fact that all the folks who are now strutting around in top tier level 70 purples will have their entire wardrobe made obsolete in a couple of weeks.

      Of course, if you take the constant delug

    • Valid points however "other persistent environments" is mentioned. Like Second Life for example were the issue isn't so simple.

      • In Second Life I believe Linden Labs specifically gives you the rights to your in-game property, to sell and do with as you please (with certain limitations). I did not forget about SL.

    • by Moraelin (679338)

      Can you imagine people suing Blizzard for devaluing their online property because Blizzard nerfed a certain set piece, or introduced better items?

      Actually, sadly enough, I can easily imagine that. One constant in my MUD days was that there'd _always_ be at least one idiot threatening to sue over some imaginary rights that he either made up or grossly misunderstood. We even had a stereotype of the "my dad is a lawyer and I'm gonna sue you" kid.

      Favourite imaginary or mis-understood rights to sue over were:

      - F

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Kneo24 (688412)

      Ok, so you bought the game, don't want to accept the agreement. What do you do next? Stores love trampling on the rights of consumers here. "Oh, sorry, we don't take returns on opened computer games or software." Which equates into "Because there are some people out there who like copy the discs and return them for a refund, we believe everyone does this". So what are you left with? It depends. If the store gives you credit, you at the very least have that (although the store keeps their money regardless. H

    • Some of you may have an entitlement complex going on--"But it's mine! I am paying for it!" No, you are paying to RENT it, to have access based on their terms.

      True. And that's one reason I don't play these games.

      People seriously want to bring the government into this? If you don't like the terms, don't play.

      Done deal :)

      All the same, I think you're missing the point being made in TFA. The author cites a case of one gamer who stabbed someone he knew because of a theft in-game. The aggrieved party did tr

      • And the person running the game, there, is the mediator. If someone steals my money while playing Monopoly, do I go directly to the police?

        • And if the games company chooses not to involve itself, what then?

          The business of the games company is to make money. making society work is the responsibility of the government. If there is an emerging trend as TFA contends, waiting for the free market to select for socially responsible game companies is probably not going to be a particularly efficient approach.

      • No, the question of entitlement is not a red herring. In these cases, it's the game company's job to mediate scams and cases of theft, and so on. They won't do anything? Tough, it's a fucking game.

        • No, the question of entitlement is not a red herring

          You're the one who raised the issue. The article doesn't say "we have a right to own our MMO stuff". It says (and I'm paraphrasing here) "there appears to be an emerging social problem here, and that is bound to put pressure on governments to address it in legislation".

          They won't do anything? Tough, it's a fucking game.

          It stops being a game when it leads to violence and murder on a regular basis. Feel free to dispute whether we're in any danger of rea

          • It's not a problem, it's people who think it's a problem and are whining about things not going their way or having shit luck. Again, deal with the company that is making this "virtual property", not the government.

            People have killed each other over games of football, too; Football, however, is still a game. People also kill and commit violent acts over girls, stupid pride, and people's driving habits. And the answer is what, government regulation of MMOs? I can't believe I'm seeing people here throw ar

            • It's not a problem

              I don't think anyone is claiming it is a problem right now. The concern is that it may be becoming a problem. Or more precisely, that it may be becoming a problem in China, and that there's a risk that western gaming communities may follow the trend.

              People have killed each other over games of football, too; Football, however, is still a game

              True But if they kill each other too often, it ceases to be just a game. That's why we don't have a bare knuckle prizefighter circuit any more for

    • by elrous0 (869638) *

      The idea that the companies owe you nothing and can do whatever they like is ridiculous. When you purchase World of Warcraft at your local store, you are entering into a contract with reasonable expectations out of both the purchaser and the company making the game. If you were to buy WoW for $50, take it home and load it on your computer only to be told "Sorry, we're no going to let you play because we don't like you," then you've just been defrauded out of $50. Blizzard has broken the undestood contract t

  • by Fluffeh (1273756) on Monday October 13, 2008 @11:59PM (#25364769)
    For the games companies, this one is a nightmare. Think about some of the points that need addressing: (And I admit I have not RTFA)

    If you own the virtual items, things like a rollback causes you loss. You can demand they be returned.
    If you own an item, and the developers decide that it is too powerful, and they nerf it. Do you need to be compensated? Should you be?
    If you can buy and sell items ingame legally as your own items you are actually selling something that is beyond your control. You are selling data, but in reality you are selling a virtual item - really messy around IP with that from a legal aspect.
    If you own the goods in your characters inventory what happens when you find out that the game is really old, no-one plays it and it's going to be scrapped? Do they fax you a printout?
    If it's items you own, what about your character itself? What about ingame houses and real estate?
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by SL Baur (19540)

      I think you're mostly missing the point, but this question is half-way reasonable.

      If you own an item, and the developers decide that it is too powerful, and they nerf it. Do you need to be compensated? Should you be?

      Maybe and no.

      How was the item acquired? If you earned the item through painful grinding and doing whatever it was you had to do in-game to achieve it, then you might have a case.

      If you bought it, like from an in-game auction house, it's murkier. You speculated on an item and you lost. I do not think any game guarantees that kind of value (nor should it).

      In general though, I think the ultimate answer is just plain no. You h

      • by Fluffeh (1273756)

        I do not think any game guarantees that kind of value (nor should it).

        That's the exact point. If you go with item ownership, then you buy an ITEM. You do not but a speculative state of an item.

        That's the whole issue with item ownership. It opens up a ton of murky brackish concepts that no-one has the real answers for. It also makes any legality around items that anyone could propose an utter nightmare.

        I suspect you're thinking about this from a Second Life point of view and I'm thinking about this from a WoW point of view. Second Life is such dangerous territory to enter I'm positive that it will create problems that no one in positions of authority will have the slightest clue in dealing with until they are dead and replaced by people who grew up with such games.

        Actually, not at all. I have never played Second Life. I have however played the following (roughly in order) Ultima Online. Everquest. Ragnarok Online. Star Wars Galaxie

        • by SL Baur (19540)

          I see. I'm the noobsauce here. My apologies.

          I would really however recommend that before any case ever gets to trial with this sort of thing, all the questions and answers are laid out in black and white. Otherwise we are in all sorts of trouble.

          Agreed.

      • by cgenman (325138)

        Just to make the absurdity a little clearer, how would this rule effect interactive dinner theater? Say you pay to access dinner theater, and from the painful sweat of your brow within the night you have hammered out a nice little role for yourself as owner of a jukebox joint in Chicago and ruler of most of the Chicago maffia. Maybe one of the other guests offered you 20 real dollars for you to abandon the post so that they could take it. You were having fun, so you turned them down.

        And suddenly, the din

    • by Splab (574204)

      I've personally experienced the first two cases, first one in DDO and the second one in EVE, both times I've stopped playing the game.

      DDO had to do a rollback; the reasons for it sounded very fishy, took them almost a month to figure out how to compensate people, and when they did those getting the compensation wasn't the necessarily the same being hit by the rollback (they rolled back data from a single day holiday (a Thursday) and the compensation also happened to be on a Thursday.

      EVE (rightfully) decided

  • by Mad Merlin (837387) on Tuesday October 14, 2008 @12:04AM (#25364787) Homepage

    Even though I've created a purely browser based online game (Game! - The Witty Online RPG [wittyrpg.com]), I'm on the fence on this matter.

    On one hand, many people put a lot of real life time into earning said virtual property, and in many cases it clearly holds actual monetary value in the real world.

    On the other hand, should I be liable if I accidentally delete a player's data in Game!? I don't think that's realistic, especially when you keep in mind that Game! is completely free of cost. So does that mean they really own the things they've earned, or no? I'm not sure.

    Do I own this Slashdot comment? Slashdot says I do, and they don't claim any responsibility for it, but what happens if Slashdot deletes it on me? I've lost something I own, and there's nothing I can do about it. That doesn't seem right.

    Ultimately, I think we'll see that virtual property is legally blessed to have real life monetary value, in much the same way that software is.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by FLEB (312391)

      I think you hit on the tough point right there. Virtual property is a snarl-- not just as regards legality, but as regards the nature of what possession and even existence mean-- virtual "property" is both a "property" in the sense of a tangible good and a "property" in it being a mere setting state in some database, and who owns that?

      Even traditional IP, though, has more groundedness in its meaning than this sort of property. Even things such as this comment have intrinsic value outside their environment.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by ThosLives (686517)

        It's almost like the collapse of a company or country, with the property being the hyperinflated currency or worthless bonds. Does the company or country owe the bondholders anything beside the paper they're printed on? Derived value be damned, they got what they bought. Does the MMORPG owe the player anything besides screenshots and memories?

        I think this is quite insightful actually. I would agree that "items" in "virtual worlds" are really more like a form of unofficial currency than a form of property. "

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Dun Malg (230075)

      Do I own this Slashdot comment? Slashdot says I do

      "Ownership" in that case means copyright.

      what happens if Slashdot deletes it on me? I've lost something I own, and there's nothing I can do about it. That doesn't seem right.

      It's not their problem if you're stupid enough to store the only copy of your valuable written insights in something as unsuited to the task as the slashcode system. Save to your local computer, fool.

      Now, in the case of online virutual worlds, you didn't create that Godslayer of Hit Points sword your character carries. If you did, you'd have a local copy of the 3D vector file used to draw it. No, the GoHP sword is just an in-game milestone. It doesn't matter that i

    • by SL Baur (19540)

      Ultimately, I think we'll see that virtual property is legally blessed to have real life monetary value, in much the same way that software is.

      In which case it will be regulated and taxed.

      The income tax, which was a stupid idea to begin with, will either be dismantled in the face of virtual property age, or virtual property will wither on the vine.

    • by harl (84412)

      Do I own this Slashdot comment? Slashdot says I do, and they don't claim any responsibility for it, but what happens if Slashdot deletes it on me? I've lost something I own, and there's nothing I can do about it. That doesn't seem right.

      Nothing you can about it? Back it up.

    • by Repton (60818)

      You made a game called "Game!"?

      I guess you're not going for the google traffic...

  • by drDugan (219551) on Tuesday October 14, 2008 @12:28AM (#25364915) Homepage

    Property - the mapping of resources to individuals, and more recently, to organizations and groups - is just a story: a virtual mapping that most everyone is told and most everyone agrees to. It is an extremely useful story we've come up with that has roots in both biological nature (territory, mating, food gathering) and in legal and social precedent (commerce, deeds, titles, etc). . . and to date there are no other means of organizing scarce resources that reduce conflict more effectively than property. Property makes clear which person or group has control over a thing and most everyone agrees with the story. Modern societies have also extended the concept of property to information in a few ways, and those have worked pretty well too: those IP protections motivate and reward creative expression.

    However, when it comes to organizations and companies creating information things that are simulations of physical things, (just database rows existing in virtual environments) - it is not so clear that the benefits of the property story outweigh the costs. Simply put, within virtual worlds, the reason to also have the property story on virtual items is usually to artificially maintain scarcity - so some virtual items have more value to the people who want them, and to make the virtual world have characteristics like the physical world, and not because the virtual "items" are in any real sense scarce.

    This disconnect is where the conflict will truly emerge. Even people who understand why we need property in the real world may still not accept or acknowledge or follow the ideas of property regarding virtual items if there is no compelling reason to need the property mapping/story to allocate scarce resources or to motivate and reward creative expression.

    • Yes we have this confusion, don't we? One thing to keep in mind is that it takes "effort" to acquire/create property. That applies not only to physical property but virtual as well. The scarcity comes from the fact that effort is a scarce resource. The fact that others can make infinite copies of said property doesn't make the effort any less spent.

  • The down side to owning stuff is the TAX part and under IRS rules you may still have to pay even if you just keep it in game.

    Also that will more load on the game back end to log all that stuff as well as having a roll back log.

    • Yeah, whenever someone complains about losing an account because they were banned for hacking, and how they should sue the company for the money they lost. I always have to ask them if they plan on declaring all the gold they earned(in terms of real money) on their taxes.

  • by pizzach (1011925) <pizzach&gmail,com> on Tuesday October 14, 2008 @02:14AM (#25365551) Homepage
    This is just like a golf membership. The main difference is that as part of that membership, the golf-club supplies the clubs you can use. In other words, you don't *own* the clubs. But you can still beat the crap out of another golfer to get their borrowed clubs. If you actually owned the clubs, doing that might be considered a felony or something...
  • by Tom (822)

    Well, how about a virtual right to your virtual property in the virtual world of your choice?

  • Another game (Score:4, Insightful)

    by laron (102608) on Tuesday October 14, 2008 @05:37AM (#25366397)

    How is a fancy sword in WoW different from a hotel on Broadway in Monopoly?

    • It's different because getting a fancy sword in wow happens all the time, whereas having a hotel on "broadway" in Monopoly would require some white-out and a sharpie.
  • To apply RL concepts on virtual property is silly.

    You cannot "OWN" virtual property.

    You can only "VIRTUALLY OWN" virtual property.

    (in other words, YOU do not own anything. Your character/avatar in the game owns it.)

    Related Quote - "Do not try and bend the spoon. That's impossible. Instead... only try to realize the truth. There is no spoon."

  • I'm really shocked at the tone and direction the "5" folks at alashdot have taken on this. Why? They are basically saying that you as a user/consumer have no rights shut up!

    This is part of why I don't play those types of games. If I create a character, back story, personalize it, and level it up, and collect some items for it, that's mine! That's my personally created content that I and every user own their own copy right over. Depending on the character editing UI, I can make my character look exactly like

    • by Maul (83993)

      I would agree with you on principle here that perhaps an MMO gamer does deserve some rights to their character or their in game items, but I think the intrinsic problem is that your stuff only exists on a database owned by someone else.

      Let's say you worked hard on your character. You spent hours on the character creation screen giving him a unique look, you penned a riveting backstory for him, and you created unique looking items for him to wear. (Presuming this is even possible in your MMO of choice.)

      So

      • by kabocox (199019)

        What happens when the MMO dev goes under and they pull the plug? You can't take that character (along with all of his money and items) and move him over to a new MMO. He's stuck on someone else's server. You can take your D&D Character sheet to another DM's table and maybe he'll allow you to play with that character in his game. You can't really do this with an MMO. ...
        It would be interesting to see an "Open Source" MMO engine that would allow character transfers between actual games, but I doubt we'd e

  • This is pretty obvious. Read the EULA/TOS for most games, and they will most likely state that all the data is owned by the company that owns the game. Unless there is some specific agreement that you own specific pieces of data (i.e. your character(s), their items/equipment, or their gold/platinum/whatever), then it is probably safe to assume that you are simply paying for access to the MMO server/database and do not actually own anything on it.

    I know that most companies claim ownership of all data. One

  • There is no ownership. You signed it away. If you want ownership stop playing and make changing it a requirement to start playing again.

    From a major MMO EULA

    3. Ownership.

    A. All title, ownership rights and intellectual property rights in and to the Game and all copies thereof (including without limitation any titles, computer code, themes, objects, characters, character names, stories, dialog, catch phrases, locations, concepts, artwork, character inventories, structural or landscape designs, animations, s

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