The growing popularity of Massively Multiplayer games has brought the issue of ownership rights in virtual worlds, and the appropriateness of what is called 'real money transfer' (RMT) into an increasingly public light. The success of the company IGE, as well as the launch of Sony Online Entertainment's 'Station Exchange' service would seem to indicate that RMT is now an acceptable part of Massive gaming. The well-known auction site eBay has recently made a policy decision that may throw these assumptions into a different light. Following up on a rumour that's been going around I spoke today with a media representative for the company, who confirmed that eBay is now delisting all auctions for 'virtual artifacts' from the site. This includes currency, items, and accounts/characters; not even the 'neopoints' used in the popular Neopets service is exempt from this decision. Read on below for the company's rationale for this decision, and a few words on the impact this could have on future RMT sales.Mr. Hani Durzy, speaking for eBay, explained that the decision to pull these items was due to the 'legal complexities' surrounding virtual property. "For the overall health of the marketplace" the company felt that the proper course of action, after considerable contemplation, was to ban the sale of these items outright. While he couldn't give me a specific date when the delistings began, he estimated that they've been coming down for about a month or so. Mr. Durzy pointed out that in reality, the company is just now following through with a pre-existing policy, as opposed to creating a new one. The policy on digitally delivered goods states: "The seller must be the owner of the underlying intellectual property, or authorized to distribute it by the intellectual property owner." Given the nebulous nature of ownership in online games, eBay has decided the prudent decision is to remove the possibility for players to sell what might be the IP of other parties via their service. Mr. Durzy made it a point to say that initial listings of virtual property would not have punitive actions. Their assumption, he said, is that most users break with policies because they're unaware of them, rather than maliciously. Initial infractions will result in a delisting of items, and an attempt to educate the user on the policy. Persistent disregard for the policies, of course, will result in a removal of the seller's account.
We've spoken before on the possibility of taxation of virtual goods in the U.S. and abroad, as well as the economic impact these sales can have. With the removal of a very popular, very public source of virtual currency and goods from the market, what does this mean for the future of RMT? Will small businessmen who previously worked via eBay now turn to larger independent sites like IGE? Given that eBay is ipso facto declaring virtual goods to be the property of the game makers and not the players who 'earn' them, what does this mean for the future of virtual rights in general?