CNN has a brief article about the legality of owning “virtual land.” The article specifically focuses on Second Life and Linden Lab. It seems that despite a thriving virtual world community, Second Life the only one that actually gets any coverage.
While the article is kind of meandering and doesn’t really say all that much in the grand scheme, it does mention the lawsuit against Linden Lab from some Second Life users claiming that Linden Labs mislead them, stating that they would own their virtual plots of land, as opposed to the current verbiage in the agreement, which terms the plots of land as a service instead of ownership.
The article is pretty wishy-washy and doesn’t really work to say much of anything — other than that the technology is way ahead of the courts at this point, and most judges are wary of cases like virtual land ownership because they are, by nature, incredibly complicated.
As for my opinion, it’s hard to say. I’ve never been enamored of Second Life, so the concept of ownership within Second Life is a bit foreign to me, truth be told. In principal, it makes sense to me that virtual plots of land in the private sector, would have more in common with leasing and renting than true ownership. There are contractual agreements in place and there are definite rights involved in leasing. In this case, I see Linden Labs as my landlord and my virtual plot of land as my apartment. They “own” the space, but they contract with me to let me use the space in whatever means I see fit (within reason).
It’s hard to make a full ownership argument when the piece of virtual land’s existence is based entirely on the hardware of company which could be in reality, half a planet away from where you actually live. But then, many people put a lot of time in their virtual lands and build businesses around their virtual islands, and thus have a large amount of content created specifically for that virtual land. It’s like filling my apartment with all of my stuff.
Where this metaphor breaks down is when I move from my apartment, I can take all my stuff with me. However, it’s not that simple with virtual spaces–yes, you can take bits and pieces and certain aspects of your virtual content with you if you decide to move to a new virtual space, but you lose a significant previously done work in the process.
It’s not hard to understand why the courts are wary of taking these types of cases on – there’s a lot of different moving parts here that not even I (as part of the virtual world community) completely understand, let alone a judge who has little-to-no understanding of even the most basic functions of virtual spaces.
(On a related note, interoperability between virtual communities to better facilitate movement between them is an interesting concept.)