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A brave new world has emerged online where Internet users play their favorite characters in the digital world. A user can create a character, play the character, and interact with other players' characters. Branded items for these online personas to buy and wear or carry for real money or perhaps points or credits are popping up in many venues.
The users are so wrapped up in this virtual world that inline may be a better description of the phenomenon than online!
What goes on in these inline worlds? Secondlife.com
is one of the more famous of these virtual playgrounds. As reported on its website, Second Life is a 3-D virtual world entirely built and owned by its residents. Since opening to the public in 2003, it has grown explosively and today is inhabited by a total of 3,289,433 people from around the globe.Inline market
The marketplace at Second Life currently supports millions of U.S. dollars in monthly transactions. This commerce is handled with the in-world unit-of-trade, the Linden dollar, which can be converted to U.S. dollars at several thriving online Linden Dollar exchanges.
Such a world poses many intellectual property issues. Who owns the characters? How are rights enforced? Is the virtual stuff for sale property that is protected by IP laws?
In an uncontrolled script situation, players have complete discretion in how the story unfolds and how the characters move through the game; they may even have control over how the character looks. Who owns this inline intellectual property?
To the extent that the users create character depictions or storylines, the users may have developed copyrights in those works and own the copyrights. In Second Life, the user owns anything that he or she creates, including avatar characters, clothing, scripts, textures, objects, and designs. As the site further explains, this right is enforceable and applicable both in-world and offline, both for non-profit and commercial ventures. You create it, you own it - and it's yours to do with as you please.
Another issue that arises is whether a user has an unfettered right to create an inline persona?What goes inline, doesn't stay inline
At least one lawsuit dealt with the IP issues surrounding ownership of such characters. NCSoft
operates a game called City of Heroes in which players can create the superhero character they wish to play in the online game. Creation is a step-by-step process in which the player chooses his hero's race, head (including hairstyle, masks, etc.), then torso and lower body (selecting costume elements and colors).
In bringing suit in 2004 against NCSoft, Marvel Enterprises
alleged that players were creating and playing characters that infringed its copyrights and trademarks, based at least in part on Marvel's own ability to do so when its agents played the game.
NCSoft was unsuccessful in its motion to dismiss Marvel's claims of direct, contributory, and vicarious copyright infringement. The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California
This new inline world is an amazing development in many ways, bringing new entertainment, new business opportunities, and new legal questions to the fore. As these universes expand in popularity, users should be aware not only of the possibilities but also that their legal rights are not yet clear and that, at a minimum, the fine print of user agreements should be carefully read.Previous articles by Deborah Wilcox
Deborah Wilcox: The press vs. Google: Copyright cases to watch
Deborah Wilcox: Is your business domain at risk?
Deborah Wilcox: Are consumers confused by search engine ads?
Deborah Wilcox: Keyword advertisers win some, lose some
Deborah Wilcox: Renew your domain name!
Deborah Wilcox: Thats my trademark®
Deborah A. Wilcox
is a lawyer and co-chair of intellectual property litigation at Baker and Hostetler, LLP
, in Cleveland. She is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School and regularly handles copyright, trademark, and e-commerce litigation. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The author would like to thank Rosanne T. Yang of Baker Hostetler for her contributions to this article.
The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC.
WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed here.