Following up its Fashion Section puff piece on designer shoes in the virtual world, The New York Times takes a more nuanced look at some of the legal questions the Metaverse creates. We're taking credit for provoking the story, of course.
Chief among them: What happens to my virtual empire when I die?
As NYT's Chris Nicholson explains, that's a question with no definite answer.
Goodbye Cruel (Virtual) World
Off-line, the post office does not send someone to burn your
correspondence after an obituary appears in the paper. The deed and
title company does not send a crew to tear down your home. But online,
under the agreements that users accept, that can be the default setting.
The legal position is tougher because, in many cases, the islands and mansions deleted by Linden Lab and the accounts scrubbed by Blizzard have an easily discernible cash value. The island and all items on it can be compared against the Lindex. Blizzard can look at monthly fees and the black-market value of items.
A user's account doesn't pass down through law despite the account and objects within it having real-world value, but external LLC's created to operate in the virtual world (think Stroker Serpentine's Eros LLC) do.
This seems like an egregious hole in the law, and as more and more users log into virtual worlds and spend a significant portion of their lives inside the Metaverse, developers run the risk of erasing vast swaths of a person's life.
Current trends, as the article states, are moving away from strict privacy on accounts. Families are increasingly able to exert leverage in gaining control of the e-mail accounts of deceased relatives. The virtual property of the deceased is slowly becoming accessible to next of kin. But there is much more to be done.
Building a Comprehensive Virtual Ownership Law
Worlds like Second Life that provide ownership of content created by residents should be the first to recognize that the property purchased and content created is no longer Linden Lab's to delete.
Yes, they provide the space in which creation takes place, but the right of deletion transfers when a resident takes on the monetary obligation of maintaining land.
The footwork of designating virtual assets as more than passing creations will ultimately fall on the creator and owner. As Devan Desai of the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University said:
There are a couple of ways to resolve the question of who has access to
what when a person dies. One is for everybody to name a digital
executor, who will receive a person’s latest passwords when a death
At the Digital Beyond, a clearinghouse for information about
what happens to virtual assets posthumously, the array of services that
help pass on one’s digital traces is visible, and growing.
For those willing to pay the fees related to virtual executors, their virtual houses and Second Life plots can live on even after the death of the creator. Pixels and Policy wonders whether or not this might be bringing a bit too much real-world litigation into the virtual world, as competing parties fight over the virtual couches and IP rights of successful virtual companies.
What do you think?