Trademarking Avatars and the Future of Virtual Ownership

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Aimee Weber (TM)

Back in late October I wrote about how how Second Life content creator Aimee Weber sought to have her avatar's name made into a registered trademark. Well, all legal hurdles were cleared and a bit of virtual world history made in the process. 

 

This is a natural progression of any technology that allows individuals to make profit. Many virtual worlds journalists have been predicting an "avatar singularity" – where the user creates and owns a single avatar for use in virtual worlds as far afield as Blue Mars and Everquest.

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“Youniverse World” Dogged by Content Ownership Problems

Chalk this one up as a new virtual world that gives me the heeby-jeebies. Youniverse World is the newest virtual world to hit the market in beta, and boy, does it raise questions. The fact that it's based in Europe and hawked by an internet army of Eastern Europeans with "trust me" schticks only makes it more disconcerting.

The concept is simple: Youniverse World expands on the successes of Second Life as a commercial world by developing an entire virtual community geared towards providing real world goods and services through an entirely virtual interface. Need a pair of Nikes? Go to Bob's Virtual Nike Store and see if you can catch a deal.

It's a virtual world with entrepreneurs – both small and large – as a primary target. I'll break it down:

Once you're signed up for Youniverse World, which is being billed as a persistent virtual world interpretation of places like MySpace and Facebook, you can become a "tutor." This is basically the same as a Referral I.D., and new users can enter your name in upon joining to be pulled into your community. There is a benefit to this: Youniverse World offers to kick 10% of everything your referrals spend in-world back to you.

According to a poorly-scripted Powerpoint presentation, membership in YW allows for virtual travel worldwide, digital conferencing via avatars, opportunities for "new profit streams" and "multi-level marketing," and a "3D social business network." This is sounding less like Facebook and more like LinkedIn:  the Game.

As mentioned, the game is based in the United Kingdom, with all currency using the Euro. Viral marketing has been taken over by a handful of forum-spamming power-users from Latvia and Russia. If you find a "tutor," their profile is likely going to be cyrillic.

And don't be expecting Second Life's society of ownership. Per the Terms of Use:

4.1 – Member acknowledges that all intellectual
property rights comprised in the Products and Services (including
without limitation, any patent, registered design, copyright, design
right, trade mark, business name, application to register any of the
aforementioned rights…) (“Intellectual
Property Rights”) are…the
property of YOUNIVERSE WORLD

Now, according to a later portion of the Terms of Use, the user can buy and resell items for his or her own profit, so long as they understand that Youniverse World has ultimate ownership over all items. This is especially worrisome given the fact that users are buying and selling real-world, tangible items in an internet storefront.

Will commercial culture blossom in Youniverse World when the potential exists for game developers to close down the virtual representation of a brick-and-mortar shop? Would the shop owner have a legal claim for damage to reputation if Youniverse World mistakenly bans them?

Without addressing these problems, it's going to be an awfully small Youniverse.

Blue Mars Aims to Terraform Virtual Commerce

Blue Mars is pretty. I mean really pretty. It runs on the same engine that built Crysis for crying out loud. But what's so compelling about Blue Mars isn't its otherworldly beauty, but how the developers are making use of its virtual commerce engine. Ignoring the teleporting and role-playing Blue Mars offers, its true gem is its commerce system. In this, it owes much to Second Life.

The first time I swapped American dollars for their Linden equivalent, I wondered aloud about the potential of this system to upend the norms of commerce. At the time, Second Life was the only online world that not only encouraged trading in real currency for game currency, but also provided a system whereby players could legally turn their game currency back into real dollars.

What Second Life did to virtual commerce is stunning. Users now draw real-world incomes from the sale of virtual goods, goods which they own in every sense of the word. Now Blue Mars expands on the Second Life commercial system in a way that will become standard over the next few years: Blue Mars makes no illusion about its desire for corporate users.

Remember, for a long while Second Life frowned on letting the corporate establishment into the game world. Even today the corporate storefronts of Second Life sit mostly vacant, victims of the enforced apathy of Linden Lab. This will change with Blue Mars. Corporations finally have a bosom buddy in the online world.

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           Blue Mars is a hottiecaust

It's no secret that Blue Mars has approached large corporations, but it is a shame. So much of Second Life's vibrance comes from the fierce competition of thousands of small producers vying for the best product.

If corporations are given equal footing, as they were in in Second Life, they are unable to compete. One need only look at corporate shops for evidence of this. My worry, however, is that corporations are given a leg-up by Blue Mars.

How, you ask? Because Blue Mars is a world filled with professional content licensed from third-party studios. It reduces the world to little more than a virtual shopping mall populated by well-known corporate names. Now, we received a comment on this blog from Glenn Sanders, Community Director of Avatar Reality – the papa corp of Blue Mars. He was insistent that everyone will be a creator, and urged that we not rush to judgment on a game that hasn't even seen open beta.

I yield this point, but argue that much of the information I've discussed above is already out in the wide-open world. Major third party studios are being brought in to provide an infrastructural base instead of allowing that base to emerge organically. This puts all but the largest mass-producing studios at a marked disadvantage.

Users earn currency by serving as "employees" of these virtual analogues to real-world corporations. The variety of jobs available is wider than mere retail clerk, but the path is the same – instead of a community venture where players have an equal chance to make a living based on skill, Blue Mars stacks the deck against individual entrepreneurship from the very outset.

Americanapparel

   Do we really need a world filled with these?

Now I, like many, signed up to be considered for the Blue Mars beta. I'm just as anxious as everyone else to get my hands on the game and see what it can do, what its infrastructure will look like, and how its economy will function.

Blue Mars will doubtlessly be a prettier game than Second Life. It may well prove more intuitive in its design tools, and boast a more interactive world. But if what we've seen so far is evidence of the path Blue Mars is walking on the content development front, it may well create a definitive rift in the commercial virtual world community.

I don't want my words to be the only ones in this discussion. Post your opinions and comments to get the ball rolling. I'm sure our roving Blue Mars rep Glenn Sanders would be happy to engage in a spirited discussion about what makes Blue Mars tick.