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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Is the Linden Dollar a Ticking Time Bomb?

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Pixels and Policy reader and virtual world enthusiast Doubledown Tandino left a thought-provoking comment on our article about the lack of competition in the virtual world. Tandino made the argument that attaching a dollar value to Linden Dollars is really a work of fiction:

Linden Lab…says [the exchange rate] is $260L to
$1 USD every day…so it is. and the world believes it. It is fortunate
that the bubble hasn't burst on the fictitious economy.


It's an intriguing argument, so Pixels and Policy decided to take a look at the confidence behind the currency. Is Second Life's economy just irrational exuberance?

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Linden Lab Heads to Court as Copyright Case Heats Up

Justice_av The Second Life Herald has been doing some great work analyzing the legal arguments of Linden Lab and Eros LLC ahead of the confidential discovery portion of Stroker Serpentine's intellectual property suit against the livid Lindens.

Linden Lab recently hit back at Serpentine's case in a strongly-worded filing that claimed the Lindens in no way infringed on Serpentine's intellectual property rights, and that the Lab isn't responsible for individual instances of design copying.

How strong is Linden Lab's case, and what could this suit mean for the future of content creation in the virtual world? Pixels and Policy investigates.

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Virtual World Lawsuits Get Their Day in Court

20071209-court Stroker Serpentine's copyright infringement case against Linden Lab may be the most high-profile virtual worlds lawsuit to date, but Eros LLC isn't the only group feeling especially litigious lately.

The New Scientist just published a thought-provoking article on what it means to see the virtual world in real-life courtrooms. This raises an interesting question: Does bringing the entirety of U.S. law into the virtual world dampen the fantasy experience?

Pixels and Policy did some research on whether your party's Healer might need malpractice insurance.

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Second Life Designers Sue Linden Lab Over Digital Fashion Counterfeiting

You may recall we reported yesterday that popular browser world Evony is suing long-time blogger and gaming industry veteran Bruce Everiss over what Evony claims are fraudulent statements concerning alleged links to Chinese companies.

Now veteran Second Life journalist Hamlet Au reports that Linden Lab is the target of litigation as some of Second Life's most prominent virtual designers join forces in a class action lawsuit against Philip Rosedale's virtual world.

From the article:

Munchflower Zaius and Stroker Serpentine filed a class-action lawsuit in U.S. District Court against Linden Lab, for allegedly allowing and enabling content theft of their material by other Residents.

Linden Lab, unlike games like World of Warcraft, provides the user with rights to all content they create in the virtual world. This makes the situation hairy. If copying a music track from a CD and selling the bits and bytes constitutes copyright infringement under current case law – and it does – it seems plain that bits and bytes representing a digital coat are subject to the same protection.

Hamlet asks a question that I feel is the real consideration in this case: will a decision in favor of the plaintiffs promote or limit content creation? Au has a point that lawsuits hurt small businesses. Just ask Edwin Howard Armstrong, the RCA employee who in the 1930s improved on AM Radio by producing FM frequency. RCA litigated him into submission and, unable to compete, blocked superior FM technology for years.

Virtual worlds will impact the legal world in a profound and negative way if Second Life is forced to limit its liability by extending greater protections over virtual products. Small content producers will simply not have the ability to compete with a company that, as Au notes, sold over $1 million last year.

The Alphaville Herald has a great report on the newly-launched case complete with a link to the class-action lawsuit. What's telling is that both plaintiffs acknowledge they don't seek monetary damages from the lawsuit. Their goal is more restrictive regulations on who can create what, and ultimately tighter control over the virtual market for those already in a commanding position.

A telling line from the lawsuit:

Linden Lab directly and secondarily infringes the trademark of Plaintiff Eros by using Eros’s mark to sell infringing virtual goods within Second Life and by providing the tools to other infringing Second Life users.

This is chilling not because it holds Second Life accountable for the independent actions of its users, but because it argues that providing content creation tools in the first place constitutes enabling intellectual property theft. No doubt it would be effective from a business standpoint to sharply limit content creation now that the plaintiff companies have strong market positions.

The virtual economic boom in Second Life is a product of free creation and healthy competition. Restricting competition and encouraging the concentration of products in a few large fashion houses has more in common with the real world that Second Life's libertarian principles sought to upend. Not only does this lawsuit open up small creators to punishment for innovation, it stymies their incentive to create at all.