The Laws of the Virtual Worlds
100 Pages Posted: 29 May 2003
What if you could check out of your world, and enter a place where the social environment was different, where real world laws didn't apply, and where the political system could be anything you wanted it to be? What if you could socialize there with family and friends, build your own palace, go skiing, and even hold down a job there? And what if there wasn't one alternate world, there were hundreds, and what if millions of people checked out of Earth and went there every day?
Virtual worlds - online worlds where millions of people come to interact, play, and socialize - are a new type of social order. In this Article, we examine the implications of virtual worlds for our understanding of law, and demonstrate how law affects the interests of those within the world. After providing an extensive primer on virtual worlds, including their history and function, we examine two fundamental issues in detail.
First, we focus on property, and ask whether it is possible to say that virtual world users have real world property interests in virtual objects. Adopting economic accounts that demonstrate the real world value of these objects and the exchange mechanisms for trading these objects, we show that, descriptively, these types of objects are indistinguishable from real world property interests. Further, the normative justifications for property interests in the real world apply - sometimes more strongly - in the virtual worlds.
Second, we discuss whether avatars have enforceable legal and moral rights. Avatars, the user-controlled entities that interact with virtual worlds, are a persistent extension of their human users, and users identify with them so closely that the human-avatar being can be thought of as a cyborg. We examine the issue of cyborg rights within virtual worlds and whether they may have real world significance.
The issues of virtual property and avatar rights constitute legal challenges for our online future. Though virtual worlds may be games now, they are rapidly becoming as significant as real-world places where people interact, shop, sell, and work. As society and law begin to develop within virtual worlds, we need to have a better understanding of the interaction of the laws of the virtual worlds with the law of this world.
Keywords: virtual worlds, cyberlaw, cyberspace governance, intangible property, online rights, avatar rights
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