[MUD-Dev] BIZ: Who owns my sword?

Amanda Walker amanda at alfar.com
Thu Oct 2 22:38:56 New Zealand Daylight Time 2003

On Oct 2, 2003, at 5:58 AM, Ren Reynolds wrote:

> In a number of classic cases companies have tried to say in their
> contracts that the customer can only use the companies _thing_ on
> the basis user does not perform certain other actions - these have
> included using different salt tablets with a dispenser machine,
> different film with a projector etc.

There is a critical difference here, though: an avatar (or an
in-game item) can by its very nature only be used within a context
provided by the company.  If your copier company goes out of
business, you still have a copier.  If your game company goes out of
business, you don't have an avatar any more.  You have no direct
control over it the way you do over a physical object: all of the
control you can exert is provided and mediated by the game provider.
They turn off the server, it's gone.  Poof.

> Now, I'm not saying that this is the case here. But it looks
> pretty similar. Companies are saying that they own copyright so
> customers cant sell characters, but where is the breach of the
> companies rights ?  There is no copying going on, no public
> performance - just an agreement between two individuals about the
> use of a virtual item - what's that got to do with the game
> company ?

Because that item, and its use, "exist" solely by means of the game
company's physical assets.  Let's say you "buy" an item in game A.
Let's even say that a court decides that you did indeed buy it, and
do in fact have the right to control or transfer that item as you
see fit (i.e., classical property rights).  The game company says,
"OK, fine, you own that item.  We own these servers, from which
property we hereby ban that item; have a nice day" (another
classical property right, and one that's even easier to defend).
You now have nothing, since the item's use, and very existence,
depends on other rights which have just been revoked.

Physical objects have inherent usefulness because all they depend on
is the physical universe, which isn't going anywhere (well, not on a
timescale we have to worry about in this discussion).  Virtual items
are not, because they depend entirely upon the ability to use the
infrastructure in which they are implemented.  That right, which the
infrastructure owners grants to you under specific and limited
terms, is not inherently transferable or salable, unless your
contract with the owner allows it.

> So certainly, if the company has the right to tell customers what
> they can do in this respect, then they are free to reserve it, at
> the moment I'm genuinely not sure if companies have it.

Sure they do.  If Sony turns off EQ today, all they owe anyone is
any money that's already been collected for October's access.
That's it.  All the avatars, magic swords, platinum, and whatnot are
irrelevant--no player can count them as a loss, because they never
owned them in the first place--all of the players' ability to
control and transfer them was contingent on something that no longer

Amanda Walker
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