“If you really like it you can have the rights, it can make a million for you overnight.” Paul McCartney (and John Lennon) wrote those lyrics to Paperback Writer. Further along in his career, McCartney realized the value of owning rights to songs. He purchased rights to songs that had sentimental value to him, like the Buddy Holly catalogue. Meanwhile, his younger pop protégé, Michael Jackson, purchased the rights to the Beatles songs. Jackson had no way of knowing his $47.5 million dollar investment would pay off so well. He bought the rights because he believed in the value of owning the rights to songs and he understood the value of owning the Beatles’ songs. Those rights are now partnered with a company worth $200 million, only 31 years after he made the purchase.
To be honest the research paper, Content & Licensing in Virtual Worlds, was difficult for me to follow; in part because I do not understand some of the legal lingo, and in part because the virtual world is virtually unknown to me. My speed for a video game in the day was Galaga and Centipede and I have never had in interest in role playing games. Although I understand that a virtual world is neither of these games, it does seem like the next level amplified. The authors do an incredible job of providing background of virtual life. Essentially I have gone from preventing a bug from growing larger and killing me to seeking out virtual lands occupied by real people who have the power to personify someone or something else. All the while ensuring my avatar is dressed appropriately, no easy feat considering the ratio of slutty clothes to academically appropriate attire seems like 1,000 to 1.
I digress. Since I understand song rights I am trying to apply that (limited) knowledge to rights within a virtual world. My understanding is this: What is at stake is money. If you build it and they come, and they come with real money, do you legally own it and can you claim its rights? Can you change it after they have it and can you prevent them from changing it enough to claim their own rights? It almost doesn’t matter what it is and where it is at – if it happens to be in the virtual world then so be it.
Of course, I could have it all wrong. Lastowka and Hunter stated, “It seems that Nike and Levi-Strauss are intrigued by a market for virtual “goods” which requires no costly physical inputs, and which is apparently a remarkable example of people being prepared to pay for nothing except the perceived value of the brand.” I understand that to be tangible means I can touch it. What they do not address and I would like to know is: if I can see it is tangible enough? I can see the swish on the Nike shirt someone may put on his/her Avatar’s clothing in SL. If I can see the swish how is it a perceived value of a brand? If I see it, it is the brand.
They also state, “However, a metaphysical shift has occurred so that while today’s real property interests may be associated with a tangible thing, the estates or interests themselves are commonly understood as intangible.” If I can see an estate in SL is it not real? If I can compare a simplistic build to a complicated, detail-oriented build and determine the value of the latter based on time, materials, knowledge needed to build, and the parameters of the value of the currency, are these criteria enough to determine rights?
I would like to see what the same authors would say now about End-User License Agreements (EULAs). If I understand the few segments of news stories I saw on the subject, Facebook has taken broad brush strokes with users’ privacy rights by changing EULAs without communication to users. Yet users……keep on using.
Another part I do not understand. “Those who control the daily grind of Blazing Falls, for instance, have fashioned themselves as Municipal Observation and Management Incorporated (“MOMI”), a nebulous organization with no visible in-world presence. According to the End-User License Agreement of The Sims Online, it is an offense punishable by avatar death (account termination) for a citizen of Blazing Falls to impersonate an officer of MOMI.” How can you punish someone to death for impersonating a person who has no visible presence? Also, how does one impersonate someone or something they have never seen? Is MOMI the equivalent of RL Edward Snowden? Is there actually a (regular) end user that has ever read any End User License Agreement?
I think I understand the reasoning behind the need to sort this out soon, since we live in a contiguous society and lawsuits have already been filed. In The Laws of the Virtual World, I think Shenlei Winkler’s resolution is to arm creators with the foundations of a legal framework to protect their property against people who will take it and call it their own.
Would the decision of our unbiased Supreme Court matter in the virtual world? If Corporations can be given the same rights as people, would that benefit Sony, IBM, Nike, etc. in SL?
Lastly, I have to address a monumental RL issue regarding rights. I live in a community where there are 90 wells, fracked sinced 2004, in 13 square miles. The Federal government allowed gas/oil companies to be precluded from federal water and air quality guidelines under the guise they thought each state would enact their own regulations. Ohio has no such regulations. In 2004 our State government took away local home rule – that is the right of the people, individually or as a community, to determine if they want a gas/oil well next to their house or just over the border of their backyard. Despite the insistence of the gas/oil companies that no water or land has been contaminated, evidence exists that proves otherwise and it is mounting. Lawsuits have even been won by people who have had their land and/or water contaminated or who have been damaged in some way by an unwanted gas/oil well. Sadly, the number of people who have been damaged or had their lives ruined and have not won or have no recourse is substantially more than one and growing. Our Ohio EPA does nothing. A community rights group that I helped start, Mothers Against Drilling In Our Neighborhoods (MADION), asked the Ohio EPA how many air quality tests were done before, during, and after each new well. After much pressure they would only say, off the record, they were asked by the Governor’s office to halt all investigations into why testing has never been done. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources does nothing. Ironically, their sole source of revenue is from hunting licenses and gas/oil. Every time a news reporter “digs into” the situation, the gas/oil industry saturates the market with commercials telling you how safe fracking is and that is has been done for 60 years. In my town, if one well blows up literally half or most of the city could be gone. For those that say we need gas/oil to sustain our lives. I do not disagree with the main premise but our lives are being forced into this controlled dependency. Several years ago our state eliminated its budget for wind energy exploration at the request of gas/oil. Regardless of if you agree with drilling or not – at the root of all of it is a rights issue. Ohioans have no rights whatsoever. Many people I know have been pooled into a well. The gas/oil companies are allowed to pool people – force them, against their will, to be part of a gas/oil well lease. We have no rights because money wins and rights are ultimately about money.
The Community Legal Defense Fund (CLDF) was established to help people protect themselves against big business and health impacting situations. Their approach is to reclaim rights by voting for a Bill of Rights (BoR). Currently, my communities’ BoR is being challenged in court by gas/oil who plan to continue to drill in my town. You can see all types of injustices being made in RL that have real detrimental impact at www.celdf.org.
Relative to the battle being lost with our real life rights, which directly affect our health and water supply, I find the issue of virtual rights somewhat insignificant. However, since I wholeheartedly understand, via music and writing, that what we create we should have a right to own, I do acknowledge that some decisions should be made regarding virtual rights. Given my exposure to big business always winning against the lowly innocent bystander though, I am not hopeful that any issue will be resolved in favor of the cyborgs, only the Gods.
Content & Licensing in Virtual Worlds, F. Gregory Lastowka and Dan Hunter
The Laws of the Virtual World, Shenlei Winkler