Tag: Avatar

Not just the movie, but the accepted name in common parlance for the online persona created by gamers.

Who Owns Your Second Life?

A few years ago Julian Dibbell wrote a book called Play Money — Or, How I Quit My Day Job And Made Millions Trading Virtual Loot, which detailed the year he spent trying to win a bet with himself. The bet:  that he could make more money by killing trolls and demons (or making armor) in Ultima Online than he ever had as a writer. Quirky concept, I agree, but the more you look into it the more interesting the idea gets, especially when you realize that the gold pieces used as currency by Ultima Online and other massively multiplayer online games (e.g., World of Warcraft, Eve Online or Lord of the Rings Online) are actually traded online in the same way that say, Brazil’s currency (the real) is. And many of the currencies from virtual worlds are more stable than those circulated by certain South American regimes.

There are a number of legal issues from virtual worlds that have superficial interest or — perhaps better stated — create the equivalent of cocktail party chatter for the intellectual property crowd. For example, in many online worlds you may chose to be an honorable member of the Thieves Guild, in which case it is perfectly acceptable for you to wander the world breaking into houses and stealing jewels and gold and artifacts — you’re a thief, after all, so it’s basically your job to act in this fashion — whereupon you can trade these items for something else in virtual reality (e.g., food, weapons, a horse, a house, etc.), or if you managed to get your hands on something truly exceptional you can simply list it on eBay and sell it for real dollars. So you’re stealing from people in virtual reality, fencing the goods on eBay, and pocketing the cash in your PayPal account, all tax free, since the IRS has no idea how to value what you’re doing.  And did I mention it’s all perfectly legal?

Apart from the idea of a currency exchange (which makes sense when you realize that more than 10,000,000 people play World of Warcraft regularly, and many other MMOGs have over a million subscribers), these online worlds are rapidly changing the way intellectual property law works. Intellectual property, of course, deals with intangible assets, and thus dovetails perfectly with the concept of intangible worlds. Recently, though, the questions asked have been real brain twisters. For example, who owns the rights to your avatar — the “you” you created —  in the online world? What if you upload a real photograph of yourself to the game server and the character you are playing actually bears your face — which you can actually do in Tiger Woods PGA Tour 10? What if the user agreement you signed (by clicking “I agree” when you logged on for the first time) says that all intellectual property in the game, including anything you create while using the game, remains the property of the corporation that owns the game? Who owns your avatar now? Most people never even read the user agreement, of course, but does the fact that it’s mandatory that you agree in order to play the game mean that it’s a contract of adhesion and can be voided, or does it mean you foolishly gave up your intellectual property rights in exchange for the privilege of being a half-elf ranger wandering the forests of Elfheim during the 22 hours a week you play the game?

If this sounds too theoretical, note that last year Taser International sued Second Life for trademark infringement because characters were using, and selling, virtual replicas of tasers in the game. Sounds silly, doesn’t it, until you find out that people pay $100 million to Linden Labs every year to buy Linden dollars so that they can clothe and feed their avatars in Second Life, and that the virtual reality gray market generates about $6 billion in revenue annually. And then someone tells you that Ben Folds Five actually did a live concert in Second Life (and you couldn’t hear it unless your avatar bought a ticket and attended), and Judge Richard Posner of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has given lectures in Second Life, and Coke, Pepsi, Gap, Versace, Porsche, McDonald’s and all the other corporate sponsors are sniffing around figuring out how to protect and capitalize on their trademarks in these realms. Somehow, the more you look at it, the less silly it seems. Where real money stands to be made by playing with Monopoly money, the law perks up its ears and starts paying attention.

Disney Gets Marvel, But Who Gets the Characters?

When Disney announced that it was buying Marvel for $4 billion last fall, the hype failed to mention that Jack Kirby‘s kids were seeking to recover ownership rights to some of the most popular titles in recent times — including such luminaries as X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Spider Man, the Avengers, and the Incredible Hulk. While the notices of termination served by clan Kirby would not take effect until 2014 at the earliest, whether the heirs of the acknowledged co-creator of these characters can reclaim ownership rights is potentially a $1 billion question.  Given the increasing popularity of the superhero genre at the box office and — on the heels of Avatar — the obvious interest in producing 3D tales of their heroic adventures, the battle for ownership is likely to be protracted. In response to the Kirby’s shot across the bows, Marvel last month filed suit in federal district court in Manhattan seeking a declaration that Kirby’s creation of the characters was simply work-for-hire, and that his heirs have no ownership interest nor right to any additional compensation.

If the story has a familiar ring to it, that’s because this bell has been rung before. Those of you who follow the always-entertaining rulings produced by Hollywood copyright skirmishes will recall that in 2008 the heirs of Jerry Siegal recovered a share of the copyright in Superman, which had been sold to Detective Comics for $130 in 1938. Doubtless the Kirby kids are seeking a bigger check than that.

To follow the saga of the Kirby’s claims in more detail, start with Ben Fritz’s article in the LA Times and follow the links.