Stephen S. Wu-- SL: Legal Writer,, (408) 573-5737, 50 W. San Fernando St., Ste. 750, San Jose, CA 95113

Washington Lawyer Article on Virtual Worlds and MMOGs

Recently, writer Thai Phi Le wrote a Washington Lawyer magazine article entitled “Virtual Reality Meets Real-Life Law.” She interviewed me and other lawyers who practice in the area to write a thorough article on different real-life legal issues surrounding virtual worlds and massively multiplayer online games. I commend her article to you, which you can view here.
Ms. Le begins by talking about the brisk uptake in interest by users and investors in virtual worlds technology. She notes that with this increased interest, legal issues have started to crop up. Users have begun to encounter real life legal disputes. Moreover, the increase in these disputes raises a larger question of how virtual worlds should be governed.

She talks about the history of virtual worlds and MMOGs. She also mentions the
SL Bar Association, which I served as president in the 2009-2010 bar year. The SLBA has as its mission:

“(1) to educate the public and profession concerning legal issues arising from the Second Life virtual world;

“(2) to study the legal, business, and technical implications of the 3D Internet, including virtual worlds, and the Second Life virtual world in particular;

“(3) to offer our members opportunities to meet and discuss the association’s interests with professionals from around the world; and

“(4) to promote justice, professional excellence, and the rule of law in Second Life.

In that section, she mentions some of the practice issues involved with conducting a law practice in the virtual worlds setting. One of the top issues concerns maintaining client confidences. Since virtual worlds companies may monitor communications within their services, there may not be a way to have an attorney-client privileged conversation within their virtual worlds.

Ms. Le also discusses intellectual property issues. I raised the issue of trademark infringement occurring in virtual worlds. I am waiting for the day in which defendants accused of trademark infringement in real life point to infringement occurring commonly in virtual worlds as a reason to deny the mark holder the right to enforce a mark in the physical world. She also talks about the Digital Millennium Copyright Act mechanism as a means of resolving copyright disputes.

She also discusses property law and disputes between users and virtual worlds companies. The terms of service may minimize property rights, but reported cases are beginning to recognize property rights in intangible online property, such as domain names. This trend may result in increasing claims for virtual worlds companies that close accounts and take away virtual property from users. Of course, one of the issues involved in any property dispute is the value of the property. Thus, Ms. Le discusses issues of valuation, which will affect the level of damages a plaintiff can seek.

Ms. Le closes her article with a discussion of governance. She mentions the possibility of a virtual constitution for a virtual world. I made the point that real-life property law will influence what virtual worlds companies can and cannot do under the law. The law will need to change over time to accommodate virtual and augmented reality. Google’s recent conference in San Francisco, for example, showed the interest in augmented reality and devices such as Google Glass to provide more information about the real world. The differences among the physical world, augmented reality, and virtual reality will blur. And the legal issues from virtual worlds will spill over into the augmented reality made possible by Google Glass, mobile devices, and devices like Glass to come.