Volume 3, Issue 2
2nd Quarter, 2008

The Rights of Avatars

Dr. William Sims Bainbridge

Page 4 of 5

Figure 8 shows the co-chairs and two panelists from the first of three plenary sessions in the conference, each of which was attended by more than one hundred avatars. From left to right, Maggiemae represented Bonnie Nardi at the University of California, Irvine, in the United States. Kultura is Hilde G. Corneliussen at the University of Bergen in Norway. Dyonesia is Celia Pearce at Georgia Institute of Technology, and Kartuni is Nicolas Ducheneaut at Palo Alto Research Center. Figure 9 shows part of the audience, spread across the opposite hillside. The people behind these avatars ranged geographically all the way from Australia to Russia.

Figure 8: Participants in the WoW Conference:
Maggiemae, Kultura, Dyonesia, and Kartuni

Figure 9: Conference Participants from around the World
Meet in Virtual Space

The New York Times article announcing an effort to make Second Life the standard for virtual worlds failed to examine the technical limitations of SL, or to consider the full list of other virtual worlds which also claim to be able to fill this role, notably Active Worlds, Entropia Universe, and MultiVerse. Croquet is a research and development effort to establish forward-looking standards for virtual worlds, so that no technical barriers will exist to travel from one to another. The website of the Digital Media Center of the University of Minnesota says:

Imagine you are an undergraduate student of the future. Your first class takes place in a lush wooded landscape with rolling green hills and a waterfall. Then you go through a portal to your next class in an underwater world full of fish that undulate around you—some of them are your fellow students. Your last class takes place in outer space, where Earth and a satellite are revolving around the moon and you can see the gravitational effects of two bodies on a third. If you get in the way of the moon it will toss you out of the way.[1]

All of these are attempts to make a collection of worlds where the avatar would have the physical ability to migrate, limited as in the real world only by legal and economic factors. Quite frankly, in the real world rights to migrate, immigration issues are very hot and they would immediately bring to mind issues that would relate to avatar migration, but this is not the place to solve the problems of the real world.

Property Rights

Every complex virtual world has an economy, but they differ from each other in many ways. For example, Second Life has a currency, called Linden dollars after the Linden Lab company that created it, which can be converted to and from the currencies of the external world. The virtual gold in World of Warcraft is not officially convertible, although some people called gold farmers and generally believed to be Chinese companies, attempt to circumvent this restriction to sell WoW gold for dollars and euros. In Second Life, Interviewer Wilber owns a small piece of land, on which he pays $25 tax each month in US dollars. Land in WoW cannot be owned, although Sciencemag can be said to own the Science guild because she alone has the power to expel members from it.

The starter packs for the WoW conference were very expensive, and there was no legitimate way to move money into the world. The total in-world cost of the conference was about 4000 gold pieces, and poor Catullus had to earn about 3000 of these running advanced quests, mostly so-called daily quests that could be repeated every day. In four or five hours, he could earn 200 gold pieces, so he labored - or I did - for more than one and a half regular work weeks to support the costs of this meeting.

Figure 10 shows my Entropia avatar, named William "Bill" Bainbridge, attempting to earn a living. I could just spend US dollars to buy him PEDs (Project Entropia Dollars), but cheapskate that I am, and interested in how the economy functions, I am making him work. Actually, I don't yet personify him in my mind, the way I do Catullus or Maxrohn, and because I must labor through him, I think of him simply as me. However, I don't like that ugly ponytail hairdo he has, and would like to pay another player to cut it off. For that, I need PEDs. So I am performing the humble task that beginning avatars can use to earn PEDS, collecting sweat from animals. I am not skilled at this task, and the added burden of taking the photograph allowed the irritated beast to kill my avatar. But, like many virtual worlds, Entropia resurrects avatars after death.

Figure 10: Making a Living in Entropia Universe

The economies of virtual worlds can be quite complex and sophisticated. Figure 11 shows one of my WoW, characters, Aristotle, waving at the camera from the center of economic action in the auction house of Stormwind City. WoW players are divided into two factions, Horde and Alliance, each having its own separate auction system that is inaccessible to members of the other. When we wanted to smuggle some valuable souvenirs from the Alliance to the Horde for the conference, we did so by means of the neutral auction house in the pirate town, Booty Bay. A character on one account would post the item for sale, and a second character on a second account would quickly purchase it. Once we made the mistake of doing all this in plain sight, and pricing the item unreasonably cheap. Before we could complete our transaction, another player had quickly bought the item from the auction house and run away with it. This was a lesson to us: Smugglers must beware of thieves.

Figure 11: The Alliance Auction House in Stormwind City

Restrictions on the flow of value from one currency or social group to another is one kind of limitation on property rights. Constant taxation, like the monthly land tax in Second Life, is another. A third concerns intellectual property rights. Here is what the MindArk company's end user license agreement for Entropia says:

Virtual items will often have names similar or identical to corresponding physical categories such as "people," "real estate," "possessions," and the names of specific items in those categories such as "house," "rifle," "tools," "armor," etc. Despite the similar names, all virtual items are part of the System and MindArk retains all rights, title, and interest in all parts including, but not limited to Avatars and Virtual Items; these retained rights include, without limitation, patent, copyright, trademark, trade secret and other proprietary rights throughout the world.

This is a fascinating paragraph, directly contrasting common-sense notions from the real world with the ownership regime MindArk wishes to maintain in Entropia. Blizzard Entertainment, the company behind World of Warcraft, want to encourage amateur use of material from the world, thereby strengthening the community of subscribers, while needing to limit commercial uses that at the extreme could mean another company stealing its valuable products. Especially important are machinima movies made by players, 266,000 of which are currently posted on YouTube:

Blizzard Entertainment strongly supports the efforts its World of Warcraft community members who produce 'Machinima' movies (referred to hereafter as a "Production") using video images, footage, music, sounds, speech, or other assets from its copyrighted products, including "World of Warcraft", subject to a few conditions... First and foremost, Blizzard Entertainment requires that the use of World of Warcraft and other Blizzard products must be limited to non-commercial purposes... As a community machinima artist, you are permitted to create machinima productions, and to distribute them freely on your website, or on other websites where viewers can freely view your Production... Neither you (the Machinima artist) nor the operator of any website where your Production(s) may be viewed can force a viewer to pay a "fee" to be able to view your Production(s).[2]

Notice how this policy enunciates rights for three entities: Blizzard Entertainment, the WoW player who creates machinima, and the potential viewer of the machinima. Thus, rights are not merely attribute of individual, but of the relationships between individuals in a social system. It makes ethical as well as business sense for Blizzard to claim ownership of the images in World of Warcraft, because they are assemblages of pictures drawn by Blizzard's paid artists. Second Life goes to the other extreme, providing almost none of the content itself: "The Second Life world is a place dedicated to your creativity. It's about dreaming of something one moment and bringing it to life the next. Everything in Second Life is resident-created, from the strobe lights in the nightclubs to the car (or spaceship) in your driveway."[3]

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1. http://dmc.umn.edu/spotlight/croquet.shtml

3. http://secondlife.com/whatis/creations.php

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