Nelson DaCunha


The status of digital property protection, especially in virtual worlds, is uncertain to say the least. These are the issues that I will review in this note.

In section II, I will discuss the foundations of virtual worlds and their growth from pre-computer roots to present day sprawling universes. This background will provide a foundation for novices in the virtual world realm and an anchor for the important role that these games play in the lives of not only young Americans, but people of all ages and nationalities around the world.

Part III will discuss the critical characteristics of virtual property. The conjunction between virtual property and physical property-such as exclusivity, persistence, transferability and transformative properties-create the value in virtual property that makes protection of the property important. With virtual property characteristics described, I will discuss various examples of just how critical this virtual property has become, not only to the lives of individuals, but to society in general, and what protections are currently in place, such as licensing agreements. This will set the stage for the remainder of the note.

Part IV will describe several common theories on virtual property rights, including the Lockean Labor Theory, Personality Theory, Utilitarianism, and the idea of treating virtual property as intangible real property. The merits and shortcomings of these various theories will be discussed.

Part V will discuss current implementations of virtual property protection, including "physical" protection through code and some actual and current legal frameworks-both within the United States and abroad-that are currently available to gainers and virtual world developers.

Finally, Part VI will discuss some practical considerations of any system that intends to extend protection to virtual property and the inherent dangers of applying virtual property protection with a broad brush. I propose a new solution to protecting user rights in property through a hybrid of natural protection. The protection is layered and built on the extension of an existing framework that is made up of the same software code that already controls virtual worlds. The software creates a high-level boundary of allowable behavior. In areas where software cannot properly protect, such as in areas of fraud or theft, the current legal-property regime takes over-much as it does with tangible property. Courts can apply standard property law while overlaying the virtual world rules and the social norms within virtual world. In this way, property can be protected even in virtual worlds where certain kinds of theft are part of the game play.