On April 17th, Taser International Inc. filed a 102-page complaint in the U.S. District Court (District of Arizona) against Linden Research Inc., creators of the wildly popular online video game Second Life. Taser (who manufactures the stun gun of the same name) alleges that Linden allowed its users to infringe on its trademark by creating virtual Tasers and selling them alongside pornography.
Second Life is an online virtual world where players interact through “avatars” or digital personifications of themselves. The game is open-ended, giving players the freedom to create their own virtual houses, businesses and even make new products. Notably, the game includes a 3D modelling program that allows players to design their own objects (including stun gun weapons) and sell them in their stores. Players buy and sell things in the game with “Linden Dollars” which they must purchase from Linden every month with real money. Linden reports that over 15 million accounts have been registered since Second Life began in 2003.
Taser alleges that some Second Life players were making virtual stun guns, branding them as Tasers and selling them in stores alongside pornographic material and virtual drugs. This is not the first lawsuit for Linden, the most notable being Bragg v. Linden Research Inc., 487 F. Supp. 2d 593 (E.D.Penn. 2007). Bragg discovered a glitch in the game that allowed him to buy in-game land for a fraction of its regular cost. Linden responded by cancelling his account and expropriating all of his virtual territory, which Bragg said cost him a substantial amount of real-world money that he had spent buying and developing his Second Life businesses.
The Bragg case raised some interesting issues concerning the parallel economy of Second Life as well as the pseudo-ownership system that Linden has at times touted as a feature of the game. The atmosphere of the game is such that players generally feel like they should have a real ownership over their virtual territory and the objects they create. Players spend a lot of time on Second Life developing their businesses and feel that they should have some of the same protections (e.g. against expropriation and copyright infringement) available to them the real world.
The Taser lawsuit will probably raise this same issue of how Second Life is properly characterized. Is it a tightly controlled online video game created and administrated by Linden? Or, is it actually a platform that allows users to extend their social interactions into the virtual realm, an online flea market of sorts? Linden will want to distance itself from the behaviour of its users while Taser will argue that Linden should be controlling the trademark infringement going on within the game. The nature of the relationship between the creators of virtual marketplaces and their users will become increasingly relevant as more people get online and start trading intellectual property through these systems, making this case an interesting one to watch.
Though Linden Research has a process for dealing with allegations of infringed copyrighted material originating in the real world (see secondlife.com/corporate/dmca.php), there may be another issue not being addressed. I don’t know how it would play out, but it would be interesting to see how a dispute would be resolved over intellectual property created within Second Life itself. Section 1.3 of their Terms of Service (see secondlife.com/corporate/tos.php) states that users maintain rights over their content, but I wonder if Linden would strictly apply its DMCA process in the same way.
Apparently users are able to create designs for clothing, furniture, and other items, which can be purchased by other users within the game. Some people have actually accumulated much wealth in the game through various businesses (see images.businessweek.com/ss/07/04/0416_richlist/index_01.htm). Because, from my understanding, real exchangeable money is generated in Second Life, users will have more of an incentive to protect their works than would be the case in other online games.
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