Virtual Worlds: A Dystopian Thought Intrudes

So I’m sitting here listening to people describing how they are building in all the ugliest features of existing intellectual property (IP) rights into various virtual worlds. The big advance the folks at There.com are touting is not that they’ve decided to use, or impose, a better set of rules but rather that they’ll allow player-designers to claim ownership for the virtual items they design. Of course, to enable and enforce a constellation of intellectual property rights, you need a means of tagging the IP rights status of every virtual item, so they’ve built-in a set of tags that go with every item that identify the IP rights assigned by the item’s creator.

The first obvious question, asked eloquently by Yale’s Yochai Benkler, is why on earth anyone would choose to reproduce (not to mention make more binding) all the most objectionable features of a near-pathological legal system? Why not try to build something that encourages sharing? I think part of the answer is that the colonizers of virtual spaces are doing what colonists usually do: bringing their intellectual baggage with them. Another part of the answer is that some of the designers see the tagging and enforcement of IP as part of their business model – it allows them to have and protect proprietary content, maybe to tax in-game transactions someday, and to have something to offer the owners of external IP rights who might otherwise get litigious. The designers’ answer was that they are enabling the Creative Commons licenses in addition to more traditional options, and that they expect most participants to pick those, so it will all/mostly come out alright in the end.

And then I had a Really Worrying Idea. The discourse here tends to discuss Virtual Worlds as either, 1) important new phenomena in themselves (socially or commercially); or 2) social spaces that may create new relationships that might spill over into the real world.

In the paper Caroline and I wrote, that I’ll be presenting later in the conference, we argue that there’s a third view, that the Virtual Worlds could be used as testbeds for legal rules. But what if our vision is too modest? What if the really significant vew is a fourth view, that the virtual worlds are (unintentional) testbeds for new technologies of tagging and control? After all, in real life people are testing and (secretly) deploying RFID systems that allow them to tag and trace consumer purchases. It’s only a matter of time before it’s technically feasible to track and trace everything we have.

So, now I have a dystopian vision to balance some of the enthusiasm here. Worryingly, I find it more plausible.

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One Response to Virtual Worlds: A Dystopian Thought Intrudes

  1. cyberbug says:

    Michael – the modern day soothsayer – how right you may be. Utopia-Dystopia-Cacatopia.
    Time to brush off the dust from the sleeve jackets of Ballard and Huxley, me – thinks.
    Virtual Games – hmm, a case of life imitating art(again).

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