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Virtually Blind Commentary

Back in 1998, a law professor I once met, Paul Joseph (1951-2003), wrote a prescient article entitled Ultima Online: Justice in a Virtual World. The full text of the article is here.Paul Joseph (1951-2003)

Professor Joseph was writing during the days of unfettered PvP combat in Ultima Online, when there were few built-in restrictions regarding when and where players could attack each other.

During this era, “newbie farming” was a popular pastime. Although death wasn’t permanent, if a character was “killed,” the attacker (and anyone on the scene willing to risk a similar fate) got to loot everything the victim was carrying — money, equipment, weapons, and even clothing. Since “dying” could basically bankrupt new players, it was pretty common to see groups of newbies wearing gray resurrection robes begging for food and money near major centers of commerce. Not the best start to one’s great crusade to rid the land of… whatever it was.

Origin Systems (since disbanded by Electronic Arts) eventually changed the rules to make Ultima more accessible to new players. Before they did, however, an interesting thing started happening: players began banding together into communities to enforce private codes of justice.

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Virtually Blind Commentary

Most readers will be familiar with the story of ‘Anshe Chung,’ the avatar of Second Life real-dollars millionaire Ailin Graef who, CNET reported, was subjected to “a 15-minute digital barrage of flying penises and doctored pornographic images” during an in-world interview with CNET in December.

'Anshe Chung' Waits to be Interviewed by CNET in Second LifeA video of the “griefing” attack has been circulating, and will likely remain widely available via a simple search for, well, pretty much forever… or at least until 14 year olds get bored with giant flying genitalia.

Notwithstanding the fact that trying to get something like this to disappear from the internet is, as Joe on Newsradio said, “like trying to get pee out of a swimming pool,” Ailin’s husband Guntram Graef filed a complaint with YouTube under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). YouTube, of course, immediately pulled the video. The problem is, posting the video wasn’t a DMCA violation in the first place.

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Welcome to Virtually Blind. This site will cover both real-world legal developments that impact virtual worlds and also in-world legal issues — collectively, “virtual law.” Virtual law is important because virtual worlds are fast becoming big business. Brands like IBM, Adidas, Toyota, Dell, and MTV have established virtual world presences. Second Life recently registered its millionth account. Games like World of Warcraft are even bigger hits, as much for their “virtual world” role-playing possibilities as for the virtual creature-slaying. Gaming systems are converging with computers, putting devices that can run virtual-world clients and persistent-state gaming and social environments in tens of millions of living rooms.

What does this mean? Where people go, laws and government aren’t far behind. Will a real-world lawsuit help clarify the status of digital property? Will criminal charges result from in-world activity? Will someone’s in-world private legal system become the de facto standard? Will attorneys practicing law in-world get in trouble with real-world ethics bodies? Will someone bring a civil suit for emotional distress inflicted by an avatar?

These questions will inevitably arise, and virtual law will just as inevitably become part of the modern legal landscape. It should be interesting.

So again, welcome. Let’s see what happens!

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