Second Life: the blurred line between intellectual property and virtual property

Second Life is a website in which Internet users pay, with real money, to meet virtual people, do virtual activities, and buy virtual property.  Tens of millions of dollars have been spent on the website, demonstrating the possibility of making money from online communities.

Some of the website’s users have brought a class action suit against Second Life, claiming that they were misled about their ownership of virtual property.  The plaintiffs’ Second Life accounts were terminated, depriving them of access to their virtual property.  They are also claiming that their virtual property was devalued because Second Life now allows anyone to create land on the site.

Second Life asserts that users own the copyright of the content they create on the site and that they own virtual property.

However, when a user becomes an “owner” of virtual property by buying it from the site or another user, it seems they are paying for a license.  This may or may not incorporate an intellectual property license.  For example, the design may not be sufficiently original in order for it to be copyrighted.

Another situation is that users may be paying for something that has nothing to do with a copyright, e.g. buying a house next to a virtual celebrity’s house, which might cost more than an identical house in another location.  The user is not buying something that is protected by copyright.

If Second Life terminates an account, they are not taking the user’s copyright in the content he created.  They simply stop using a license the user has granted.

The court now must decide whether Second Life has been misleading users into thinking they are buying intellectual property protected by a copyright.