Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Do you own your MMORPG character?

As MMORPGs become more popular and as more people spend time creating content and value in the games that they play, the inevitable question arises: Who really owns your character?

Let's fast forward into the future a little bit so I can give you a hypothetical situation. It is 2009, the MMORPG industry has exploded, every US household has someone playing one game or another that's an MMO. There is, however, one clear leader, a game called "World of Quests". Approximately 60 million players are on this game with an average time spent of about 20 hours a week. This game is as close to a virtual world as current technologies allow. People are connected in every aspect of their lives to this game, via home systems, mobile systems and on-location based services. This is the killer app.

In World of Quests, celebrities start to emerge. These players have the fame and fortune of today's pop stars. The game is their medium, other players, their audience. Some of these individuals have become so influential, that they have their own online destinations and sponsorship deals. At some point, the creators of "World of Quests" realize the monetary potential of these super stars. They want some of this money. They say it is, afterall, their game.

The lawyers get involved. The WoQ publisher sues the celebrities, demanding a cease and desist or demand compensation related to the use of their characters for profit. The celebrities balk and counter-sue. The public is outraged at this blatant money grab.

So now back to the question: Who really owns the character? The game developers, because they provided the medium (Like how American Idol owns all the Idols)? Or the player celebrities because they created the actual celebrity status (Because Top Gun producers don't own Tom Cruise)?

Why do I bring this up? My previous post got me thinking about the ownership of virtual items. Right now, there is clear end user license agreement terms that you don't own anything. However, as MMORPGs become more popular and the culture surrounding them go beyond the game itself, where does everything get fuzzy?

Will game publishers have to give up some control of their medium if their medium becomes so widespread as to become tangled with real world culture? If they "kill" off a celebrity character, can they be liable for damages? I think the lawyers are going to have a lot of fun in 2009.

[Did some research, interesting paper here on this topic. Warning, pretty academic.]

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