Hands off MY avatar !
Issues with claims of virtual property and identity
This paper argues that there is a gap
Avatar, Virtual, Copyright, Rights of Publicity, Law.
Virtual worlds are contended spaces. They are a nexus between the physical and the virtual that constantly challenge our ideas about what we mean by ‘real’ and force us to negotiate the ways that we socially express senses of value.
A current focus of this debate is the status of items within MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Play Games). Virtual items are contentious because, the nature of MMORPGs combined with the practice of players has lead to economic value being associated with virtual items (Castronova 2001; 2002; 2003a); this in turn has attracted commercial interests, scholars, fraudsters and lawyers. The economic aspect of virtual items has also tended to frame the debate about them in terms of property and an intersection between items, disputed acts, code and the law as it stands (Lastowka & Hunter 2003).
This paper continues this debate by focusing specifically on
the legal status of avatars with reference to avatar sales as viewed by
The paper uses the term avatar rather than player character as the paper aims to draw general lessons drawn from virtual worlds rather than just those that are ostensibly game spaces, what’s more I believe that the context that these issues should be viewed in is growing social utility of virtual spaces generally, in this light this paper examines conflicts over avatar sales and the applicability or a range of current laws, the paper concludes by briefly suggests a sui generis right in avatars which not a traditional property right.
There is an on-going dispute between the developer-publishers of MMORPGs and those players that trade in virtual items and avatars. Developer-publishers continue to assert that players do not have the rights to trade in virtual items and attempt to prevent the trade (though removing player accounts, working with companies like eBay to remove items for sale etc.), and groups of players continue to buy and sell on sites like playerauctions.com, uber-auctions.com and EQtraders.com. Both sides claim that they have legal rights to conduct their actions.
But it would be wrong to portray the debate over ownership as just between players and companies. Players often look down on those that attempt to buy themselves status without the effort that everyone else has put in (Gonji 2002), and there is the social issue of people who have gained power with out the skills to use it. There is also a debate within the industry about the relationship between the need to give players real creative autonomy and the need to maintain a coherent virtual world (Glowacki 2002; Kosak 2002; Koster 2000).
However, the trade in virtual items has now begun to attract real world crime (Dibble 2003) and questions about the nature of virtual crime (Becker 2002; Castronova 2003b) - so perhaps it is time that we resolved the legal status of virtual items.
The law most commonly associated with property disputes over virtual world items is copyright. Developer-publishers believe that they have a natural property right in virtual items as they create virtual worlds so own every aspect of them. Developer-publishers also tend to believe that the control that property rights grant them is needed for marinating coherence in a virtual world that necessary for the good of all players. What’s more they believe in the legality of these rights because of both intellectual property law (Mulligan 2000) and the contract that they hold with players of the game (see below).
Many players also believe that they have a natural right of property in both virtual items and especially avatars, this stems also from law and the view that as there is no avatar in the box when the game is purchased so avatars must be created through the application of player effort, hence from labour-desert theory is naturally their property.
Many developer-publishers assert their rights over virtual items in the contract that they have with players. These contracts are in the form of an End User Licence Agreement which tends to be displayed when a player installs the software and requires the player to click ‘I Agree’ before the game can be played (a so called click-wrap contract). The EULA for Sony Online Entertainment’s (SOE) EverQuest New Dawn (European edition 2002) for example, does not contain a printed form of the EULA as part of the physical game packaging or materials.
Strong assertions of control are common in EULA’s. For example Clause 9 the EverQuest EULA states: ‘You may not sell, attempt to sell, purchase, attempt to purchase, auction or facilitate the purchase, sale or auction of any accounts, items, coin or copyrighted material relating to the Games’. Similarly Electronic Arts’ Ultima Online licence states at Paragraph 5(c):
Rights. You acknowledge and agree that all characters created, and items acquired and developed as a result of game play are part of the Software and Service and are the sole property of EA.com. You acknowledge that: (i) the Software and the Service permit access to Content that is protected by copyrights, trademarks, and other proprietary rights owned by EA.com or Content Providers (collectively, "Rights").
Whereas the End User Access and Licence Agreement for Mythic Entertainment’s Dark Age of Camelot, a document that runs to just over 9,000 words, states at (2):
OWNERSHIP OF SYSTEM, GAME AND GAME CONTENT; RIGHTS TO ACCESS AND USE SAME” (A) “Ownership of System, Game and Game Content”, that “You acknowledge and agree that Mythic is the sole and exclusive owner of the System, and that Mythic or its suppliers are the sole and exclusive owner(s) of all right, title and interest (including, without limitation, all intellectual property rights), code, programs, routines, subroutines, objects, files, data, characters (including all items, currency, objects and attributes comprising or associated with a character and an Account).
And again (just in case you missed it), at 2(B):
Mythic Owns Accounts, Account Attributes, Characters, Items and Objects; Assignment” that “You acknowledge and agree that your Account(s), and all attributes of your Accounts, including all guilds, groups, titles, and characters, and objects, currency and items acquired, developed or delivered by or to characters as a result of Game play through your Accounts are part of the System and the Game Content, and are the sole and exclusive property of Mythic, including any and all copyrights and intellectual property rights in or to any and all of the same, all of which are hereby expressly reserved.
The assertions contained in these contracts rest on a number of questionable legal assumptions. Either they assume that: copyright subsists in avatars and other virtual items and that the developer-publisher holds that copyright and that the rights granted under copyright encompass avatar sales, and, lastly, that any contractual clauses to this effect are legally enforceable. Or they assume that: the developer-publisher hold copyright in some other work and that these rights are extensible under licence to control the act of avatar sales. The following section examines each of these assumptions, concluding that they are all either baseless in law or tenuously arguable at best.
Copyright subsists in original works of authorship. If we grant that as an avatar has a unique name within a give virtual world and it exists, it passes the minimal tests for originality generally used. So to establish copyright we need to determine whether an avatar is work and whether there is an author.
In copyright terms there are four options for the type of work that an avatar might be: software, database, computer-generated work or some other type of work. Similarly there are five potential authors: player, developer-publisher (assuming that the program was created by a programmer who granted copyright to the developer-publisher), player & developer-publisher, computer or no one.
In general, copyright law treats software as a type of literary work and grants copyright in the code that makes up a piece of software. This principle is established under international law by article 10 of the TRIPS Agreement (Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights), which reads (art. 10(1) TRIPS): ‘Computer programs, whether in source or object code, shall be protected as literary works under the Berne Convention (1971)’. Though by tradition, WTO member states have interpreted international treaties in subtly different way when enacting or revising national laws.
The European position is slightly more ambiguous, at least
at the level of statue. The so called European ‘Software Directive’
states “the term ‘computer program’ shall include programs in any form”, and
English law thus relies heavily on case law rather than legislation to define the scope of software, and case law (at least in respect of software) rests heavily on the interpretive procedures and definitions created in US courts (Lemley .
The defining case in the
In both the
In system terms an avatar is individuated by an entry in a data set - generally held in a database. This raises the question of whether an avatar is a database in legal terms and thus what rights would be afforded to whom.
Similarly the Directive grants a sui generis Database right, this time to a ‘maker’ (not author) such that (Id. 7(1)): ‘qualitatively and/or quantitatively a substantial investment in either the obtaining, verification or presentation of the contents to prevent extraction and/or re-utilization of the whole or of a substantial part evaluated qualitatively and/or quantitatively, of the contents of that database’. The directive goes on to provide rights in respect of extraction and re-utilization.
In respect of copyright - it is plausible that copyright
does subsist in a database of avatars as a whole , as each avatar is ‘data’ and
the database schema can be seen as an ‘arrangement’ and would most probably
pass the minimal criteria for ‘intellectual creation’. However, this right in
the database does not extend to copyright in any given avatar as the directive
In respect of the sui
generis rights – again it is possible that these would apply to a database
of avatars as a whole. But as the rights apply to “all or a substantial part of
the contents” (
So neither copyright in a database or sui generis database rights subsist in an individual avatar under
Databases do not exist in the legal ontology of US copyright. There is no sui generis right in databases either. Hence the situation is akin to the pre-1988 situation in the UK with a databases being seen as a collection, falling under the general provisions for literary work as interpreted in case law.
The foundation case in the
Applying this mixture of case law to avatars we have the very same issues faced with the definition of database under EU law. That is, while copyright can subsist in a collection; claims of right would be moot as, again, it is the developer-publisher that defines the database schema so may enjoy copyright in the collection as a whole, whereas it is the player that creates each avatar and selects the weighting of their characteristics, hence the status of an avatar as an individual work is unaffected.
When a player eagerly un-wraps their MMORPG software package, puts the disk in a computer, runs it and generates a character they have created something that was not there when they took the wrapping off the software package. As we have established above copyright does not subsist in this creation, however it came about. But let us suppose for a moment that the thing created might be open to copyright – this raises the question of who the author would be adjudged to be.
The concept of a computer-generated work is specifically
This provision in the Act was created to reflect that fact
that in an increasingly computerised society a growing number of works my fall
outside copyright as no human author is directly responsible for the creation
of the work (Millard 2000). As with ‘computer program’ the term
‘computer-generated’ is not defined further. However in the case of Express Newspapers v
Express v Liverpool
Daily Post establishes that in practice copyright can subsist in
computer-generated works under
First it should be re-iterated that that the concept of a
computer-generated work rests on the pre-existing concept of work, the only
aspect that it modifies is attribution of authorship – hence the discussion of
copyright subsistence above is not affected by the existence of computer-generated
Having said this, if copyright was to subsist in an avatar, case law suggests that authorship is granted to the user of the software not the developer of the software or the software itself.
Users – could argue that a computer program is effectively an instrument of user in a relationship that is akin to a ‘work for hire’ agreement. This interpretation of computer as tool is supported by the final report of The National Commission on New Technological Uses of Copyrighted Works commissioned by the US Congress in 1974. However, the final report of the National Commission on New Technological Uses of Copyrighted Works (1978) did not take this view, suggesting instead that copyright might rest with the computer (Glasser 2001).
Developer-publishers - could argue that a computer-generated work is a derivative work of the program in which they hold copyright. The force of this argument depends very much on the nature of the final work and its relationship to the original program. In MicroStar v FormGen the court considered the nature of addition levels created for the game Duke Nukem 3D and whether they constituted an enhanced game. The court ruled that they did as they incorporated pre-existing protected works. However, as Stephens (2002) has argued - if we try to apply this to virtual items we will find that they are not derivative as they ‘simply expedite the realization of a more advanced form of the pre-existing work’.
As there is no specific provision for computer generated works under US, the most likely test that would be applied for copyright subsistence and authorship is the derivative work test. But as outlined above, virtual items are unlikely to be adjudged to be derivative works, which lends support to earlier arguments that copyright does not subsist under US law and hence the question of authorship is void.
Molly Stephens (2002) has also argued that, even if
copyright did subsist in an avatar, and if that copyright were held by the
developer-publisher; the act of selling an avatar does not necessarily infringe
the developer-publisher’s rights. Under
As copyright subsists in the code of the game and not in the data which individuates a particular avatar, and as when an avatar is transferred between individuals object code is not copied, Stephens argues that transferring an avatar between individuals is not a breach of the monopoly in making copies, preparing derivative works (see above also) or selling copies. A player might breach the display monopoly if they advertised their avatar using screen shots that included copyrighted work, but this is not essential to selling an avatar. Lastly, a sale does not constitute a public performance as, Stephens argues, the performance would be of the games a whole which remains under the control of the developer publisher.
In summary, selling an avatar is not a breach of the developer-publishers copyright in the game.
Returning to the type of MMORPG EULA evidenced earlier – what are we to make of these in the light of the status of copyright discussed above ?
This paper has argued that copyright does not subsist in an avatar. If this is the case, signing a piece of paper or clicking I ACCEPT on a screen with the words ‘I accept that you hold copyright in an avatar’ does nothing to change this. Contract does not change copyright law - it simply applies it.
But a developer-publisher does not have to make any claims about property in avatars or the extent of those rights in order to attempt to control avatar sales. A developer-publisher can say that the licence under which the player has been granted permission to use the developer-publisher’s copyrighted work i.e. the core MMROPG game; is such that the player can only use they character that they have personally initiated and developed.
The question that faces anyone who wishes to sell or purchase an avatar is whether such a clause would be enforceable?
Under EU law there are strong public policy limits set on
consumer contacts by the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Directive which
states that clause that ‘causes a significant imbalance in the parties' rights’(Id.
at art. 3(1)) are unfair as are one that are ‘not individually negotiated’ (Id. at art. 3(1)). However the Directive
does not pertain to contracts where the consumer is ‘acting for purposes
relating to his trade, business or profession’ (
So, under both EU and
Many jurisdictions have adjudged that there are sound public policy reasons for limiting the control of works and other materials by virtue of the rights granted under various intellectual property laws. If a copyright holder includes terms in a contract which limit or prohibit acts that would otherwise by permissible under prevailing copyright laws; they may, under US law, be adjudged to be in abuse of intellectual property law on a number of grounds: that they are violating the public policy that motivates the law, that the terms are anti-competitive, or they the terms breach anti-trust laws (Elkin-Koren 2001). What’s more anyone claiming an alleged abuse does no have to demonstrate injury as a result of said acts.
The principle that an intellectual property law could not, on the basis of public policy, be leveraged to restrict otherwise permissible acts was established in the case of Morton Salt v Suppiger where the maker of a salt tablet machine attempted to licence the use of their machines to farmers on the condition that only the machine makers salt tablets were used with the machine. Here the Supreme Court ruled that ‘[while the grant of patent provides monopoly rights it] equally forbids the use of the patent to secure an exclusive right or limited monopoly not granted by the Patent Office and which it is contrary to public policy to grant’. Twenty or so years before this in Motion Picture Patents v Universal Film the Supreme Court made the general ruling that that a patent licence could not be used to prescribe a restricted use to the detriment of the public. This case concerned a licence for ‘projecting-kinetoscopes’ which stated that the film projectors could only be used with films that projected film patented by the licensing company, in a very strongly worded ruling the court stated ‘A restriction which would give to the plaintiff such a potential power for evil over an industry which must be recognized as an important element in the amusement life of the nation, under the conclusions we have stated in this opinion, is plainly void, because wholly without the scope and purpose of our patent laws, and because, if sustained, it would be gravely injurious to that public interest, which we have seen is more a favorite of the law than is the promotion of private fortunes’. Here it is interesting that the court took into account the ‘amusement life of the nation’ and did not restrict itself to purely commercial considerations.
While it was in 1968 that the US Supreme court confirmed that the scope of rights in a copyright work is just those rights outlined in the act, stating in Fortnightly v United Artists that ‘The Copyright Act does not give a copyright holder control over all uses of his copyrighted work …If a person, without authorization from the copyright holder, puts a copyrighted work to a use within the scope of one of these "exclusive rights," he infringes the copyright. If he puts the work to a use not enumerated in 1 [section 1 of the prevailing act], he does not infringe’. It was not until the 1990 case Lasercombe v Reynolds that the Supreme Court considered whether there was a defence of copyright misuse based on principles equivalent to Morton Salt. It established that there is, stating ‘since copyright and patent law serve parallel public interests, a ‘misuse’ defense should apply to infringement actions brought to vindicate either right’.
The striking similarity between the control that a EULA seeks to extend to avatars and other virtual items i.e. using copyright in a game system as a basis to restrict certain uses of an avatar (and other virtual items) that would ordinarily be permitted by virtue of that right, and cases that have been judged by the US supreme court strong suggests that not only are such terms un-enforceable but they that would be ruled misuse of copyright.
In certain instances the law protects they way that things are identified. The law can also protect associations with an identity such as reputation or ‘good will’. There are a wide range of examples of this type of law such as trademark, the European notion of moral rights in copyright, and US rights of publicity laws.
Now, if we assume that a person sells services within an online world - say they are a guide for new players of an MMORPG; they will be come associated with this trade by way of their avatar. As some laws protect the association between identities and trade it is possible that the avatar is protected in some way.
Trademark is an internationally recognized property which,
broadly speaking, grants certain monopoly rights in symbols, words or pictures
associated with a particular product or service. As with copyright there are
international agreements relating to trademark, such as the Paris Convention
and the 1994 GATT Agreement,
and state laws such as the Lanham Act
As Stephens (2002) has detailed, under US law our online guide is likely to enjoy protection under the Lanham Act by virtue of the fact that, at the very least, the name of their avatar will be unique in the virtual world and though its association with a service could be recognised as an unregistered trademark This would grant a monopoly right in the use of the avatar for commerce within the given virtual world. However while trademark is alienable, it is moot whether the same laws would, in them selves, enable the sale or licensing of the avatar due to the difficulties in maintain good will (in the case of a sale) and quality in the service (in the case of licensing) – though both points are arguable.
Applying rights of publicity laws to anyone in any circumstance is difficult. This is because the nature of the rights are based on the particularities of State law and because existing case law can be vague and in some cases contradictory (Haemmerli 1999), this said there is a possibility that rights of publicity do cover individuals and their avatars.
The question of the applicability of rights of publicity to an avatar has two be answered in two parts. First, whether and avatar would be seen as part of an individuals persona. Second, whether an individual in a virtual community would be seen to hold rights in their personality. As there is no UK equivalent to right of publicity (Boyd 2002) or any US federal statue, this analysis will restricted to general principles of US State law and specific laws were applicable.
The question of whether an avatar falls within the scope of a publicity right depends on the drafting of that right and its interpretation. Unless a state law defines rights of publicity as encompassing the use of a very specifically defined set of artefact that exclude and avatar then the most likely scope test that would be applied is whether and avatar is sufficient to identify an individual. It looks like one can argue that as an avatar does not look like an individual then it could never fall under these rights. However some courts have ruled that likeness is not a requirement. The key case here is Motschenbacher v Reynolds which examined whether under California state law a the use of a distinctively marked car in a commercial infringed a drivers right of publicity, finding that it did Judge Koelsch stated ‘that the driver is not identifiable as plaintiff is erroneous’ and of the relationship between the markings and persona ‘these markings were not only peculiar to the plaintiff's cars but they caused some persons to think the car in question was plaintiff's and to infer that the person driving the car was the plaintiff’. Hence it is conceivable that an avatar would be ruled in scope as people that interact with an avatar do identify it with an individual. However, Carpenter (2001) argues that the ‘identifiably’ test has been so inconsistent applied that is has become muddled and complete ineffective”. Yet if there is no test how would we know if these rights ever applied?
The second issue at stake here is whether rights would be granted to a player. In essence this comes down to the question of whether an individual is famous enough. The case often reference here is Midler v. Ford where Judge Noonan stated ‘We hold only that when a distinctive voice of a professional singer is widely known and is deliberately imitated in order to sell a product, the sellers have appropriated what is not theirs’ this has been interpreted as adding a ‘widely known’ test to publicity rights claims such as in Waits v. Frito Lay which held that widely known could be defined as ‘known to a large number of people throughout a relatively large geographic area’. But the judgment in Midler v. Ford did not use ‘widely know’ as a test for subsistence of rights in a particular individual, the judgement states (my italics):
need not and do not go so far as to hold that every imitation of a voice to
advertise merchandise is actionable. We hold only that when a distinctive voice of a professional singer is
widely known and is deliberately imitated in order to sell a product, the
sellers have appropriated what is not theirs and have committed a tort in
This is not the same as stating ‘We hold that only when…’ which would be a broad limitation of scope based on ‘widely known’ which is how the judgment seems to be interpreted. What’s more Noonan also stated ‘The human voice is one of the most palpable ways identity is manifested. We are all aware that a friend is at once known by a few words on the phone’.
So it is likely that a court could rule that a player is famous enough to enjoy rights of publicity. The simplest argument is that – if another person uses our guides avatar and successfully takes business from the player, then the success of this act means that the guide must have sufficient notoriety for their persona to be commanded effectively – that is the fact of successful transgress defines the minimal limit of fame.
Rights of publicity are negative rights; that is, rights of non-interference. They protect an individual from others exploiting that individual’s personality without their permission, hence they do not directly confer property rights on any given artefact, such as an avatar. But, rights of publicity are alienable.
So what if our virtual guide sells their publicity rights? If we grant that their avatar is part of their persona for the purposes of rights of publicity; then, if the guide sells these rights it seems reasonable to expect that the buyer would have claims on the guide’s avatar. A legal argument against this would be the that there is copyright pre-emption in the avatar, but, as shown above it is highly unlikely that there is copyright in the avatar – so there seems little reason to suppose that the avatar should not be transferred as part of this transaction, as the avatar substantially forms the persona in a given virtual world.
Given the architecture of current MMORPGs and present
This leaves the practice of avatar sales in a legal netherworld. Players don’t have the rights to sell avatars as abstract items of property and developer-publishers don’t have the rights to stop or regulate the trade. But money will continue to change hands. The law really must catch up.
So do we just make avatar into property ?
One reading of this legal analysis suggests that we should take an alternative approach. The relationship between expressions of persona and identity that rights of publicity try to capture resonate with the relationship between avatar and individual. What strikes many as odd is that what is granted under rights of publicity are fully alienable property rights. As Jacoby & Zimmerman (2002) put it – does it make sense that Tiger Woods could (in theory) own the persona of Michael Jordan ? Perhaps some things should not be understood as property.
A philosophical argument to support this position might suggest that rather than taking a Lockean \ labour-desert approach to avatars we should take a Hegelian view. That is we should see property as something that enables individuals to be autonomous. Taking into account both the necessarily mediated nature of relationships in virtual communities (Giese 1998; Scoville 1999) and the strength of identification between expression and person (including the bonds formed with the wider community) we may be motivated to construct a sui generis right of identity that applies, at the very least, to tokens of identity in virtual spaces (Giordano 1998). Hegel’s theory of property would suggest that something that is an expression of our persona which if controlled by another would significantly reduce our autonomy cannot be property ().
Does this apply to MMORPG avatars?
Ren Reynolds is a private researcher interested in the ethics of technology, computer games and virtual worlds. Research includes virtue and virtual action, cheating and the philosophical underpinning of virtual identity and property.
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 World Trade Agreement 1994 (establishing the WTO and including GATT Uruguay 1994): Annex 1C Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, Including Trade in Counterfeit Goods.
 15 U.S.C. §§ 1051 – 1127.
 Trade Marks Act 1994 which brought into
 Routh v. Webster (1847) 10 Beav. 561, 50 E.R. 698.
 Ind. Code § 32-36.
 Motschenbacher v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, 498 F.2d 821 (9th Cir. 1974).
 Midler v. Ford, 849 F. 2d 460 (9th Cir. 1988).
 Waits v. Frito Lay, 978 F. 2d 1093 (9th Cir. 1992).