Friday, May 14, 2010

Legal Jungle for Virtual Worlds? An Expert Speaks

Roundtable May 3 , 2010
Location: Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable

VWER recently hosted Stephen Wu, known as Legal Writer in Second Life and a partner in the Silicon Valley law firm Cooke Kobrick & Wu LLP.

Wu explained that his "practice includes intellectual property and commercial litigation. My IP cases include trade secret, trademark, and copyright cases."

This meeting provided an excellent opportunity to quiz an attorney about some of the most vexing legal issues, and Wu told his that his opinions were "offered for informational purposes only and is not legal advice. Please consult an attorney if you have questions about your specific situation." That said, we were excited to glimpse the frontiers of jurisprudence that Wu and his colleagues confront in courtrooms.

Legal Problems in a New World

It's a difficult moment for them, since as Wu stated "I have seen the legal profession have trouble grappling with technology issues such as electronic discovery and digital evidence. Rapid and dramatic changes in technology may, in future decades, become overwhelming for the profession."

SL's international clientele makes legal matters even more complex. Wu noted that "Some countries may have laws making some contract terms written by U.S. companies unenforceable. In addition, businesses may need to comply with foreign privacy laws."

Among concerns for lawmakers, Wu pointed out that "For instance, governments are worried about money laundering in VWs."

I've often been curious about this issue. How on earth could a virtual currency be tracked across multiple transactions, then split between several avatars and then cashed out? In a time when we cannot keep track of stock derivatives for what happened with the Greek debt, I doubt that we'll ever track and control these new forms of income.

IP & Copyright

Several participants wished to know if greater content protection might be provided by Linden Lab. Wu felt it would be difficult, and if Linden [Lab] was unwilling to implement a system like that, you may need to find a different VW that is willing to offer that kind of protection. In other words, you may have to vote with your feet."

Regarding the Eros LLC case against Linden Lab (one of several, such as Evans et. al vs. Linden Lab and Fahy v. Linden Lab, that Tateru Nino has reported in her posts at Massively), Wu opined that Stroker Serpentine had previously brought suit against those copying his creations. In such cases "There is a section in the Copyright Act, which may be useful here." He continued "However, if there is not a contract it is difficult to prove." Finally, he qualified this statement as mere opinion and not legal advice, a good thing for an attorney to do in such a charged environment where legal precedent may not apply.

Terms of Service

As for complaints about Linden Terms of Service being excessively restrictive or altered post-facto for those who signed in under an earlier contract (what I and some wags and cynics might term a bait-and-switch tactic):

"One thing to be aware of is that Linden can restrict what you can do by contract, but there are limits to what Linden can do. If their terms of service place unreasonable conditions on use and the TOS terms are seen as unfair, it is more difficult for Linden to enforce restrictive terms.The restrictions may be challenged as unfair or deceptive trade practices."

Regarding the new third-party viewer policy, host AJ Brooks asked, "The user of the 3rd party viewer is not actually 'at fault' in any way in this policy then?"

Wu replied "Yes, that is what I am seeing at the moment. This policy could have been a lot stronger in terms of restricting non-creators from exporting objects." He added, regarding an export feature, "but if the Lindens' own software permitted non-creators to export objects, while third party viewers could not, then there might be an issue under competition (antitrust) law if that was a critical feature for users. It may also rise to the level of an unfair or deceptive trade practice."

This could make for some good television:

New Linden Lab Spokesman?

In other words, the Eros LLC case could be only the start of a much longer series of legal battles for Linden Lab. You can read the entire transcript of our meeting here.

PS to William Shatner: that is a derivative work and no infringement is intended. And if it ticks you off, come lay a beating on me. I have always wanted to get my butt kicked by Captain Kirk.

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