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Virtual Counterfeits

Can you sell counterfeits of an imaginary object?  Absolutely, if demand exists in a virtual world -- like that of EverQuest2. 

According to New Scientist, prices for equipment like the Dark Shield of the Void dropped precipitously after some gamers discovered a way to make unauthorized copies.  And when we say "prices," we're not just talking Monopoly money -- armor, weapons, and even characters are bought and sold for real as well as virtual cash. 

So are the virtual cops on the case, or is this the online equivalent of Canal Street?  Apparently programmers try to catch and correct bugs in the system as soon as possible, but in the meantime gamers themselves play the role of fashion police:

Computer gaming expert and keen gamer Edward Castronova at Indiana University, US, says duplication flaws are not uncommon in online games and notes that the virtual communities in such games can often regulate themselves, agreeing not to exploit such flaws to maintain playability.

"Sometimes social norms can be effective," he told New Scientist. "Everyone may know that a dupe exists but it's like 'who cares?'"

In other words, fighting with a fake Wand of the Living Flame is like showing up at Fashion Week with a knockoff Vuitton

Could there be real-world legal consequences?  Well, software is subject to copyright, so its possible that if hackers copied and modified code there could be a cause of action.  In addition, such behavior could violate licensing agreements. 

But illegal or simply illicit, the concept of distinguishing a "real" virtual object from a "fake" one is a mindbender.


Your questions about unintended duplication is an example of an in-world good bearing, in effect, an in-world mark. In a sense, in that example, the mark is a pefect indicator of quality, perhaps even of "source," but the item itself is unauthorized. Perhaps the best analogy is an authorized manufacturer of mark-bearing goods who acts ultra vires to make more than the licensing agreement allows.

There is also a context in which "real" versus "fake" in a virtual world is potentially easier to disinguish. That's the case of the authorized versus unauthorized creation in the world of items bearing a real-life mark. Some such items will be produced with the consent of the mark owner as a way of reaching audiences in the world. Others will be unauthorized, made by other players for fun or for profit.

Many interesting questions arise. One set are the Marvel v. NCSoft issues: Is the recreation by a player of a real-life mark "use in commerce" by the player? By the virtual world company? What additional facts would be needed to answer this question in litigation?

There are also gatekeeper issues: If a virtual world company screens player-created content, what responsibility does it have to prevent in-world knockoffs of real-life marks? Does it matter whether the marks are being used in a trademark sense to indicate (falsely) the source of purely virtual in-world goods? Or are uses of the mark for merchandising and purely aesthetic purposes troubling, too?

Most speculatively, what about virtual trademarks? Second Life lets players make items that aren't duplicable (easily). There's a thriving market in one-of-a-kinds and limited editions. People have discussed using cryptographic signatures to produce unforgeable indications of the maker of a particular item. There.com lets players upload objects and sell them to other players; the first player to upload something gets an in-world IP right to prevent anyone else from uploading it. That right acts like an interesting amalgam of trademark, copyright, and patent.

Interesting issues all.

Susan, your link for "New Scientist" goes to the front page of an Everquest fan site -- could you post the link of the New Scientist article you refer to? I'm interested in reading it. Thx :)

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