I just recently came across a posting by Dusan Writer (11.02.07) in which he was talking about real death, avatar death and the absence of symbols in the passage of people within virtual spaces. As part of this however he brings up an interesting prospect on the nature of being virtual. Dusan wrote “Many of us equate the avatar with a user, a one-to-one relationship. But what happens when one avatar is run by more than one person?”.
Essentially what he was talking about here is the right of avatars to be declared legal entities under the law. While this may seem inappropriate under the law, the precedent for this has already been established in the form of corporations who have for centuries been considered to be legal persons. In fact the opportunity for the creation of new law in this domain isn’t quite as far off as people would generally think.
Consider the ongoing practice in Second Life of corporations to establish one or more avatars whose function is specifically to hold land and create content (terraform land, buildings, programming, graphics development, etc..). While this is specifically against the Second Life terms of service the practice is becoming more wide spread owing to the not so unique issue of employee turnover within corporations.
On a small scale it has been an ongoing issue that when two or more business partners in SL split, the assets go to the owner irrespective of copyright and intellectual property. So for example, if I create a development complex for a business and the person to who I turn the creation over to leaves the company, that person could technically walk away with copyright and intellectual property that was never specifically contracted to him/her in the first place. However, because they are the owner, they could take everything and run leaving the business high and dry with very little recourse.
To combat this, businesses have taken to setting up ‘administrative’ accounts for which the organization has a greater degree of control rather than the individual. So when an employee leaves, the organization can ‘lock out’ someone from their various accounts and once a replacement is hired, put that new person into the same avatar role as the previous person. As an aside: Yes I’m aware of the complexities that involves and how easy it would be to circumnavigate however at the moment this is the level to which the technology allows us to establish some level of audit and accountability.
So herein becomes the problem: I have an avatar which I use for both work and off hours. And lets say just for fun that I created my avatar first and the company I work for developed a presence after the fact. I create some form of intellectual property using that avatar which then develops to the point where it can be monetized – who owns the IP?
Immediately we are into a turf war over legal terms of service because ever since Mr. Gates pulled out the rug from under IBM with the introduction of DOS, most organizations now include terms in their employee contracts that say any IP developed using company resources belong to the organization and not the employee. Loosely translated this applies to pretty much everything someone does so long as a single dollar of value can be traced back to the organization for which that person works. So once an avatar which is used for both work and play starts to create things the organization’s terms of service and Second Life’s terms of service immediately are irreconcilable as they contain two mutually exclusive provisions for copyright and IP.
The assignment of legal standing of an avatar then gets called into question and is something that eventually needs to be clarified in terms of a right to own and control IP. However businesses have a genuine need that such rights must necessarily survive the death of the agent behind the avatar – essentially having the requirement to treat an avatar as a business within a business each of which have the same set of legal rights, privileges, and obligations.
This opens up a whole new level of complexity within society then because if an avatar has the right to control copyright and IP independent of the agent behind the avatar, then it is not too far a walk to establish that such avatars would necessarily have the right to purchase real assets (land, other businesses) for which current legislative and regulatory rules and regulations are not adapted to address.
For example: Persons can marry; Businesses can merge; so Avatars with legal status as individuals under the law and whom are necessarily neither persons nor businesses can …. what ? marge? Its not exactly going to be simple having to sort out all of these issues at a time when technology is the driving force behind social adaptation rather than social narratives. It is no wonder post-modern ideologies have replaced traditionalism as the dominate mechanism for adaptation as it seems to be the only mechanism by which individuals (real individuals) can cope with ideals that have no easy method for reconciliation.