Though the U.S. Supreme Court cut back this week on Americans’ rights to sue for equal pay in the real-world workplace, our rights to sue for wrongs visited upon our imaginary selves in imaginary game worlds made some modestly countervailing gains.
“This has been one of the most important weeks in US virtual-world law in memory, perhaps ever,” says S. Gregory Boyd, an intellectual property attorney and games law expert at Kenyon & Kenyon.
Defendants IGE and Linden Labs each declined comment on the case against it, stating that it does not comment on pending litigation.
I have written before on the subject of real money trade in virtual worlds, both in a November 2005 Fortune feature story (“From Megs to Riches”), available here, and in a November 27, 2006 blog posting, available here, about the “Anshe Chung,” who is believed to be the first person to accumulate $1 million worth of real value entirely through machinations inside an online world (Second Life).
While some worlds, like Second Life, permit and facilitate real money trade, most, like World of Warcraft, forbid it. Still others, like Sony Online Entertainment’s EverQuest, have attempted to offer subscribers the choice of operating in versions of the world where it is permitted and other versions where it isn’t. (SOE is ultimately owned by Sony (SNE).)
In the suit, however, Hernandez alleges that IGE, which is based in Hong Kong but has offices in Miami, Boca Raton, and Beverly Hills, is much more than a mere broker. In World of Warcraft, players can earn in-game currency, called gold, and other virtual items that bestow in-game powers or status by performing certain feats. The complaint alleges that IGE contracts with “hundreds” of “gold farmers” who are “often citizens of developing third world countries who spend up to 14 hours per day, or more, logged onto World of Warcraft collecting resources and World of Warcraft gold.” (Best story I’ve seen on the phenomenon of gold farming in China is a December 2005 New York Times article, available here.) Hernandez’s complaint claims that the IGE’s gold farmers use accounts that “are paid for, or controlled, directly or indirectly,” by IGE. He then accuses IGE of acting in a conspiracy with those gold farmers in ways that violate the consumer protection laws of Florida and the other 49 states, D.C., and Puerto Rico, which generally forbid “unlawful, unfair, unconscionable, deceptive and fraudulent business practices.”
Boyd, of Kenyon & Kenyon, says its hard to comment on the Hernandez case at such an early stage, but does say this: “Traditionally, the players have been harmed by this type of activity and not really had a voice against the people ruining the economies and diminishing the game play experience. Hopefully, this type of legal action will give them that voice.”
Well, readers, how do you feel about these unusual lawsuits, and how they should come out?