What property rights in virtual resources might look like

Important essay:

John W. Nelson. 2009. “The Virtual Property Problem: What property rights in virtual resources might look like, how they might work, and why they are a bad idea”


“Virtual property’ is a solution looking for a problem. Arguments justifying ‘virtual property’ lie among three common themes — Lockean labor theory, theft protection and deterrence, and market efficiency. This paper goes beyond those who advocate for or against the creation of ‘virtual property.’ First, Locke’s labor theory is dismissed as a justification. Then, two models of what property rights may look like when applied to virtual resources are created. These models are then applied to six different virtual world scenarios in order to see the effects of ‘virtual property.’ Finally, the failure of property rights to benefit the users, developers, and virtual resources of virtual worlds is explained.”

3 Comments What property rights in virtual resources might look like

  1. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    Kevin Carson, via email:

    I confess I had trouble getting into the issue because I’m not a gamer
    and the idea of resources in virtual worlds seems of limited relevance
    to me. But it strikes me that Nelson, at least for the sake of
    argument, accepts the legal doctrines and jurisprudence attached to
    current copyright law, and then simply evaluates whether they’re
    applicable to virtual property. Since I consider all the moral
    justifications of copyright to be invalid, the invalidity of extending
    it to virtual property would seem to follow as a matter of course.

    I also didn’t see the point, in particular, of extending real-world
    law to cover acts of in-game theft, since the rules of any game are to
    some extent arbitrary and accepted by the players for the sake of the
    game itself. For the sake of simulating the world in some chosen
    particulars, all sorts of rules like gravity and various forms of
    artificial scarcity are imposed which do not by the nature of the case
    obtain in the virtual world. Strictly speaking, the virtual world
    could be the ultimate gnostic realm of unlimited potential and
    abundance–no gravity, the possibility of achieving unlimited
    character traits and wealth with no effort, the availability of an
    infinite stock of resources for all players, etc. By the nature of
    things, all scarcities in the virtual world are artificial. And by
    the very act of playing a game, the players tacitly submit to the
    artificial scarcities created by the game for the sake of

    Kevin Carson
    Center for a Stateless Society http://c4ss.org

  2. AvatarRobert Bloomfield

    I just don’t understand the nature of this debate, in part because I don’t see what games and virtual worlds have to do with the issue. If you take Kevin Carson’s extreme view (all moral justifications of copyright are invalid), then the issue is moot. But given the current state of law in the US (and I believe in most other countries), people have property rights over all sorts of things that you can’t hold in your hand, and if you wish you can call ‘virtual.’ Why is an object I create using the Second Life interface different from the document I create in the Microsoft Word interface, or a music file created using a mixing board? All virtual, and (under current law) the latter two clearly allow me property rights. The only distinction I can see is that the latter two can be used in any number of contexts, while Second Life content is currently hard to use outside of Second Life.

  3. AvatarSam Rose

    If we back up one scale in the view, it seems that first it is up the to majority of inhabitants of a virtual “world” to decide what property laws look like, and how they operate.

    It’s not a huge issue for me either, but if it were, I would advocate for virtual world citizen governance. Since many of the natural laws of physical reality can be defied or recreated in virtual worlds, it makes sense that those people who populate those places collectively decide what rules govern them. If some type of theft happens that can be traced physically back to this world happens, then it seems reasonable to let laws here dictate. But, if not, then those who have invested time and resources should govern themselves.

    So, if the majority of virtual world inhabitants decide property rights are ridiculous in a system where copies of everything are close to zero cost, then that is there right to do so. This is especially relevant if the virtual world system relies mostly on infrastructure from users (disk space, bandwidth, etc). If those resources are mostly provided by a company/service, that company will have likely already established their governance and final authority over the system long ago.

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