Sunday, November 26, 2006

Microtransactions & copyright

In followup from my earlier post on Copybot & copyright issues, here's some more stuff to consider.

First, off, Raph (where does he find the time?) once again has posted a thoughtful and lengthy set of thoughts on microtransations and copyright issues.

Raph points out that virtual world "objects" aren't objects at all, but only specific database entries, and that what you are getting when you transact is just the change of one or more fields in a database (corresponding to, say, gold pieces) in exchange for the changing of one or more other fields (say, incrementing 'num items' by one, and adding a pointer to 'Sword of +1 Pownage' to your array of inventory items).

I like his explanation, and it jives well with mine, which I posted here, which is that what you are buying is a sort of promisory note. A promise of a service to be delivered. i.e. "You give us your credit card number and authorize us to charge you $2, and we promise to change the fields in our database in an agreed upon way".

Raph goes on to talk about some of the more interesting issues that come into play when the bits are arranged in a specific fashion that may make them a work that is covered under the definition of copyright.

An analogy he draws is in that of books, where the book is a 'container' that you purchase, and the arrangements of words inside it is the copyright-covered item of value that you have acquired the right to read, but not copy, make an audio-recording version of for resale, etc.

These definitions work quite well. In the case of an MMO, you have an arrangement of bits that may be covered by copyright, sitting within a container that you do not own, but have paid for a promise of service. The service is letting you access those bits and do certain things with them.

In the case of second life, the person arranging the bits into a copyrighted work may or may not be the same person that owns the container (server storage). And that a local copy of the bits is made to your hard drive is immaterial. In that sense it's no different than copying a text version of Stephen King's latest book off the publisher's computer. That may or may not violate an agreement by which you got onto the publisher's computer, and regardless, it's still his copyrighted work.

Anyhow, Raph's post, while long, is worth reading. Nice to see a thorough analytical treatment of the subject, rather than the usual ranting.

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