Turn Life’s Lemons Into Virtual Lemonade

When life throws you lemons, what can you do? A few options exist. Firstly, you can do as they say and make lemonade, but that is just way too cliché. Secondly, you can take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing, end them; of course this Shakespearean suicidal approach (from Hamlet’s famous “To Be or Not To Be” soliloquy) is never the best option. Finally, you can start your life afresh in a 3-dimensional virtual world called “Second Life”, an online platform that mimics life in the real world. As you will find out, this final option is probably the best choice as our society cruises further into the 21st century.

As its name suggests, Second Life provides an opportunity to live a second life in a virtual form, separate and apart from any aspect of the “physical” world. Online users who sign up for this experience become “residents” in the Second Life virtual world. These residents are then able to create their own onscreen graphic characters known as avatars. It is through these avatars that residents are able to navigate this virtual world and interact with millions of other residents while creating, designing, buying and selling any virtual objects they want along the way.

What sets Second Life apart from other virtual worlds on the Internet is that its objective is not that of a typical game. There is no winning or losing. There are no scores or levels to conquer. The objective is simply to live a second life in a world that simulates our very own physical realm, and it is the residents of Second Life who create all of the virtual objects and infrastructure found within the experience including virtual buildings, beaches, nightclubs and roads-just to name a few.

Second Life also has its own internal currency called the Linden dollar, which is named after Linden Lab, the company behind the development of the service. The Linden dollar can actually be exchanged for U.S. currency at online currency exchanges at a floating exchange rate of about 270 Lindens to 1 U.S. dollar. Additionally, currency can also be traded within Second Life at a virtual exchange location called the LindeX where currency can be bought and sold using credit cards or Paypal.

In addition, business opportunities are abundant in Second Life. Residents can start up and run their own businesses or seek employment elsewhere in order to generate Linden dollars. There are no limitations on the types of virtual employment opportunities available, and they can even be facilitated through virtual staffing agencies. The types of jobs available include nightclub promoters, landscapers, theme park developers, car manufacturers, tattooists, fashion designers and thousands of others. Residents can buy and sell everything from virtual houses, property, body parts, labour, and other services including sex. This real world commoditization of the virtual world has fostered a culture of limitless innovation and profit making. This has allowed Second Life to support an economy of its own where millions of real U.S. dollars exchange hands every month through this commerce, making many virtual residents real world millionaires.

Second Life’s first reported millionaire operates out of China through an avatar named “Anshe Chung”. Anshe Chung began her fortune by making small-scale purchases of virtual real estate, which she then subdivided for rent and sale to other residents for Linden dollars. Today, Anshe Chung focuses on developing and selling virtual properties to many real world mega corporations who are actually interested in establishing a genuine presence in this virtual world. As unreal as this may sound, it is not something to laugh about. After all, consider what it would mean for corporate planners to be able to experiment with models of their suppliers, customers and employees in a virtual world.

Many well-known corporations have already made their mark in Second Life. MTV has purchased virtual land and developed a nightclub in Second Life. Toyota Motor Corp. also has an established presence, which sells digital cars for residents to customize. IBM has purchased 12 islands, one of which is used privately to host business events for its global employees with Second Life accounts to engage in sensitive proprietary discussions and conferences without requiring any physical travel.

Some countries are even beginning to establish a diplomatic presence within Second Life. For example, in May 2007, the Swedish Government opened up the world’s first virtual embassy in Second Life. Although Sweden’s virtual embassy will not issue passports or visas, it will serve to instruct Second Life visitors on how to obtain such documents in the real world, and provide a portal to web-based information about Sweden. Similarly, the Government of Estonia is investing over $8,700 in developing a virtual Second Life embassy as well. These countries pride themselves on being at the forefront of technology, and this is an opportunity to perpetuate this reputation in a virtual world that is likely to become even more complex over time. This begs the question of what legal implications will this have for the future?

IP issues in Second Life are worth mentioning. The developers of Second Life have provided through the terms of service that all the IP rights are to extend to all users of the service for all creations made by the users. This means that once a Second Life user creates something, that resident’s IP right is protected both on and offline and will extend to commercial or non-commercial use of whatever is created. However, despite this, there still exist problems with guaranteeing actual enforcement of such IP protection within Second Life. Moreover, there exists potential trademark infringement as corporate brand owners are being falsely represented in the form of virtual goods, which are sold for profit by users in Second Life. These include virtual iPods, Ferraris, and Rolex watches amongst others. Whether these brand owners will be forced to crack down on counterfeits in Second Life like they do in the real world remains to be seen for now.

Other foreseeable legal considerations for the future are endless. Take family and property law for example. Residents in Second Life can “marry” through ceremonies. Virtual assets owned by the marrying parties may need to be dealt with specifically in agreements in the event of separation or “divorce”. Moreover, property encroachments in Second Life may become more frequent as users continue to build more virtual real estate assets on others user’s virtual property. Last but not least, matters of national security may also be of relevance as several real world intelligence services have suggested that Second Life can serve as a terrorist hub to recruit others and mimic real life terrorism. Terrorism experts have confirmed the possibility of “Jihad terrorists” assuming identities within Second Life to build a community of extremists and plan real world atrocities. Clearly there exist many other future legal considerations, but it is impossible to mention all of them.

Technology is now evolving to the point where the real world is being blurred with the virtual world. Although risks exist with the introduction of any revolution, we should be able to minimize these risks and savour the benefits by keeping our laws attuned with technological advancement, and turning virtual lemons into lemonade for everyone.

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