Question of the Week: Do You Own Your MMO Character?

Posted: March 31, 2008 by Kendricke in General Game Concepts, IMGDC, Question of the Week, The Gaming Industry

In a brilliant roundtable at the IMGDC over the weekend, Richard Bartle lead a conversation regarding government interference in online games, specifically from the point of view of a game development studio.  The strong underlying question which was raised again and again throughout the session was “how far is too far” in regards to various areas of typical government regulation of various aspects of game design.

As part of the conversation, the subject of virtual property in online games was inevitably raised.  True to the theme of the session, the question was asked regarding how far was too far regarding potential government requirements referencing players owning their own property in online games.

Before I get into describing the actual responses from various game developers (which could truly be its own article in its own right), I’d be interested in finding out how (and why) players feel on the subject.

So, the Clockwork Question of the Week for March 31st is this: Do you “own” your character?  How so?  Why do you feel that way?

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Comments
  1. Tipa says:

    Do I own my characters? Of course! I don’t own her appearance, items, or stats — you can’t own something that does not exist. But I can own her experiences, her name, her stories and her history, and no company can ever take them from me or ever make them any less than they are to me.

    EQ2 might be full of evil halfling troubadors, but only one of them is mine. Only one of them is me. And since all the things that I claim as mine can be copyrighted, under law, I truly do own it.

  2. Kendricke says:

    So you only own the concept of your character…or you own the character in the game?

    Strip out the name and biography information, and you have a halfling on . Do you own that character, or merely the name and concept of “Tipa the evil halfling”?

    …and even assuming you do own such a concept, could you then claim your property rights have been infringed if I should decide to also make a halfling on my server named the same as your halfling? What if you decided to make a human templar on your server named Kendricke – could I then claim my intellectual property rights have been infringed upon?

    What do you actually “own” here? What rights do you actually have over that ownership?

  3. Kendricke says:

    Cameron,

    Excellent article (as always). Apparently we were ships passing in the night on this one…

  4. Thanks. 🙂

    It’s a hot topic at the moment… I expect this will be an interesting discussion as more people pick it up.

  5. Bowin says:

    No we don’t own our characters. It’s an account set up with monthly fees. It’s more like we rent them. If we owned them then we wouldn’t pay the monthly fee or have to answer to SOE. Yes we put the work into our characters, grinding levels, doing quest, putting things on and off the broker and ect. But as soon as you stop paying rent (or stop paying on your account) it’s not yours no more. To me this is rent not us owning. Maybe to some degree we pay for the environment our characters are in. Whatever the case we all pay monthly fees on EQ2.

    I don’t mind the fee because it help build up a forever changing world, keeps the up on the maintenance the game, and keeps out most hacker that just want to ruin it for everyone. Heck we have Chinese Gold Farmers for that.

  6. Tipa says:

    I believe I have an implied copyright on my character conception, yes. If I thought that the character was strongly identified with me, I might even trademark the name, since that was a product of my own creativity. If I made a human cleric called Kendricke, and started posting everywhere as Kendricke, would you feel I was infringing upon you, even though I would have just as much right to use the name of my character as you do for yours, even though ours would both be named Kendricke? I think you would object, and you might possibly be able to find a basis in copyright or trademark law. It would be clear to an average person that your claim on the name and identity of Kendricke would be greater than mine. I think it would also be clear to an average person that SOE would have no claim over the character of Kendricke the Cleric, only on the specific binary representation of same on their servers.

    I don’t believe this is a complicated idea at all. Your character is your intellectual property; it can be owned, and you can own it.

    *sigh* I guess I better take this to my blog.

  7. Rick says:

    That’s funny, I see it exactly opposite, Tipa. I’ve never felt like I own my character, or have any rights to anything outside the actual gameworld. I feel like my rights probably only extend to the specific binary representation of my character on their server. That’s totally a hunch, though. I wouldn’t dare to guess whether I’m right or wrong in a legal sense. I’m just giving my off-the-cuff opinion about how I feel about my characters.

    Outside the world, posting on message boards is different than your character in a game, don’t you think? Although there’s no monopoly on that either, until you go through the legal mumbo jumbo to officially claim a name. If I wanted to copyright the Kendricke name, and there were no previous claims to it, why couldn’t I register kendricke.com, or make a blog with the same name and promote it?

    Obviously, legions of Kendricke fans would hate me for doing it (and rightly so, it’s a bush-league move), but legally, I suspect it’s whoever files the paperwork and pays the fees first.

    I’m not a lawyer, but I suspect that you might have trouble copyrighting or trademarking a character that lives on a server owned by another company.

    When SOE wiped the equipment off our characters in the infamous Test Server wipe years ago, I was pissed, and I felt like Sony’s handling of the situation was extremely callous. I still dislike SOE for the way that was handled. However, I never questioned that it was their right to do it. I just didn’t like the WAY they did it.

    Interesting question.

  8. Tipa says:

    The conception of the character is yours. That’s stored in your brain. They could shut down and detonate all the EQ2 servers tomorrow morning, but I would still have my character. They can only have her bits; they will never have her.

    Dina’s adventures, and those of my other characters, are told in part on my blog. They are published; I own them, their adventures, everything I brought to the game remains mine. I give SOE nothing but my money, and my money is all they can have.

    Similarly for Kanda and Tipa on WoW; Tipa, Dera/Brita and Etha in EQ; Tarla and Lysistra on DAoC; they’re all mine; I own them.

  9. Laldail says:

    This would indeed be an interesting discussion to hear knowledgeable copyright experts discuss. I am not one of that description. However, I do have an opinion.

    While one might claim to own a concept of a character, in the pure sense of an imagined personality with personally penned stories, it would be a stretch to say that one owns the character itself if it exists only within a licensed and copyrighted artificial construct owned by someone else. In other words, unless you have paid a license fee and signed an agreement with SOE for intellectual rights to a specific character, any characters created by permission (EULA) within a game world owned by SOE would likely belong to SOE by default.

    While you can certainly claim ownership of a character concept, if that character exists and was conceived wholly within the game world of Norath (as an example), how can you possibly argue that the character is not derived from the intellectual creation of SOE? SOE, in all likelihood, will not really care or contest your claimed ownership, so long as your claim does not impact negatively on their intellectual property, at which time they may, indeed make a case for your unauthorized use of their world.

    I reiterate that this is simply my opinion on how I would think intellectual property would/should be protected.

  10. michael, St Erroneous says:

    @Tipa: Actually, given that those characters’ adventures and development occurred in the context of interactive fiction and its copyright backplot, it might be argued that any stories about them, published outside the context of that world, have the same status as fan-fiction.

    That is, derivative work, whose copyright status depends entirely on the whim of the creator of the originating work.

    If I think up a new character in, say, the Buffyverse, I can’t go around freely publishing or selling stories about that character without eliminating all of the Buffyness from those stories and that character – at least not without permission.

  11. Ogrebears says:

    I think i do own my characters. No one else can log in and play my characters with out my permission. Yes the company can log in to my characters every once and a while but normally only after i have petitioned that something is wrong with them. So essentially only i can play on them, i can do what ever i want to them. So ya i think there my property.

    i do see some vaild point against it. That in the end everything i do is govern by what ever company own the game.

  12. Kendricke says:

    Ogrebears,

    You believe you own your characters, that they are your property.

    Do you feel you have the right to sell your characters? They are your property, right? Property potentially has value. So, you can sell your property as you wish, right?

    What happens when a patch comes along that wipes out your characters? Can you sue the game studio for loss of value on “your property”? Why not?

    Why stop there. If you could sue over loss of value for a wiped character, couldn’t you sue over loss of value if your character class is nerfed? What if an item you spent time acquiring was suddenly easy to get – could you sue then because your virtual property’s relative value was reduced?

    Even without the lawsuits, what happens when you can’t access your property for any amount of time? Is it really your property if you can’t do anything with it – say when a server goes down?

  13. […] issue of virtual rights has been raised, first at Kendricke’s blog and then by Grimwell. Kendricke is bouncing off of ideas raised this past weekend at IMGDC, and I […]

  14. Rick says:

    Tipa, I don’t think what you said in comment #9 means you have any rights to your character. It means you have memories of your character, but that’s different than rights.

    michael, St. Erroneous is correct, in my I-am-not-a-lawyer opinion. The conception of your character is yours, but it is derivative of someone else’s universe. You can have your memories of that character, you can publish fiction about that character, but you can’t profit from that fiction without running the risk of copyright infringement.

  15. Rijacki says:

    I am with Tipa. In my opinion we own the -concept- of the character, the backstory, etc, but we don’t own the “toon” the actual representation of that character in the game world or any of the character’s in-game possessions.

    For the the sake of my argument here, let me establish -my- definitions for “toon” and character” (because I do see them viewed separately). The “toon” is the in-game representation including all of its possessions. The toon has no life outside of the game context. A “character” is the backstory and on-going story of the toon including its personality and interactions. The character can have the game related derivations stripped out and/or modified and still be able to stand apart from the game (or be recreated in another game or genre). The character is, in essence, the concept.

    I think, though, that comes down to a roleplayer vs non frame of mind. Roleplayers (even some of those who claim they aren’t roleplayers) do invest a bit more of their own mental concepts into the “character” than someone who just plays pixels on the screen, the “toon”.

    I am aware there are roleplayers who use the term “toon” to refer to their character and have just as much invested in them, but I needed the distinctions and the 2 common designations for in-game entities is handy.

    A character, if recreated by someone other than the originator wouldn’t have the exact same concept, the same “life”. Kendricke created on Everfrost server by player of Rijacki could appear as Kendricke on Guk created by player of Kendricke but it would be missing the same spark. It would be as much “Kendricke” as one of the professional Micheal Jackson impersonators are the real thing. They may look it, they may walk the moon walk, talk the high-pitched soft voice, they may even have the wonkey nose, you might not be able to see any discernible difference at all, but they still wouldn’t be Micheal, they wouldn’t have his blood rushing through their veins, his actual thoughts running through their heads.

    I personally don’t recreate characters in successive games, I like to explore the new, but my boyfriend does and other people I know do. So, if they didn’t own the character (the inner concept), how could they do so? How could Tipa exist in both EQ2 and WoW unless player of Tipa owned the concept, the character?

    In-game stuff, the toon and its possessions, though, is fully owned by the game company and can be done with as they wish. You can’t take that Sword of Swooping Swickery from LotR to WoW to EQ2 to Vanguard to EQ2 to SWG to Guild Wars to CoH to…. the character would have to be created (or recreated) in each “there” and obtain it, or its equivalent, in the means open to the character there.

    Selling…

    Yes, I could sell the character, as the concept, to someone else but it would be the concept alone without any link or derivation from a game. I could sell Rijacki in the form of stories (sans in game references) penned by me (or even penned by someone to whom I’d granted the rights).

    No, I can’t sell the in-game toon or its possessions unless directly authorised by the game owners (i.e. EQ2’s Exchange service). And, as long as my character is solely tied to those in-game trappings, I couldn’t sell it as well.

  16. Xeavn says:

    I think at least part of the issue is that current MMO’s do little to discourage the idea that players own thier characters, and so a good portion of the player base at least feels like they do, even if they know it isn’t true.

    After all the more connected I feel to my characters, the more I want to keep adventuring with them. If we didn’t feel a sense of possession or ownership in everything we had done with these characters, there wouldn’t be any reason to keep going after that next best piece of loot, or that cool looking hat. I know deep down that I don’t own my characters and they could be deleted at Sony’s whim, yet it isn’t something I have really considered a possibility.

    After all how many of you would keep playing your game of choice if your main character was deleted and the company that runs the game told you that you weren’t getting it back? I know that I would be gone and all account cancelled about 5 minutes later.

  17. Bowin says:

    I know this is off subject.

    BUT THAT WOULD BE COOL!!!

    If you can take that Sword of Swooping Swickery from LotR to WoW to EQ2 to Vanguard to EQ2 to SWG to Guild Wars to CoH.

    If you could take equipment from one game and apply it to another another game.

    Rijacki you might have something here. But I dont think we’ll see it happen…gosh darn it.

  18. Thallian says:

    @Tipa, very well thought out answers. I totally agree. I think you almost over-covered it. Good job 🙂

  19. Terqelton says:

    Owning the “concept” and owning the “character” are two different things.

    1. Do you own your character?
    Similar to Kendrike’s hypo, for all of you who think that you own your character, consider this: assume that several years from now, eq2 is no longer profitable for SOE. SOE decides to pull the plug on the servers. What happens to your character (property) at that point? SOE has directly denied you access to your property, without any due process. Does SOE have to compensate you for your loss?

    Your character exists only as bits on the SOE server. Even if you improve your character by leveling, acquiring mythical armor, etc., you are still only “improving” something that exists solely on the property of the SOE server. Go ask your lawyer what happens if you make an improvement to your neighbor’s house without their permission (hint – that improvement isn’t yours any more, you don’t compensation, and you can’t take your improvements back).

    Copyright or Trademark law isn’t going to save your toon. You can only enforce a copyright assuming that you actually own the original. So you basically come full circle – Is your character actually your property? If not, then you have no rights to stop anyone from copying the character. (Also, you can’t copyright names & short phrases, so that pretty much eliminates your character name from consideration).

    As far as trademarks go, what goods/services are you providing? Trademarks are a source identifier, to prevent public confusion about the origin of goods and services. What goods/services does your character provide? And again, if you don’t own the character, you have nothing to enforce.

    IMHO, no, you don’t own your character. You “lease” your character (or the space on which your character is saved) from SOE. You can exclude others from using it, but you can’t transfer the lease (not without permission) AND, at the end of the lease, you get nothing. Any improvements to the character (or the space on which it is saved) belong to the owner.

    Do you own the “concept” of your character?
    Maybe, but here is the catch on that one: any adventures that you have with your character in EQ2, once exported, arguably become a derivative work from SOE’s copyrighted work, EQ2. Rijacki nailed that one – you better make sure ANY reference to SOE’s copyrights is removed. Otherwise, you are going to be paying some big royalties, or enjoined for the duration of the copyright.

    Again, IMHO, this situation is more akin to leasing property, than actually owning property. You have the rights that are granted to you by the owner (which is why the EULA is inescapably tied to this discussion), and nothing else. At the end of your lease term, you have nothing.

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