Skip to main content
Unpublished Paper
Leave Those Orcs Alone: Property Rights in Virtual Worlds
ExpressO (2008)
  • Kevin E Deenihan, University of California, Los Angeles
Conversion of property is a familiar piece of law. What about conversion of virtual property? In 2006, a man filed suit claiming theft of virtual real estate he maintained in a Virtual World. The Judge may well have wondered: is this property law? Intellectual property? Torts? Contract? When should the law even apply to Virtual Worlds at all? New societies populated by millions of people have sprung up in the online context. Their inhabitants buy goods, trade with each other, and form complex self-regulating organizations and economic systems. All are activities governed in the real world by centuries of legal precedent and statutory law. The overwhelming weight of academic legal opinion has argued for treating virtual acquisitions and disputes as equally subject to the real world legal system. This article argues that extending a real world legal system to these Virtual Worlds would be an economic and theoretical mistake. Legal systems must be tailored to suit the needs of the societies that use them. Virtual Worlds are a potent example of the way different people -- even those born under and otherwise subject to western law -- can demand drastically separate legal systems when circumstances require. The evidence shows how the costs of appending static legal protection to fluid notions of online property would be torturous for companies and unhelpful for users. Benefits would be both fleeting and concentrated in the wrong users. This dramatically different cost/benefit picture results from the highly different functions of property in the virtual context. Users acquire virtual property for fun, for socialization, or for status. Real world property systems protect the sanctity of the home, guarantee shelter, and encourage investment. Where massacres are encouraged and treachery is a blast, grafting on existing legal systems makes little sense. Instead, the companies and users who run and populate these worlds have already evolved sophisticated quasi-legal systems through the use of the End-User License Agreement and informal mechanisms of negotiation. Analysis of the way users and developers negotiate -- even under tremendous power disparities -- reveals how a legal system can evolve from nothing into a complicated set of norms and standards. The resulting picture casts a new light on how law evolves, and on how legal structures can emerge over the space of just a few years. As an exercise in comparative law, their growing legal norms cast a new light on the underpinnings of real world legal systems. The evidence strongly suggests that, if left alone, these Virtual Worlds will develop their own efficient property systems.
Publication Date
March 25, 2008
Citation Information
Kevin E Deenihan. "Leave Those Orcs Alone: Property Rights in Virtual Worlds" ExpressO (2008)
Available at: