Intellectual property rights in community based video games


Andrew Reynolds (UK)



Massively Multiplayer On-line Role Playing Games (MMORPG) have developed from simple goal oriented games into complex networks of social, economic and legal relationships between players and the organizations that design, develop, market and maintain these worlds. At present the web of rights and responsibilities that do, and potentially should, exist between actors in the game ecosystem is both nebulous and in a state of rapid change.

This paper explores issues of rights in MMORPG’s. The paper will examine in detail the rights that pertain to the intellectual property generated as a result of individuals participating in a game community e.g. players’ in-game characters.

Practical aspects of the paper will be based on an examination of two current, highly popular games: Ultima On-line and Everquest. Theoretical aspects of the paper will be xxx philosophical basis of contract law, and deontological ethics in general.

The paper will also locate its arguments within two broader discussions. First, the question of ethics within code and the attendant responsibilities associated with the design, development maintenance of that code. Second, the debate around community generated IPR e.g. OpenSource, community created databases etc.

MMORPG’s and Limits of Action

MMORPG’s also known as Persistent World Games are virtual environments made up of a world maintained on central computers; and player characters generated in the world through players running game software, usually on a personal computer connected periodically to the servers using a wide area network, usually the internet.

The range of actions that player characters can undertake within a game e.g. speed of movement, damage caused to other player characters during conflict, and the level of in-game character-to-character communication, are limited to the modes of interaction made available through the game software and the limits of contemporary CIT.

There are also loose social restraints on the actions of individuals e.g. picking on weaker characters could result in sanctions such as social exclusion or even the harming or destruction of a character by other members of the community acting as a kind of ad hoc law enforcement agency.

To some degree there is also a social relationship between the game players and the game developers. This is chiefly though game communities but also through direct action and in one famous case protest action within the game space itself.

Lastly, certain extra-game actions such as the assignment of a player character to another individual are limited by the contract between game players and the game provider (and to some degree the game code). However in this particular case there are legal disputes around issues of the rights of ownership of and assignment of the IPR associated with game characters and artefacts.

Enabling or limiting action implies a right and \ or responsibility. The degrees of freedom in a game as a whole imply an ethical stance taken by the game developer and the game players themselves. Just as the fictional world of the game is an analogue of a political system, the mixed real \ virtual ecosystem centred on a game can also be seen as an analogy of a political system. These parallels will be used in the paper to illuminate potential systems that current games could be said to be towards and hence highlight potential ethical discontinuities.

Character ownership

Due to the limits of action noted above and the passion with which some individuals play these games, the abilities of individual player characters are highly valued within a game community. Over time player characters increase in both personal and potentially economic value because players can alter the characteristics of their character through participating in the game community with both persistence and skill. For example, through successful completion of a task a player can acquire character attributes that in turn modify the way that the player can interact with the environment e.g. increased fighting capabilities. The player can also accumulate in-game artefacts such as swords or gold. At a social level player characters also generate a level of reputation with the game community or some part thereof.


Sony prohibits the sale of player characters and artefacts. However despite this a recent report demonstrated that the value of the real world economy that surrounds EverQuest, as measured by eBay transactions, would place the world of EverQuest 77th in the league table of global economies, one place behind Russia.

Sony’s argument for banning extra-game trading is that this distorts game play. That is Sony maintain that they are protecting a greater good i.e. the rights of their ‘citizens’, and that they have a duty to do so.

Any game that does explicitly enable a real world economy e.g. Project Entropia – a game currently in development that intends to use PED’s (Project Entropy Dollars) a virtual currency that will bought with real currency, will carry with it the responsibly commensurate with this. That is, one would expect the game system to use similar quality mechanism as those used by financial institutions not only to protect financial transactions but to protect the economic value of characters and artefacts.


Given the present state of MMORPG’s and the limits of action within these games Sony’s present position is ethically defensible. However, if Sony were itself to seek to sell EverQuest or any part there of their position would come under question.

Further as games progress in sophistication and the scope for individual to create unique characters and artefacts within the game world grows, game developer’s argument for ownership of this IPR becomes less tenable. In the creation of future games, developers need to take this into account and modify their organizational structure, development methodologies, game design and legal stance accordingly.

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