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Picking apart the MetaPlace Bill of Rights

Samuel Axon

MetaPlace is not an MMOG. It's a platform for creating virtual spaces that can be used for anything the creators can imagine. As such, the traditional MMO EULA is completely inadequate. Raph Koster -- the head honcho on the MetaPlace project -- made that clear in a panel at AGDC08. So, the folks working on MetaPlace had to come up with a whole new set of rules -- rules that allow users ownership of their virtual property, for example. There's a veritable landmine of problems awaiting this endeavor, of course. That's not to say it's impossible. It's just going to be extremely challenging.

Koster published a first draft of the Terms of Service for MetaPlace on his blog the other day. It's based based on the Declaration of the Rights of Avatars that he conceived back in 2000. Readers of the MetaPlace ToS are likely to come away with two impressions. The first: that it's really cool and admirable and that in a general sense, Koster and friends are on the right track. Two is that the MetaPlace team seems to be underestimating just how epic a quest it's committed itself to.

We like much of what we see. The concept of users owning their in-game property is frankly revolutionary -- at least in the gaming world. We're always glad to see promises to protect users from gender and race discrimination. The document guarantees freedom of speech -- something which MMO players in general might be shocked to learn is totally absent in most MMOs. Some users have found out first hand what that absence means. The document also makes a reasonable attempt to respect the laws of all the nations of the world. Lofty, but admirable.

But there are problems. For example: the ToS guarantees players a right to their property within the game. On the other hand, it guarantees world creators the right to destroy their worlds at any moment for any reason with no liability to the players in them. Isn't that a contradiction? If a world builder destroys his or her world, doesn't that destroy the players' properties? Does this mean that the player has a right to his or her property unless the entire universe implodes? That property's not really worth anything if it can poof at any second.

In another place, we're told that Areae and world creators won't spy on us -- unless doing so is "reasonable." That's exactly the sort of language governments use to get away with all manner of privacy-related infractions. The ToS also promises that users can't be discriminated against based on sex, race, or national origin. Where is sexual orientation? The fact that we're asking that question demonstrates how subjective rights are.

Of course, none of this matters, because the world creators can override any of these rights for players if they want. That raises the question -- why have the rights for players to begin with? The rights for creators are a little more solid, generally, but they're still not without flaw. There's the "unreasonable snooping" bit. There's also a part that says the document should never infringe on other rights "retained" by the world creators. Doesn't say what outside (or inside) volition can grant those other rights, though! Uh oh.

We're not trying to be too hard on Koster and the MetaPlace team. We love the idea. We think they're on the right track. But the problem is that this sort of thing is so complicated -- dangerous, even -- that they probably need to hire an army of lawyers to put it together. Even then, there will still be situations the best lawyers in the world will never plan for because nothing like this has been done before. It's impossible to fully plan for the unknown.

Keep up the good work Raph Koster and friends, but it looks like you've got quite a bit left to do.

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