Playable Worlds’ Raph Koster on who really owns all the stuff inside your video games

    
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Who owns the stuff inside video games? That’s the subject of Raph Koster’s latest blog. Koster, of course, is a long-time MMO developer, and he’s currently at the helm of a new studio, Playable Worlds, which is building a sandbox MMORPG atop its own proprietary metaverse – if the world doesn’t fully ruin the term first. His last couple of articles have been all about how objects in games are created and identified; this piece is ostensibly all about ownership, although it’s just as much about economics.

“Ownership of anything digital is illusory, and always will be,” he begins, arguing that data might need a physical container, but it’s perfectly replicable and an infinite resource – and valuable. And he doesn’t necessarily mean through crypto-esque artificial scarcity, although that’s definitely something he clearly has opinions on.

“To oversimplify, goods that only one person can have are called ‘rivalrous goods’, and goods that many people can have at the same time are ‘non-rival,'” he says. “There’s also the notion of ‘Veblen goods’ which are items that have increased value just because they signal status. Think of a really fashionable shoe – they aren’t any more useful than any other shoe, but they are more ‘valuable’ because they are high-end, scarce, and fancy. You get the fancy shoe because it shows off the fact that you can get one. All digital content, like all information, is effectively a non-rival good. But most ideas about ‘decentralized object ownership’ or about ‘virtual items’ in general are trying to turn them back into rival goods or even (in the case of NFTs) Veblen goods.”

His examples this round are good; he compares digital goods to songs or books, noting that buying a book means that you “own the container and not the content.” Similarly, digital objects in a video game are really just copyrighted arrangements of data, and you don’t own a virtual object, just the container for its copy in a database stored somewhere else.

“As a result, digital stuff actually challenges the notion of ownership itself. You can’t have a doctrine of first sale for data, only for its container. Instead, we live in a world of software licenses, which has gradually evolved into subscribing to every bit of software that can get away with it. Further, because ‘software eats everything,’ we are seeing that license regime creep the other way and start making containers into something protected by copyright instead of being objects. […] Where does this leave you with digital object ownership? The only real answer is ‘uncomfortable.’ Because even when you explore cutting edge stuff like NFTs; delve into the controversies over right-click-save-as, pump-and-dumps, or energy consumption; whether you admire the tidy Veblen good markets around high end generative art NFTs or not – you still run headlong into the fact that all that tech is going to collide with copyright law in a messy way. […] In other words, ownership is actually just a tiny category in the larger issue of governance. It’s a huge category error to believe that tech can solve governance. But that hasn’t stopped idealistic technologists – myself included! – from trying.”

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Jon Wax

Sounds like a mess waiting to happen.

Looking at different IP in the works, if this Alternative Environment stuff really goes all the way, artists like me will be looking to port our created and owned content into said Environment.

The devs don’t own that stuff, the player does. And trying to create an Alternative Environment that doesn’t include player created content will fail.

Trying to moderate all the inevitable content will be a nightmare.

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Wilhelm Arcturus

This will all be moot when the terms of service specifically say that the company owns everything and that you have no rights at all with regards to content, terms to which you will have to agree in order to log in.

And, honestly, it has to be that way because otherwise you get into all sorts of complications if the company bans somebody from the game who owns things within it or changes how it treats an item or takes something rare and makes it common, devaluing the item in the process.

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Raph Koster

I don’t use that example (banning) but I do say basically the same thing using a different example.

MurderHobo
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MurderHobo

So, what’s to be done with it? You’ve presented what seems to be a problem with regard to current law and the ideal of a metaverse where individuals can have some measure of ownership over their labor within the ‘verse.

Is there a solution? A workaround? Do you have a proposal? This issue has bothered me since the MU* days, hanging around the game shop after hours brainstorming how to script out systems for our ‘perfect’ MU*. I have never been sanguine about the fact that as players we have no claim or stake in our contribution to a persistent online world.

Of course answering that question might spill valuable trade secrets.

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Schmidt.Capela

This depends on the country’s legal framework and the circumstances behind how you got to “own” the content. For example, I personally know someone here in Brazil who took Riot to the courts after being banned and got a refund of all the microtransactions he purchased in the game (and yeah, it was enough to make it worth starting a lawsuit over it).

Heck, a lot of MMO EULAs and TOSes aren’t fully enforceable here because we have some strict limits on what you can have in a boilerplate contract.

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Wilhelm Arcturus

I will note that the person you mention did not get themselves unbanned or get their virtual items back and had to go through the process of a lawsuit to get the compensation they did. Given what you said they may have spent, that is very much a rich person solution to the problem. And they probably only got that because Riot or its parent company Tencent were registered entities in the country. Without that suing an entity in a foreign jurisdiction isn’t always viable.

In the end, the items didn’t belong to them.

Local regulations work well if you’re the US or EU or China, but diminish with the size of a market after that. One option that has been used has been to change the terms of service to state that players from a specific country may not use the software in question and region block users.

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Schmidt.Capela

Getting a refund after being banned is strictly against the TOS, though, which was my point; the TOS and EULA aren’t all-powerful. The law always beats contracts, including the TOS and EULA.

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Greaterdivinity

buying a book means that you “own the container and not the content.”

I REALLY like the phrasing of this analogy!

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Jim Bergevin Jr

Which has always been true. Music, Movies, Books, Games, etc. The problem arises when we start talking digital only access or availability.

I have a full bookshelf of games dating back to the 80’s. For a lot of these, the companies who made them don’t even exist any more. But I can still play any one of them at any time I want (either on one of my older systems or via a Vitual Machine). No one can take that ability away from me (aside from entering my home and breaking the physical media).

However, all that changes when everything is only available via incorporal data. I have over 200 games in my Steam library and am at the mercy of valve and the internet on when I can play those games and for how long in the future. I don’t actually own anything in that library, and it all can be taken away from me without any recompense (at least if my bookshelved games are stolen or destroyed in a fire, I can get compensation via insurance).

The ideas of ownership, and the laws protecting such are still way behind the times in this digital age.

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rk70534

But when you have a real book, the kind of which you can keep in your hands and forget in the bus, you also do own the content, although only the one in that particular copy. It can’t be taken from you by the publisher, or the bookshop, you can’t be denied experiencing it whenever you wish. And 70 years after the authors death, you and everybody else ‘owns’ the right to print as many copies of it as you wish.

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Jim Bergevin Jr

And you even have certain rights with it. I can sell that copy, or lend it to a friend. I can make copies of it for personal use.

We have lost a lot of rights of ownership over the years.

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Schmidt.Capela

Yep. When you receive a legally created physical copy of a copyrighted work, it comes, implicitly or explicitly, with a limited license to that content that covers your personal use.

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Tremayne

This is the correct answer. You do NOT own the content of the book, you have a licence to make use of that content from that container – and that licence transfers with the container. The content is the story told in the book – owning that effectively means owning the copyright to the story, and being able to, among other things, create derivative works freely. Just because I can see “Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire” on my bookshelf doesn’t mean I have the rights to create and sell my own Harry Potter novels.

When we went digital, we stopped owning transferrable containers that have those rights attached to them, and switched to having licences that you can transfer to another container under the terms of the licence – the songs I buy on iTunes aren’t restricted to my phone, I can download them to my PC or to another PC I buy, as long as I comply with the terms of the licence. But yeah, that’s at the mercy of Apple not terminating the service or changing the deal. And then the next step is the subscription service, where the licence I get is time-limited. I get a lot of movies and shows from Netflix for the price of a single DVD every month, but if I stop paying Netflix I’ve got nothing.