Greg Lastowka is an Assistant Professor of Law at Rutgers School of Law-Camden, where he teaches courses in cyberlaw and property. He writes about the legal aspects of multiplayer games on the weblog Terra Nova. During the 2005-2006 school year, he will be a faculty fellow at the Center for the Critical Analysis of Contemporary Culture in New Brunswick. His research during the next year will be devoted to an interdisciplinary exploration of various intellectual property issues.
The Jurisdiction of Play
In this presentation, the authors revisit a cyberspace governance question popular in years past: the question of whether activities that occur through the medium of the Internet might be seen as occurring within a separate jurisdiction. Our conclusion is that this approach, while currently rejected by courts and almost all commentators, is appropriately applied to legal issues that arise in the special case of virtual worlds and virtual property.
In the first part of our paper, we perform a fairly straightforward jurisdictional analysis with regard to a hypothetical virtual property crime. We conclude that if a virtual world might be recognized as a separate space of any sort, the concept of a virtual jurisdiction appears to be a plausible concept.
In the second part of our paper, we contrast and compare this approach toward treating virtual worlds as separate jurisdictions with the law's approach to games and play. Physical game spaces and game rules have historically been treated, either de facto or de jure, with a certain degree of jurisdictional independence. This jurisdictional independence of games and game rules has only been abrogated in instances where these rules have threatened harms to the players or the public. We argue that disputes with regard to virtual spaces should be treated with analogous deference.
In the third part of our paper, we briefly address two anticipated criticism of our approach. First, we anticipate that some will object to our arguments for virtual jurisdiction due to the difficulty created by frequent liminal conditions where virtual and real identities, interests, and harms may merge. We agree that such problems exist, though we argue that similar problems exist in standard jurisdictional problems. Second, we anticipate that some will object to our arguments for virtual jurisdiction due to the absence of any true democratic jurisdictional authority in many virtual spaces other than the assertion of technocratic power. Again, we admit that this is a significant problem, but suggest it is mitigated by the absence of any harms recognizable outside the virtual environment.