Really. Because it is actually a bit harder to figure out than it looks. A lot of what we’re accustomed to thinking of as owned property isn’t necessarily what we think it is, and there’s an especial implication for virtual environments like Second Life.

For our purposes, we’ll go by major Western legal systems. That is the UK, much of Western Europe, the USA, Canada and Australia. There are doubtless others with suitably aligned definitions.

Can you sell the use of it?

If you can’t sell it to someone else so that they can use it to the same extent as yourself, then you don’t technically have ownership. Things that fail this test: Microsoft Windows (and the licenses for same), most DRM-protected media and software, non-transferrable items in virtual environments like Second Life.

Can you lawfully prevent others from lawfully using it?

Whew. That one’s a bit of a tangle, but if you can’t, then it isn’t actually even property. Real Property (aka Real Estate aka physical land) is generally a bit of an exception here – you can still own it, even if you cannot prevent people using it. You can’t own a park bench or a water-fountain or a sidewalk, because you can’t prevent their use by others. You can prevent people using your football, or your car, or your clothing.

Can others lawfully deny you the use of it?

Then no, you don’t own it. If someone shuts down an authentication server and it stops working, or can disable or destroy it by lawful deletion of data or remote disablement (without any requirement for due-process), then you don’t legally own it. Again, most DRM-protected media and software fails here, and interestingly, so does most property in virtual environments (eg: Second Life).


That last one is a bit of a sticking point that’s recently been driven home. While Linden Lab guarantees your full intellectual property rights (unless it is a patent), you can’t be said to actually own any of the content made from it in the virtual environment, since Linden Lab can modify, delete, or restrict access to that content (to you or to others) more or less at will.

Indeed, the Lab can restrict your use of (say) a thing that you created (by, for example, banning you) but continue to allow others to use that thing. The first series of megaprims is an excellent example of this, but the same goes for textures, scripts and most anything else.

The intellectual property remains yours, but the control over its digital form and distribution isn’t yours. You abrogated that control when you agreed to the Terms of Service.

Second Life assets, therefore, are almost property in the legal sense (but not quite), and you can’t be said to actually have ownership, sadly – only a limited-rights form of partial possession.

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