Lawyers Needed in Online Fantasy World

There’s this MMORPG out there, called Eve Online. It is a science fiction virtual universe in which players from around the (real) world log in and play like they’re, um, Vulcans or Cylons or something. There’s rockets and space stations and wretched hives of scum and villainy. One glaring new example: massive fiscal malfeasance — an S&L-style scandal that calls for a virtual white-collar-crime task force. Or, some irate gamers say, real-world legal action.

The details are a little abstruse, but a cadre of game-lovin’ bloggers have wrung their hands, pondered the ramifications or wryly observed the scandal in question. Basically, people interact in all the ways in which they interact here, and Eve has quite a capitalist marketplace. That means that a lot of play money changes hands, and that led someone to start up a bank, offering a little interest on surplus dinero. Or “ISK,” in this cosmos.

The bank in question, set up by a character (literally) called Dentara Rast, swelled to 700 billion ISK (which may or may not exceed the gross global product of Tatooine). Then Rast disappeared, absconding with the cash and leaving behind a video taunting his hapless victims. That’s right, bank fraud in the online universe. Talk about realism.

ISK ain’t real money, though, and the game universe has no SEC to enforce laws against being a no-good crook. So ripped-off players have no more legal recourse than if they got cheated in Monopoly, right? Well, one blogger posits a theory in which the mysterious Rast, if he’s in the United States, should have to answer to the IRS. The writer makes a good case for valuing the 700 billion space dollars at just north of $80,000.

The online poster, Julian “Rabbit” Murdoch, writes, “Eve ISK is a fungible asset. While no regulated market exists for converting ISK into cash directly, there are markets available. [The game’s parent company] sells 30 day time cards for 120 million ISK. Time cards are available legally for $14 a piece. So … that 700 billion ISK is worth 5,834 time cards, or $81,667.”

So Rabbit runs with the idea that a real crime was committed in a fantasy game. What that argument implies is that MMORPG assets could be taxable, too, and that financial harm wreaked in a digital hobbit hole could keep real lawyers busy. Say someone doesn’t pay for her dilithium crystals when she refuels in your spaceport … or a drunken ogre burns down ye olde virtuale tavern … If these losses can be equated to real-world money, should real-world litigation follow?

Sure, there’s a million jurisdictional, conceptual and logical wrinkles to be ironed out, but come on — the real world is only so large. An enterprising lawyer needs to find new markets, and there are apparently whole new universes out there to be explored.

Brian McDonough

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