I attended PLI's Intellectual Property Law Institute in San Francisco last week. Intellectual Property issues in Virtual Worlds was a hot topic. Stephen J. Davidson founder and principle of Davidson PLLC, gave a fascinating presentation on this subject. As a social media enthusist, I was particularly interested in the discussion on who owns the copyright in an Avatar created by the end user (customer) but the tools are provided by the service provider (Second Life, Disney's Toontown). Here is a brief outline of his presentation below:
1. Virtual Worlds such as Second Life do not require end users to relinquish their copyright rights. Plus they allow customers to create avatars and then license them. Thus, when you create avatars or other objects in these worlds, you are the rightful copyright owner and can sue an infringer for unlawful copying.
2. There are some virtual worlds such as Disney's Virtual Magic Kingdom, that require customers to reliniquish their copyrights when creating avatars and actually require the customer to license the avatar to the internet service provider.
3. Other service providers that provide avatar creation services, such as Logobama o8' and Ameriland Entertainment allow the customer to retain their lawful copyright and grant the service provider a royalty-free license to copy, distribute, use or display the avatars.
I am of the view that although an internet service provider may provide the tools for a customer to create an avatar, that creation is still the original idea and work of authorship of the customer. Thus a copyright does exist. However, just like in any other case, copyrights can be licensed, retained, and purchased by express written agreement. So when creating avatars make sure you read the terms of agreement of the service provider. You may create the avatar but the service provider may own it.