Online Games and IP – Battle of the forms to Social Norms: Reconceptualising and Re-layering?

Barker, Kim (2013). Online Games and IP – Battle of the forms to Social Norms: Reconceptualising and Re-layering? SCRIPTed, 10(3) pp. 320–338.



Online interactive environments like World of Warcraft, Second Life, Habbo and The Sims Online are international entities, attracting users across the globe. They have one common regulatory mechanism; the End User License Agreement (EULA). This contractual document forms the cornerstone of the regulatory and governing system within each of these distinct spaces. Yet the EULA is regularly contravened by users and the game provider alike, suggesting it is neither fit for purpose, nor adequately designed for these online spaces. The EULA forms not only the contractual relationship between the service provider and the end-user, but is also intended to control the behaviour of the users in the relevant online environment. These are very often the only forms of control or regulation that are present in online environments, and therefore control more than user behaviour.

Despite this, there is no specific set of ‘virtual laws’ in these online environments yet the disputes arising from these environments are becoming increasingly common. There are online / offline boundaries, and different levels of controlling mechanisms. These boundaries are only one dimension of the control required in these spaces. Code is protected by copyright, and copyright is allocated by contracts. As such, there is an inter-dependent core which sees code, copyright and contract allocating not just property rights and intellectual property rights but adjudicating on disputes. In this relationship, there are different levels which combine to produce a situation whereby contract is dominant. This paper will consider the current layers of control in online gaming environments in light of some examples of legal disputes that have arisen. It will consider the Magic Circle theory and the Theory of Interration – and potential modifications in light of Tseng’s suggestions but also in context of disputes and the layers currently in place before suggesting that there is perhaps a chasm in this system of layered governance and control.

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