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The Lawbringer: WoW and the magic circle

Welcome to Lawbringer! Each week we'll dive into the intricacies of law and the World of Warcraft. In the column's introductory edition we look at the magic circle, which isn't just something you summon demons and teleport around in...

Law and Warcraft -- sounds like a crazy mashup. Does this mean I can sue that bear and tree combo that chain pulled HoS to Krystallus then dropped group mid fight to wipe the DPS that had the temerity to suggest maybe the tank shouldn't kite the Maiden through the hallway? (You know who you are.) Get a court order to silence those Anal [Skills to Pay the Bills] spamming pricks in trade chat? Help Marshall Dougan string up those goblin ganking Bloodsail Buccaneer rep grinders for piracy? Get rogues thrown in the Stormwind Stockades for picking Hogger's pocket? Sadly, the answer is no.

Law and Warcraft intersect in far less entertaining and yet much more important ways. Contract law is obviously important with the End User License Agreement and Terms of Use defining our relationship with Blizzard. Copyright concerns come up quite a bit, as after all, the story, code, sights, and sounds of the World of Warcraft are protected by copyright. Computer fraud, regular fraud, and taxation are issues that arise with gold farming/trading (and occasionally gold digging, but that's not so much a problem in WoW.) We've seen recently with several WoW.com articles that Blizzard has been cooperating with local law enforcement to bring criminals to justice or help resolve the mystery of a runaway teen; privacy law is a huge concern for both players and Blizzard. Conflict resolution is how some of these legal questions are resolved, but that may involve arbitration, lawsuits, a crash course of the American civil justice system, and people like me.

That's right, I'm one of those horrible nasty lawyer types. Well, not quite – I'm in my third and last year of law school, specializing in intellectual property law. Patents, copyrights, and trademarks are what I've studied, and I have a job drafting and prosecuting patents since after all, student loans don't get paid off by playing WoW. If you really want proof of my bona fide law cred, you can read my thirty two page dissertation on gold farming.

But how does one distinguish between a problem that is resolvable with law, such as a privacy concern, and one that is just something we have to live with, like moronic tanks and DPS in the Random Dungeon Finder? Academics, needing to justify their cushy tenure positions, have come up with a concept known as "The Magic Circle."

Defining the magic circle

Originally, this was a term to describe the how the world of play and games exists with its own separate rules, demarcated from regular space and time. The game was a sacred, inviolable space with rules that permitted practices that would not be allowed in real life. When virtual worlds (aka MMORPGs) began raising all the wonderful questions above, the magic circle was adapted to answer those questions.

Here's how it works: game companies create a world with a defined time and space – specifically, an online password protected portal. While we as players are in the world, we are exempt from the rules of the real world and subject only to those rules put in place by the game creators. Azeroth is a special place where zombies are rewarded for slaughtering Hillsbrad civilians, vigilante justice dispatches bandits like Hogger, and summoning demons is practically normal.

Now, this "magic circle" concept has been criticized on the grounds that it's just a confusing way to talk about consent. The issue of real world rules interacting with games didn't begin with MMOs, after all. Outside a gridiron, football tackles can land you in jail; real monopolies are prohibited by the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Lawyers and judges long ago sorted this problem out by stating that players consent to what happens in the game, so long as that activity is permitted by the game rules.

Frankly, the two ideas are very similar. Whether game behavior is subject to different rules because of the magic of being a separate world in time and space or simply because we all agree to it, the fundamental idea that "what happens in Azeroth, stays in Azeroth" holds true. This idea is what I will refer to as the magic circle.

How the magic circle works

So let's examine how this works in practice. The nice folks at Blizzard have created a magic world, and to play in it, we must consent to their rules. These rules clearly lay out that WoW is for entertainment purposes only. Anything that happens in the scope of those rules -- goblin ganking, tanks dropping group to wipe their party, etc. -- is inside the magic circle. Anything that violates those rules -- gold farming, botting, power leveling, etc. -- pops outside the magic circle and leaves the perpetrator subject to real world consequences.

Now, what about a virtual world that doesn't place an emphasis on entertainment – would that be subject to the magic circle idea? Second Life is such a world. Interestingly enough, while the magic circle wasn't mentioned, the issue of whether Second Life could escape liability for seizing a player's virtual property by claiming "It's just a game!" nearly made it into court. Thinking that the plaintiff Marc Bragg had cheated to acquire some virtual land, Linden Lab banned his account. After losing an initial legal fight over personal jurisdiction and arbitration clauses, Linden Lab settled with Bragg and returned his virtual property to him. (I'll be returning to this case for future columns, so stay tuned for more.) It's interesting to note that the judge calls Linden out for advertising that "You own your property in Second Life" then retreating to the Terms of Use which state that while players own their property, their accounts can still be cut at any time. It's quite possible, had the case not been settled, that the court could have ruled that at least some real world law, like that of due process, applies even to virtual worlds.

While allowing law to intrude into Second Life might be good for the protection of its players, letting the legal code into Azeroth would likely prove disastrous. Bragg sued Linden over the loss of his property when his account was banned; if due process applied to virtual property, imagine the lawsuits created by nerfs. All those epic loot items and auction house profits could theoretically be taxed, even if they were never sold for real world money. Spamming Anal [whatever] in trade chat would likely prompt lawsuits for sexual harassment.

The idea of the magic circle is why Blizzard has made it very clear that WoW is for entertainment value only. By never opening that door that Second Life is creeping through, Blizzard makes it as clear as possible that the players are consenting to the nerfs, the ganking, the idiots in trade chat. This is the best they can do to remove their liability for such things. On the flip side, this is why anyone caught gold farming, botting, account selling, power leveling, etc. is punished with as heavy a hammer as Blizzard can wield. (A recurring theme of this column will be why that hammer isn't used as much as we the players might wish.) By punishing such behaviors, they inoculate themselves from any charges of that they are trying to create a Second Life style market in which players actually own their pixels.

So what does the magic circle mean for this column? Most of the concepts I will be covering will be outside the magic circle – contracts, patents, copyrights, election campaigning, etc. A few will have applicability inside and out – trademark law, for example. There may even be topics in the fuzzy gray areas where the magic circle breaks down. Stay tuned!

Next week, we'll examine some basics of contract law and the armory's new stalker feature activity feed.



This column is for educational purposes only and is provided by Amy Schley through WoW.com for informational purposes only. These materials are not intended to create an attorney-client relationship, and they are not a substitute for sound legal advice. You should not base any action – or lack of action – on any information included in our website, without first seeking appropriate legal or other professional advice. In reading this column, no attorney-client relationship is created. We do our best to provide you current, accurate and timely information; however, the law affecting World of Warcraft is constantly evolving. We cannot guarantee that this information is the most current, complete or correct.

Filed under: The Lawbringer, Analysis / Opinion

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