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The Lawbringer: Mailbag 4.0

Pop law abounds in The Lawbringer, your weekly dose of WoW, the law, video games and the MMO genre. Mathew McCurley takes you through the world running parallel to the games we love and enjoy, full of rules, regulations, pitfalls and traps. How about you hang out with us as we discuss some of the more esoteric aspects of the games we love to play?

Welcome to another exciting mailbag edition of The Lawbringer. I've pulled some of my favorite questions from my inbox this week to discuss topics like slander, libel, and that pesky idea about gold selling that I had during one the recent WoW Insider Show (I think it was the WoW Insider Show; I do a lot of shows sometimes) about the auction house. Somewhere, Basil has felt a twinge in his leg, as if a thousand voices cried out in unison and then were quickly silenced by the ringing of the auction house bells ...

If you've got a question for The Lawbringer, send it along to mat@wowinsider.com. Be sure to include some sort of subject that lets me know that you're asking a Lawbringer question, because otherwise it will probably get lost in the millions of potential tags your email could be filed under. A long time ago, I was reading a post by venerable internet man Merlin Mann about managing your inbox and fighting with the notion that email needed to be sorted and dealt with quickly. It's been years since then, and I hate my inbox more and more every day because I never listened to Merlin.

Slander or libel?

Reader Cassy writes:
Hello,

I have a quick and "easy" question for the Lawbringer:

If you type something insulting toward another person in WoW chat, is it slander or libel?
Cassy, I wish this question were easy. First, we look at the definitions of slander and libel. Second, we apply facts to rules and see where we come out. Let me also preface this by saying that I haven't followed much of this type of law due to the fact that I've concentrated mostly on contract, entertainment, and commercial litigation in my time as an attorney.

Slander is traditionally used to define harmful statements spoken or uttered in transitory mediums. Things don't linger with slander (other than the words ringing in your ears). Libel is defamation through written words, printed in a newspaper or magazine, but not actually spoken. The concepts have their roots in England when publication became more widespread and it was necessary to curb people's just printing whatever the heck they wanted to -- because print stays, presumably, forever.

The internet shook everything up, as usual. When you're online playing a game and you type from your character, you are "speaking" more than you are "publishing" your thoughts to be read by all. What if you're commenting on a thread or message board? Are you "publishing" those words or "speaking" those words? At the end of the day, slander or libel comes down to the form associated with the defamation.

The answer is that it's still being decided -- sometimes it's slander, sometimes libel. In the United Kingdom, where defamation law is a bit more plaintiff/victim-friendly, they've started on the path to saying that internet defamation looks more like slander in certain contexts like message boards or comments. But there was a case in California in 2006, Barrett v. Rosenthal, that said that websites cannot be sued for whatever libel that was written by other parties, so we probably still believe in the United States that the written internet word is still libel.

The big difference between slander and libel, really, is what you need to do to prove either of them. Libel has a higher standard to meet than slander, so proving libel is a more difficult thing to do. It is easier on the plaintiff to prove slander, which is why European countries (at this point) are more lenient than U.S. courts.

So which is it? You could argue for both. It's slander, because WoW speech isn't exactly a fixed publication medium. WoW speech is very transitory, and there is a level of anonimity behind your character/avatar that might cloud the process. On the other hand, words are written and disseminated, then published to the players, which might strike the libel bells to a judge. Remember, in the United States, truth is a defense to defamation, so if Magekillazz the moron rogue really is a lying, awful loot ninja, you didn't defame him.

Region-wide auction houses?

Reader Shumoo wanted to ask about my newest "get rid of gold farming, drive prices down" scheme in WoW:
Heya Mat,

On a recent podcast (I think) you said that you thought that combining the auction house across all servers would reduce gold selling. What did you mean by all that?

Shumoo
Thanks for the email, Shumoo. I had thought about it for a while after making the comment that combining auction houses across servers would be a way Blizzard could cut down on the number of people who would want to purchase gold from a third-party grey market seller, and I still believe that this could work. Much like how battlegroups are no longer a thing, and all of a region's players are grouped together through the Dungeon Finder, Blizzard could potentially link all of the auction houses together to create a massive supply increase.

Supply and demand is at the heart of the auction house, with a bit of market control and price fixing thrown in to the mix. Just ask Basil or Fox, who write about the auction house in WoW -- it is a living, breathing, functioning economy that is awe-inspiring in a game like World of Warcraft.

It is significant, yes, but with such things come the ultimate problems. Supply of BOE epics and crafting materials keeps prices high, until a Chinese bot farmer or resource gathering exploiter floods the auction house market with cheap raw materials, sending prices plummeting. After the cheap goods leave the market, prices return to higher "normals," and the cycle continues. BOEs works in a similar fashion, but the costs associated with raid BOEs stay relatively high, and many players feel the need to spend money on gold in order to compete for these better pieces of BOE gear.

So what is Blizzard to do when the auction houses get out of control with their prices based on supply? Increase supply tenfold. Linking the auction houses pits every seller against each other, not just in the server but across the region. Supply skyrockets and prices instantly decrease because of the amount of people contributing to the market itself.

The downside is that it kills local economies and creates massive player inflation because now players have more money to spend on the not-auction house. That feud you have at the Orgrimmar auction house with the glyph seller who undercuts you by 1 copper is now 500 glyph sellers who undercut you by 1 copper. The supply could greatly outweigh the demand.

You could solve player inflation by requiring a certain gold investment into items to always have a cost associated with them, like the Sands of Time for the Vial of the Sands, which creates a floor for the cost of this item based on the gold investment beyond the craftable materials. That's one theory, anyway.

It's not totally fleshed out and it probably isn't the best solution, but I could see region-wide auction houses being a positive way of getting rid of the supply and demand problem in WoW. Prices go down because more people are allowed to participate in the same market, and players have an easier time finding the pieces of gear they need and materials they want to purchase without potentially breaking their banks (both real-life wallets and gold coffers). The market would find new highs and lows, since markets adapt. Just a thought.

See you guys next week, and remember to send your Lawbringer questions to mat@wowinsider.com!

This column is for entertainment only; if you need legal advice, contact a lawyer. For comments or general questions about law or for The Lawbringer, contact Mat at mat@wowinsider.com.

Filed under: Analysis / Opinion, The Lawbringer

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