Like so many things, virtual law started with sex. Specifically, the first known legal case originating in a virtual world was over a bed designed for rolls in the virtual hay.
Eros vs. Volkov Catteneo was not unlike business dustups that happen in the real world every day. One person created something and sold it, and another person allegedly copied it and sold cheap knockoffs.
The only thing novel about this case is that the item in question was a piece of furniture made entirely of computer code, and it was bought and sold by 3-D avatars in Second Life, a virtual world run by San Francisco's Linden Lab.
Second Life user Kevin Alderman of Lutz, Fla., created the very interactive bed, which enabled avatars to engage in a range of activities (cuddling, more). But when another user started selling copies, Alderman hired real-life lawyer Francis Taney, who tracked down the real person behind the bed-copying avatar and secured a consent judgment from Florida's U.S. District Court ordering him to quit.
This happened in March 2008, and since then, Taney, of the Philadelphia office of law firm Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney, says that he has devoted 20 to 30 percent of his practice to virtual law, or disputes that happen in virtual worlds such as Second Life.
He's not alone. Although the courts have seen only a few such disputes so far, a number of law firms have created practices focused on virtual worlds and video games, or set up offices within Second Life itself.
Benjamin Duranske, who recently joined the Silicon Valley office of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman to help build such a practice, even wrote a book on the field, "Virtual Law: Navigating the Legal Landscape of Virtual Worlds."
"It's an emerging area of law, which is really a treat for attorneys, because the law (in other areas) is somewhat stable," Duranske said.
Occasionally these attorneys deal with disputes that arise inside multiplayer video games, such as World of Warcraft. But most often, these attorneys are focused on Second Life, a free-to-join 3-D environment that looks like a video game except that it has no set goals, nothing to win or lose. People log on to hang out, do business and hook up (hence the popularity of Alderman's sex bed).
Besides its lack of missions and scores, what distinguishes Second Life from video games is that Linden allows users to buy virtual property and create objects that are protected by intellectual property rights.