Second Life is a feudal system

a castle in Second LifeThe Yale Law Journal has been doing an interesting set of discussions on the legal and economic aspects of synthetic worlds and metaverses. Bruce Sterling flagged one up that analyses the land ownership system in Second Life, and concludes that the closest real life analogy to the system would be good old-fashioned feudalism:

We can resolve this tension by describing a user’s interest as seisin rather than as ownership. A tenant seised of land had sworn homage to the lord from whom he held. In exchange, the lord symbolically delivered the tenant into possession. Thereafter, the tenant owed the lord various services and feudal incidents, and in return the lord was obliged to defend his possession against outsiders to the relationship. Every element of this system maps cleanly onto Second Life. A user swears homage by clicking “I agree” to Linden’s terms and conditions; Linden delivers her into possession by changing an appropriate database entry. She owes tier fees in place of feudal incidents; Linden defends her possession via software-based access controls.

Sub-letting is pretty common in Second Life as well, which just goes to enhance the analogy; given Linden Lab’s history of making sweeping, drastically unpopular and incontestable choices about the way they run their virtual world, I doubt you’d have many objections to the analogy from residents, either.

But what does this mean for the legal types themselves? The report concludes:

This analysis of the feudal dimensions of Second Life should make us optimistic about the legal future of virtual worlds. After all, for all its flaws, feudalism was a functional organization of society—indeed a better one than some of the alternatives.

In other words, “leave it be, it’s getting there slowly”. Eventually synthetic worlds with the complexity and infrastructure to support modern property rights will emerge… at which point the nice guys from Yale will no doubt find they’ve have been beaten to the punch by a stampede of virtual ambulance-chasers. [image by Torley]