When we're logged into Second Life and discussing various products, items, goods and clothing, we'll often refer to owning something that we've purchased. It's a very natural sort of metaphor. We're not, however, under any actual illusion that we own the items in question.
We read the Second Life Terms of Service when we signed up, and we're well-aware that we haven't been given ownership of the virtual goods we paid for, nor has any purchase taken place in the legal sense.
3.3 Linden Lab retains ownership of the account and related data, regardless of intellectual property rights you may have in content you create or otherwise own.
You agree that even though you may retain certain copyright or other intellectual property rights with respect to Content you create while using the Service, you do not own the account you use to access the Service, nor do you own any data Linden Lab stores on Linden Lab servers (including without limitation any data representing or embodying any or all of your Content). Your intellectual property rights do not confer any rights of access to the Service or any rights to data stored by or on behalf of Linden Lab.
What does that mean, you know, when actually translated into simple language?
It means you hold any copyrights and such to anything that you created and then imported into Second Life, but beyond that, Linden Lab is the sole owner of all the virtual items. If you pay for an item, you do not acquire ownership of it. You are authorized to use it and access it only as provided for by the Terms of Service.
Let's compare that with a few other situations:
If you purchased a book at a bookstore, for example, the fair-use laws of most jurisdictions allow you to make a copy of it (or indeed many copies of it) so long as those copies are for personal use. If the book is ever destroyed, well, you've got a copy. The same goes for vinyl records, and assorted tape recordings. Many jurisdictions diverge significantly when it comes to optical media. Some don't allow this sort of thing at all, if a CD is involved.
The situation with a content creator and Second Life is rather like that of an author and an e-book publisher. The author writes a novel, and publishes it through the publisher. She retains any intellectual property rights that she doesn't sign away to the publisher as a part of the deal.
The publisher turns the novel into e-book files, for which readers pay but do not (generally) own. The data files (whether on the publisher's servers or out on the reader's e-book reader) belong to the publisher. Not to the author, and not to the reader. The author may, of course, seek recourse if the publisher misuses their intellectual property outside what has been agreed to, but within the terms of the agreement the data files are owned by the publisher.
The same relationship holds in Second Life. The author becomes a content-creator. The publisher is Linden Lab, and the reader is your basic Second Life consumer. The consumer pays for certain authorization to use published content (ie: transferred into their inventory), but the ownership remains that of Linden Lab at all times.
That ownership extends to any prims you might have slapped together. Every prim rezzed is property of the Lab. The design might be your own, but the data describing their arrangement and positions is Lab property. While you don't technically have the rights to back up prim objects like that, Linden Lab has to-date taken quite a relaxed stance on allowing you to back up your own work, while pointing out that they will never support an official backup tool in their own software.
And why should they? The data already belongs to them, after all.
Nevertheless, the dichotomy between the perception of ownership, and the agreement of ownership that you made with the Lab when you read and agreed to the Terms of Service is likely going to come to a head in the not-too-far-distant future. That's going to be exciting, but we don't see any new chapter, verse or precedents in property law coming out of such a confrontation.
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