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Andrew's Weblog
Who Owns Your Virtual Home?
by Andrew on Thu Sep 07, 2006 7:41 AM
Are we seeing a virtual land rush? As late as 1889, settlers were bolting across the Oklahoma Territory hoping to stake their claims. These days, people are grabbing virtual property using products like Google Earth and Mapwing, then using it to sell advertising to the real property owners. While creating huge profit potential, property owners are left wondering, "If I own something real, do I have squatting rights on its virtual counterpart?"

In the age of virtual property, the distinction between real and virtual ownership is not cut and dry. In a sense, the Sooners, those who snuck into the Oklahoma Territory early to stake claims, are still with us today. The vast majority of people believe that ownership goes to he who grabs first. While the concept of virtual ownership is nothing new, the invention of virtual worlds that mimic the real one are increasingly blurring traditional lines of thinking.

Internet domain names represent one of the most well-known territories of virtual property. Since becoming available in 1984, companies and people have been seeking ownership of what they already own in real life - their names. For example, Apple Computer holds the domain name apple.com. But, what happens when someone gets there first? Does anyone have the right to own any domain name?

Apparently not, according to judgments by the Internet Corporation for the Assignment of Names and Numbers (ICANN) as well as the United States court system. Individuals that purchase a domain name can be challenged by another individual that has a reasonable claim on the name. Reasonable claims include ownership of a trademark as with vw.net (Virtual Works, Inc. v. Volkswagen of America, Inc) or famous names as in the case of jimihendrix.com (Experience Hendrix, L.L.C. v. Denny Hammerton and The Jimi Hendrix Fan Club). Domain name disputes often hinge on the intent of the domainís owner. Many times, an individual will acquire a domain name simply to sell it back to the nameís rightful owner, a practice usually referred to as cybersquatting.

These guidelines of ownership were further bolstered by ICANNís recent handling of the .eu (European Union) land rush. In an attempt to prevent cybersquatting, ICANN accepted preregistrations in late 2005 from individuals with valid claims for .eu domains. By April of 2006, .eu was opened to the public, sparking a rush for the remaining names. Judging from this, it would appear that if an individual owns something in the real world, like a trademark or famous name, he has a strong claim on it in the virtual world of the Internet.

Google Earth, which provides birds-eye-view of the entire planet, has upped the ante in virtual ownership by extending the metaphor to land. Itís a virtual world on a truly global scale, encompassing satellite images of nearly every inch of the planet. Users can place markers which provide location names, comments, photographs, and Web sites. Other companies like Microsoft and Yahoo! have followed suit with their own global mapping systems, sparking a land rush of virtual photographic property. Right now, the only competitors are large companies, each one gunning to own the virtual globe. So, why would they want to do that?

As anyone who has seen a James Bond film can tell you, whoever holds the world hostage can make a lot of money. By building the best model of the world, a company could force owners of real property to acquire their virtual counterparts. For example, imagine that you owned a popular restaurant. Visitors might go to Google Earth to find the location of your restaurant. However, when they arrive, they find a marker describing how a competing restaurant up the street is even better. Itís a little like someone erecting a huge billboard in your front yard without permission.

To protect your real property, you must purchase its virtual counterpart. At present, the most extensive virtual worlds are controlled by only a few companies which profit by squatting the the entire globe. Thankfully, no one has emerged as the de facto standard, at least not yet.

Redbug Technologiesí Mapwing raises issues similar to Google Earth. Mapwing Creator enables users to build virtual tours that include interactive maps, photographs, Web links, and comments. Tours can be shared using Adobeís Flash and explored as first-person walkthroughs by viewers. Web sites like www.walkdillsburg.com demonstrate just how easily an individual can map a town, then provide advertising for homes and businesses. More localized than Google Earth, Mapwing enables anyone to grab highly detailed visualizations of real property. This further complicates ownership. Unlike ICANN and Google which are single entities, any person can use Mapwing to stake a virtual claim, broadening the problem of who to turn to when questions of ownership arise.

But, there is a silver lining. Because Mapwing enables anyone to build a virtual tour, several different versions of a virtual property can exist simultaneously. For example, if a company decides to claim a town and charge each business a high fee to be listed, the local business association could construct their own tour and list every member for free. Think of it as a democratic, free market for virtual property. If several versions of a virtual world can exist, the best one should ultimately reign, helping to ease questions of ownership.

Above all else, it is important to remember that virtual property is not bound by the same constraints as real property. While we have only one Earth and one home, we can have a limitless number of virtual worlds. There can exist one or one hundred completely different versions of the same place. Though virtual property will continue to be squatted and claimed, preserving its democratic nature will ensure that it cannot be controlled by any one company, organization, or government. To do otherwise is to fall victim to the limitations of the real world. And, on the Internet, isnít that what we are trying to escape?

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