Virtual worlds have seized the imaginations of millions of people who now live, work, and play together in these new environments. But all is not well. These online communities are ruled nearly exclusively by contract law, through end-user licence agreements, terms of service, and codes of conduct. Contracts are a critical means of helping two (or a few) people negotiate their preferences. But online communities are made up of enormous and shifting populations that have no time or ability to negotiate agreements with every other community member. Relying on contracts alone thus threatens the investments and creativity that go into these communities.
Prof Fairfield's talk will be based on his recent scholarship in the McGill Law Journal. This article seeks to demonstrate that contracts cannot, by their very nature, provide for all the legal needs of online communities. Public law needs to be developed to allow these communities to thrive. The author argues that common law, rather than legislation, can be most effective in this task. Courts can draw on existing and familiar areas of common law to provide the private-property, dignitary, and personal protections these communities need according to the specific behavioural norms their creators and users have fostered. The common law method, being iterative, incremental, and experimental, is well suited to modifying these areas where needed. It allows for the more immediate resolution of problems while also being sufficiently flexible to permit rules to be expanded or contained as required.
The year since the publication of the paper has given rise to a new twist. The dysfunctional regime governing virtual worlds is being pushed down into realspace. Through Mixed Reality technology, the rules governing virtual worlds have come to govern real citizens as they go about their daily lives. The licence agreements that once governed virtual worlds now govern the books we read, the places we drive, and access and control over data governing every aspect of our public and private lives. Thus, the problem of the Anti-Social contract is not long one merely for citizens of virtual worlds; but one for citizens of the real world.
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Joshua A.T. Fairfield, Associate Professor of Law, Frances Lewis Law Center
- Tuesday, 08 September 2009
- 12.15 p.m. - 1.30 p.m.
Seminar Room 1-1
Li Ka Shing Building
Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy
469C Bukit Timah Road