"Are you ready for avatar rights?" asks lawyer and recent McGill University graduate Jeff Roberts in the Toronto Star. "If you believe it's laughable for a digital character to consider suing in a real-life court, think again", he writes. "As online games soar in popularity and rake in millions, the distinction between virtual characters and their creators is eroding". Warning of sinister things to come, he reminds readers that, in 2006, digital representatives of real world news outlets arranged an interview in Second Life with an avatar named Anshe Chung. After Chung arrived online to discuss how she had become the largest real estate magnate inside the game and, by doing so, a millionaire outside of it, the interview was derailed when Chung was bombarded by a montage of giant phalluses introduced to the online studio by a hacker.
Avatars, Roberts points out, have also been victims of fraud, murder (by so-called "character killers") and even sexual assault. At the same time, the provenance of certain avatars is becoming the subject of ethical scrutiny amid reports of Asian gaming sweatshops that produce characters for export. As these online worlds grow in scale, so do the conflicts that emerge within them.
The intellectual property aspects of avatar rights cannot be ignored. Writes Roberts:
The IPKat sees no difference between avatars and any other fictional characters and proposes to lobby for recognition as a juridical person in his own right.
"While it is becoming apparent that people have rights within digital realms, it remains uncertain how those rights should be defined. In the case of Chung (victim of the flying penis attack), her real-world husband attempted to use copyright law to force media outlets to remove images related to the incident. He retracted the threats after a number of groups complained that the demands amounted to news censorship.
Copyright and other forms of property rights have so far formed the basis of the handful of lawsuits from online realms that are trickling into the world's courts. These cases typically involve plaintiffs who have lost virtual assets through the termination of their accounts or who have had their merchandise in a game illegally copied by digital counterfeiters.
... A harder question is whether these digital creatures should also enjoy personal rights. For instance, it seems somehow perverse to rely on a notion like property damage to address a cyber-rape (the first instance of which was reported in 1993).
... Despite the popularity of online computer games, the extent to which digital people should be endowed with actual rights remains an open question. In this country, it appears the distinction between avatars and individuals will remain intact for the foreseeable future".
Avatar sued for copyright infringement here
When the Tweenies sued the BBC for human rights violations here