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25 April 2022
The metaverse and the complicated idea of ownership
Much of the hype currently surrounding the growing idea of (and very real investments in) the metaverse rely on the understanding you can actually own objects and property in the metaverse – new ideas pour water on the belief.
Why it matters
Very real money is already being poured into ‘the metaverse’, mostly into certain platforms like The Sandbox, and elsewhere in gaming and creation platforms like Roblox, sparking headlines and even companies based on the idea of ‘virtual real estate’, verified on blockchain.
It pointed to an obvious, if extremely prosaic, way of thinking about virtual worlds where “you can fly and instantiate things from nothingness,” as the long-time writer on Second Life James Au put it. Ownership will be important, but it will be different at a fundamental level, according to legal experts.
What to do about it? Explore. Huge numbers of the youngest generation are using platforms like Roblox, look at what they’re doing. Elsewhere, serious players – Roblox and Meta – are beginning to reflect how thinking is moving toward creation and in-platform monetisation rather than blockchains.
Ultimately, this goes to the heart of the idea that proof of ownership on the blockchain means that you actually own something, argues João Marinotti, associate professor of law at Indiana University, writing in the Conversation.
Marinotti’s argument centres on the Terms of Service documents that we all must agree to but vanishingly few of us actually read. “Unlike the blockchain itself, the terms of service for each metaverse platform are centralized and are under the complete control of a single company. This is extremely problematic for legal ownership,” he writes.
Effectively, the dream of interoperability and portability is not yet here, mostly because a token of ownership – even of a digital item – is not the item itself. This means a platform could, theoretically, fold or close down or simply delete your digital item given that its manifestation exists on their servers. You can still have the NFT, but as it pertains to nothing, it would end up as totally worthless.
So where does it leave the future of commerce in a virtual world? Either true interoperability will need to be built into the emerging industry through collaboration on open protocols, similar to the current internet, or one leader might emerge to dominate the underlying ledger.