Do avatars have legal rights?

An abstract from a fantastic working paper by Woodrow Barfield - Intellectual Property Rights in Virtual Environments: Considering the Rights of Owners, Programmers and Virtual Avatars, available for download here.

As the behavior of avatars becomes more realistic, sophisticated and intelligent – and the avatars become more autonomous in their decision making, the question of whether virtual avatars should have legal rights separate from those of their owner, becomes an issue. (...) Imagine one day that a virtual avatar claims that it is a person, and that it is therefore entitled to certain constitutional rights. Should the law grant constitutional rights to intelligent avatars that have intellectual capacities like those of humans? (...) Imagine, further, that an intelligent avatar claims that it cannot be owned and is forced into involuntary servitude. A lawyer takes its case, and files a civil rights action on its behalf, against its owner. How should the legal system deal with such a claim? Would the intelligent avatar have standing to pursue such an action? And with regard to intellectual property rights, what if an intelligent virtual avatar creates a work completely independent from a human’s input that meets the requirements for copyright? Would the court then award the avatar a copyright for the work? The current answer is surely no – but why not?

Yes – why not? This could even lead to the emergence of a new law specialisation. For now this whole thing sounds like a sci-fi movie scenario about avatars who want to become independent beings and then take over the human race, but who knows...

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