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Stevan Lieberman, an intellectual property partner with the D.C. boutique of Greenberg & Lieberman, was hanging around the office when Justin Davis, a businessman, contacted him for advice on trademark law. Davis owns a jewelry store and he wanted Lieberman to make sure his store name wasn’t taken by someone else. Turns out, it was. So Lieberman helped him pick a new name, JCNY Collection, and trademark it. Pretty standard day at the office, you might say. Except for one thing: The jewelry store in question doesn’t really exist. Nor does the jewelry — at least not in the realm of traditional Newtonian physics. And although Lieberman has an actual law office, that isn’t where Davis found him. Instead, Davis saw Lieberman’s law firm ad in a place far removed from Washington, a place that only exists as an endless stream of ones and zeroes. Not long ago, when lawyers spoke of “virtual law firms” or the “paperless office,” they meant being able to share electronic documents and hold video teleconferences. Here, the whole office disappears, or at least is radically transformed, into computer code, along with the people, furniture, conference rooms, copying machines — everything, in fact, except for the bad coffee. Don’t misunderstand. Stevan Lieberman is a real-life attorney, and he does practice intellectual property law at a real D.C. firm called Greenberg & Lieberman. It’s just that he and his firm have opted to expand into the relatively uncharted territory of Second Life, an online simulated universe with more than 8 million users — and growing. Take that, DLA Piper. And while Second Life might initially seem like make-believe or child’s play, the firm is filing real trademark applications, landing real clients, and making real money through the virtual world. By Lieberman’s reckoning, the firm has pulled in nearly $20,000 in revenue from its Second Life office in the past year. Not exactly enough to make the D.C. 20, but impressive, given that overhead is almost nil. The office is staffed by attorneys, sort of. Every living, breathing person who enters Second Life acquires an alter ego, a digital character called an avatar that can look like pretty much anything. Short, tall, muscular, thin, hot-pink hair. You can even have wings or fur in Second Life, and no one will look at you twice. Lieberman’s avatar, “Navets Potato,” went through several incarnations, including a floating head covered in flames. And a friend of his created an avatar that looks like a bowl of jelly. “It’s really funny to watch it talk,” he says. “You can do anything as far as your imagination goes.” People in Second Life act pretty much like people do everywhere. They just might do it in the form of a fuzzy, tangerine-colored fox. And, of course, even fuzzy tangerine foxes have legal problems. Landlord-tenant issues, contract disputes, intellectual property problems. Second Life is a lawyer’s dream world in more than just the figurative sense. “There’s real money changing hands, and there are real disputes that people have in-world over real creations,” says Benjamin Duranske, whose avatar, “Benjamin Noble,” created the Second Life Bar Association. “It just happens to be represented digitally.” ETHICS, IN-WORLD AND OUT Second Life is not a game, as its users are quick to point out. Unlike other multiuser online worlds like World of Warcraft, Second Life users don’t amass points or have goals they need to achieve to progress to the next level. Launched publicly in 2003 by a California-based company called Linden Lab, Second Life has grown into an online powerhouse (about 300,000 people from around the world joined the site in just the time it took to report this story). The service, in its most basic form, is free, but for a fee of $72 a year, users can upgrade to the premium package, which enables users to rent private and commercial space. In Second Life, people live and have businesses on virtual islands, complete with palm trees and buildings that look as though Frank Lloyd Wright collided with a modern office park. And most of those buildings are built by users. Second Life provides all the components for people to make pretty much whatever they want. Furniture, houses, clothing, and Buddhist temples can all be designed digitally. And, of course, users can sell their goods and services to avatar consumers. Second Life even has its own currency, the Linden Dollar, as well as its own currency exchange, where users can buy Lindens using American dollars and also change them back. Currently, the exchange rate is about 186 Lindens per American dollar. Some “outworld” businesses have set up shop in Second Life, though the American Apparel store recently shut its doors, leaving the virtual world devoid of fuchsia tube tops. In fact, the entire place is the kind of elaborate experiment in free-market economics that Milton Friedman might design. STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND My first foray into Second Life made all the science fiction I’d read as a teenager suddenly relevant (Teleportation? Not a problem). But all that sci-fi did nothing for my lack of technical abilities. The hair on my avatar, Kublai Kidd, kept turning shades of blue. She would walk into walls, and the best I could do was get her to look like a cartoon character with an odd facial tic. When talking to attorneys in-world, I would often preface the conversation with “please don’t laugh at my avatar.” And despite my own enthusiasm for wandering around in strange places, I couldn’t help feeling that the people behind all these avatars must have way too much time on their hands. And for lawyers, who are usually tethered to the time sheet, that’s unheard of. But in truth, the scope of legal issues in Second Life is vast, and the more you look into this microcosm, the more fascinating it becomes. Duranske, formerly an intellectual property lawyer with Kirkland & Ellis who has taken the year off to write a novel, started the Second Life Bar Association in December 2006 and is its current president. The group is developing a system of attorney verification so that clients know if their in-world attorney is qualified to practice. And it recently held elections. “Solomon Cortes,” a British IP attorney whose real name is David Naylor, is now president-elect. His real-world firm, Field Fisher Waterhouse, also has a Second Life office, and Cortes says it helps the firm keep up with new technology as well as being a great networking tool. By contrast, Duranske has opted not to practice in Second Life. He advises members of the bar association not to ignore real-world ethics. “If you’re going to represent yourself as an attorney in Second Life you’re potentially in violation of unauthorized practice laws in some places, and you are potentially involved in a conflict of interest.” D.C. attorneys can breathe easy on some of these issues, at least. D.C. Bar Counsel Wallace “Gene” Shipp Jr. says the District’s rules on solicitation are more relaxed than in other states. And though he can think up a few possibilities in which bar counsel might get involved in an attorney’s online fantasy world, he considers it pretty unlikely. “I can’t imagine that that’s anything that we would have the slightest interest in.” Obviously, part of the allure of Second Life is the ability to be and do things that you never might in the real world. For example, in real life, avatar “Jessica Holyoke” just finished law school, and she took the bar exam last week. She is a member of the Second Life Bar Association and is intrigued by many of the legal issues arising in the virtual world, such as tax law on Second Life earnings. But in Second Life, Holyoke is also an exotic dancer. Or, at least, she used to be. “I used to be a stripper and then a manager at a strip club, where I made about a $100 US a month,” says Holyoke. “Now I’m doing consulting, and I make about half that.” Just how does one go about stripping in Second Life? Well, I never actually got a demonstration, but according to Holyoke “it’s a combination of look, skill, and how you interact with a person.” THE VIRTUAL FOUNDING FATHERS? One of the biggest problems facing the evolution of law in Second Life is, as you might have guessed, the lack of an actual legal system. Second Life users are from all over the world, so often no single legal framework fits a given dispute. And Second Lifers have many of the same legal problems found in the real world — though, as of now, there are no official cops or courts to help resolve them. A landlord might have a disruptive tenant on his island or vice versa. A business owner might have a product stolen. And though they can take these disputes to real-world courts, often the small amounts of money involved don’t justify the expense of a court battle. That’s not to say Second Life legal problems never spill over into real-life courts. Linden Lab was sued by a Pennsylvania attorney over a virtual land deal gone bad. That litigation is ongoing. And earlier this month, a Second Life businessman sued another user for copyright infringement in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida. David Post, a law professor at Temple University who teaches intellectual property and cyberspace law, says it “will be essential for online worlds to have a trusted legal system for the same reason that it’s essential in offline worlds.” He notes that people have property and transact business. And sometimes people commit harmful acts. “Can you run a virtual world without a fancy-schmancy legal system? Sure. But will it be as attractive as one where you can resolve legal disputes effectively? I don’t think so,” says Post. Linden Lab has a terms-of-service agreement that many attorneys in Second Life feel is too broad to be used as a basis for a legal structure, especially when dealing with complex commercial disputes. Linden will step in if abuse is reported, but there is little recourse for people for, say, a breach of contract. So some users are devising a system of their own. The Metaverse Republic is one idea. The system is loosely based on English common law and will rely on an elected parliament to make the laws and a system of enforcement that includes banishment from participating islands. Currently, members are drafting a constitution � la Thomas Jefferson. “I have found a very high level of interest amongst those who are seriously into Second Life commerce: those who run businesses here, and rent land,” says avatar “Ashcroft Burnham,” a British barrister who is actively involved in creating the Metaverse Republic. He says the system tackles civil law because Linden Lab already has a system for handling criminal behavior. “There’s no real means of dealing with that sort of thing in [Second Life] at the moment, other than litigating in first-world courts, which . . . is often grossly impractical for transactions that cost less than the price of international postage to serve the relevant papers,” says Burnham. In his second life, Burnham also runs a Victorian furniture store, where he makes chairs, end tables, and Middlesex hat stands. Not every attorney thinks an extensive legal framework is a must in Second Life. Lieberman, who actively practices IP law in-world, says real-world court systems work just fine for most Second Life disputes. But he advocates the creation of a Second Life arbitration system. “It does allow people to get their ideas across to each other, and more often than not, people are fair-minded,” he says. “Once people understand each other’s point of view, they can come to a compromise.” Lieberman’s decision to take his firm into the great virtual beyond also has to do with the flexibility of the medium. “I think you can just show and do a lot more things in a three-dimensional world than you can in two dimensions,” he says. “And, yes, it’s the wave of the future, but it’s going to go in more directions that we can even guess.” Just like out here in real life.
Attila Berry can be contacted at [email protected].

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