eBay on RMT: World of Warcraft, No… Second Life, Yes

Ebay Last Friday, Slashdot’s Zonk confirmed rumors that eBay was delisting RMT items from their service— and now GigaGamez has more details. Short for “real money transfer”, RMT is a gray market means for gamers to buy and sell an online world’s precious items. (Gold and fantastic armor, weapons, and equipment, in the case of World of Warcraft, “neopoints” for the extremely popular kids game Neopets, and so on.) It’s a controversial practice, to say the least— for most developers, who think RMT ruins their game, for most publishers, who consider it a violation of their intellectual property rights, and for many gamers, who believe players with RMT-acquired items are “cheating”.

And now with this announcement, WoW players looking to RMT on eBay are SOL. As the Net’s largest auction site, the decision is sure to have a powerful impact on that controversy.

Despite all this, RMT is a burgeoning cottage industry, especially in Asia, as in China, where an estimated half a million people make a living from RMT, and in South Korea, where there’s evidently an RMT lobbying group. Whatever your opinion as a gamer of annoying “gold farmers”, RMT will play a major part in online worlds, and in my opinion, the future of work in general.

But just how total is eBay’s policy? I contacted company spokesperson Hani Durzy, to find out.

“Due to the legal complexity associated with these types of items, the sale of ‘virtual game items’ is now banned on eBay in the US and UK,” Durzy confirmed to me. “This includes the sale of game accounts, game characters, game currency, game points or other similar game items.”

But in his Slashdot interview, Durzy pointed to eBay’s policy that “The seller must be the owner of the underlying intellectual property, or authorized to distribute it by the intellectual property owner.” This caught my eye, because Linden Lab* allows subscribers in its online world Second Life to retain the IP rights to content they create in-world, and has a laissez faire policy on buying and selling land and the internal currency of Linden Dollars on third party markets. So I asked Hani Durzy if this policy applied to Second Life, as well.

“[T]here is still some question internally as to whether virtual worlds such as Second Life should be regarded as ‘games’,” Hani told me, “and so, at this time, we are not applying this policy to the trade of items that exist within Second Life, while we continue to investigate this issue.”

So for now, at least, on eBay, RMT for SL content and L$ is A-OK. And this is where things get interesting, because in 2004, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar became a major investor in Linden Lab. Did Omidyar have anything to do with this decision to let Second Life-based RMT slide?

“While Pierre is Chairman of the Board,” Durzy acknowledges, “he does not play a day-to-day role in the ongoing management of the eBay marketplace. This decision was made by our policy team.”

Whatever the case, this move is likely to shift the development of upcoming online worlds. While Second Life is the largest commercial online world with a liberal policy on RMT, a boatload of major competitors are imminent, from Multiverse to Raph Koster’s Areae to Open Croquet. With WoW’s total domination in the “walled garden” variety of online worlds, and eBay’s new policy, it’s likely this next generation will look for ways to turn company-allowed RMT into a source for profit and sustainability.

In any event, it’s going to take awhile for eBay put their policy into action. A quick search for “World of Warcraft” items on eBay today turns up thousands of hits, many listing power-leveled characters, gold, and other RMT items.

“Listings get taken down as we become aware of them,” Durzy tells me. “Rememeber that at any given time, there are more than 100 million listings on eBay, and 6-7 million new listings go up on the site every day. There will always be a lag time between when something is listed, and when we can take it off the site.”

* Full disclosure: I was a part-time contactor with Linden Lab until early 2006, and continue on an independent basis to write about Second Life professionally.

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