Friday, 31 July 2009

EpisTEMS month 3 - Tenants rights in Virtual worlds

Well, after another month of working hard trying to get episTEMS going and actually making enough Lindens to pay the rent, the following arrived in my mail box:

"Hi Snowy due to the unviabillity of sims in SL will be shutting down ********* in 24 hours, and leaving SL permanently. I ask the you removed your possessions. Thanks"

Well that was a kick in the ass! It was also the first time i'd heard from the landlord since moving in, I still had a couple of weeks rent left on the land so after talking to several other tenants I IM'd the sim owner asking for a reimbursement of rental still outstanding (I neglected to ask for extra cover for the loss of business during this period, maybe pushing it too far) replies and no lindens returned....the land was duly wiped after 24 hours and the sim has now gone.

This is also the third time this has happened to me in 2 years, which leads me to ask Who is governing tenants rights in SL?

James Grimmelmann wrote an article in the Yale Law Journal on Virtual World Feudalism that discusses the reluctance of the Lindens to get involved in disputes between Sim owners and Tenants but that having the Lindens as a direct Lord/Land owner would have it's benefits.

While it may be easier for me to sign up as a full paid SL account and buy a patch of mainland that would be governed by myself and would allow me to go straight to Linden Labs if I have any issues, i'm not convinced that the monthly fee would cover a theoretical tenants insurance.

The fact that tenants have to agree to a covenant written by Sim owners to try and keep a Sim running smoothly and aesthetically pleasing is all well and good but how many Sim covenants include a statement of the Sim owners responsibilites towards paying tenants? Many sim owners gather together in groups/business's to offer a singular covenant across a number of sims and a management company to run these sims, but as a tenant am I now able to follow the matter up with a management company who's reputation has been tarnished by a sim owner no longer on their books?

In RL many of these disputes are dealt with an independant management agency that deals with communications and issues between Tenants/Landlords while also ensuring that lease statements and rules are adhered to on both sides, by protecting the rights of both Tenants and Landlords a management agency can provide peace of mind and security to both sides, at a cost.

But SL is certainly not RL in this case, Sim owners are not all serious money investors and many run Sims as a hobby and sideline to other work, also they can relinquish ownership and responsibility for their sim within hours. But the cost of Sim's is high (far too high for myself or indeed a group of RL friends to take ownership of) and those who decide to embark on becoming a Landlord to a large group of tenants should perhaps think twice about the level of responsibilty and time they are willing to invest, when real money is changing hands between a group of people it is almost inevitible that disputes will arise.

What solutions are on offer?

Perhaps the formation of a SecondLife citizens advice bureau to advise both Landlords and Tenants on their virtual rights and to offer a number of set processes that followed to ensure the least number of issues when renting land, also to act as a third party mediator between disputes.

A Tenants rights covenant could be written up and offered to Sim owners to agree upon and then followed among their sims, if this was widely used then anyone looking for land rentals in SL could then expect at least a basic level of insurance and responsibility among sims, this would also go both ways (many covenants on sims do appear to include the same outlines).

Lastly there are some very large business's in SL that run many Sims and run them well under their own management companies and who take land ownership and rentals very seriously. Do they not feel that these more feudal sim's cause damage to the reputation of their business? Perhaps if a number of these banded together themselves and used their financial weight they could perhaps bend the ear of Linden Labs or help produce a greater level of control throughout SL.

Lastly, I hold no malice towards my former Landlord, as a former RL landlord I more than understand the strains the current climate has put upon those that invest in property and land inworld and out, yet I can't help thinking that with a little more effort from both sides things could well have ended more amicably and less abrupt.

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