Herman Miller Inc. has been facing a real problem in a virtual world. The Zeeland, Mich.-based company is known throughout the globe as a high-end maker of distinctively stylish and ergonomic furniture. For the past few years, however, unauthorized copies of its furniture began to appear--in Second Life.
Second Life is a 3-D virtual online world whose content is created by its users. Through their personalized avatars, more than 11 million members of Second Life interact with each other. They buy and sell items and build real-estate developments; they do just about everything that people do in real life--and more.
However, many businesses see virtual worlds as great marketing opportunities. The "population" of Second Life and other virtual worlds has been exploding, and the residents' demographics make them prime targets for many marketing pitches. "Those people tend to be ... a captive audience, so this is a good marketing opportunity," says Alan Behr, an IP attorney in Alston & Bird's New York office.
More than 100 major brands are legitimately marketed in Second Life, including Nike, Toyota and eBay. And the numbers are expected to grow.
A disgruntled IP owner could sue a Second Life resident for infringement, but it is uncertain how the courts would apply trademark and copyright law to virtual worlds. "There is little guidance on how the courts will view these things, so we are sort of finding our way in the dark," Baker says.
Then there's the danger of creating some very bad PR. Siccing lawyers on a Second Life resident can create a "very Internet-savvy, disgruntled person who can stir up a lot of grass-roots negativity," Sutin warns.