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New Virtual Sheriff in Town

A Rutgers–Camden law professor studies the legal implications of freewheeling online communities.

Greg Lastowka
Greg Lastowka, an expert in internet law, codirects the Institute for Information Policy and Law at Rutgers–Camden. Photography by Nick Romanenko

Your typical law professor doesn’t visit virtual worlds, certainly not those with names like Minecraft and Second Life. Then again, Greg Lastowka, a world-renowned expert in internet law, is not your typical law professor. Sure, he has authored law journal articles and books, but his real passion lies in mashing up legal rules with new technologies. Lastowka blogs and tweets, codirects the Rutgers Institute for Information Policy and Law, and has been invited to South Korea, Microsoft Research, the White House, and the Las Vegas MineCon convention to talk about law and video games.

Games have always been fun, but today they’re much more. In his book Virtual Justice: The New Laws of Online Worlds (Yale University Press, 2010), Lastowka tells the story of a scam conducted inside a game, using a “virtual bank” and the game’s currency to conduct a profitable Ponzi scheme. Gaming is big business, and the companies behind these virtual worlds wield tremendous power. “When you participate in a virtual world and buy into a virtual currency, it’s almost as if you’re leaving the United States and entering a new country,” says Lastowka. And the rules are pretty much set by the firms making the profits. “The law says, more or less, ‘You’re on your own. Good luck out there.’”

Lastowka is now leading researchers who are investigating the law and culture of amateur creativity online, funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation. Today, everyone is a writer or photographer, posting their content for free, yet the legal implications—what does this mean for copyright law?—remain largely uncharted. It’s yet another realm for Lastowka to explore.                                                        — Allan Hoffman