Angry game owners are demanding Google (NSDQ: GOOG) compensate them for wiping out their investments in online pets. The loss of a virtual kitty may seem like a trifle to some but, in the big picture, the new lawsuit could be a bellwether for how the law treats what is an exploding market in online goods and currencies.
For those more familiar with real-life Rovers, the new legal dispute turns on SuperPoke Pets, an online game in which players chose a pet (dog, frog, sheep, etc) and then care for it in an online realm with other pet owners. Many owners purchased “gold” using real life money and used the gold to buy items in the game.
That gold is now worthless after Google, which had purchased the game from a company called Slide, decided to axe it last summer. (As of March 6, the website will be gone though players will be able to load their pet onto a display case of sorts).
As Liz Gannes of All Things D reported last fall, furious players were seeking a law firm to bring a class action against Google. They appear to have found one and filed a lawsuit in late December. The case was transferred to federal court in San Jose this week.
The lead plaintiff is Christalee Abreu who says she spent more than a thousand dollars on virtual gold. The lawsuit purports to represent thousands of people across the US in two categories: those who purchased gold and those who subscribed to a $4.95/month VIP subscription.
As Gannes has noted, Google is likely to rely on a license agreement common to games that effectively tells users “them’s the breaks” if the game goes away.
The plaintiffs, however, have a sympathetic case. According to the lawsuit, some players rushed to stockpile virtual items after the company announced that it would stop offering gold-based transactions. These players hoped to sell their items on a secondary market (basically, a Craigslist of sorts for items like virtual doggy bones) but those hopes were dashed when Google said it would kibosh the game.
Disputes over SuperPoke gold and other online currencies were once the stuff of futurists and law school hypotheticals. But now it’s big business — observers suspect the sale of virtual goods counts for a healthy portion of Faceook’s revenue. And Forbes magazine recently asked if the social network should be considered a central bank in light of the spread of Facebook Credits.
The SuperPoke lawsuit may help define the legal rules of the road for virtual currencies.