Legal names in virtual worlds

Until recently, it has not really been possible for residents of virtual worlds to use their real life name. While Second Life™ has had its Custom Name Program for some time, residents have understandably balked at having to pay Linden Research, Inc. a fee of $1,000 (plus $500 per annum) for the privilege of being able to use their real name. As a result, one of the first challenges to confront a new immigrant to Second Life has been the selection of a name. Spending a few minutes reading Vint Falken’s 19 Sept 2008 post which gives some good tips on wise avatar name selection would definitely be worth your time before making your final name selection if you are at this stage of things.

Many of us in the legal world, however, do not have the luxury of being able to utilize a fictitious name–at least with regard to practicing law. Putting aside the thorny issue of whether or not a fictitious name would be considered false to the public under Rule 7.1 of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, it would certainly constitute the practice of law under a “trade name.” While some make take solace in the fact that Rule 7.5(a) states that “[a] trade name may be used by a lawyer in private practice if it does not imply a connection with a government agency or with a public or charitable legal services organization and is not otherwise in violation of Rule 7.1,” as this Model Rule has not been fully adopted by some states you’ll need to ensure that your jurisdiction allows for it.

For example, here in Iowa, Rule of Professional Conduct 32:7.5(e) specifically prohibits the practice of law “under a trade name, a name that is misleading as to the identity of the lawyer or lawyers practicing under such name, or a firm name containing names other than those of one or more of the lawyers in the firm.” As noted in the Commentary to Rule 32:7.5, the use of a trade name or an assumed name could mislead laypersons concerning the identity, responsibility, and status of those practicing under a trade name or an assumed name. Accordingly, if you are going to practice law in a virtual world you are going to have to enter it naked.

I use the term “naked” not to imply that you won’t have any clothing, but rather that you will be free from the veil of anonymity that normally covers residents in virtual worlds and, indeed, much of the internet itself. One look at the comments to many posts will reveal that the nom de plume is not only alive and well in the 21st Century but maybe at its zenith. The folks at Blizzard once attempted to require real names on their forums, but gave up as their forum groaned with the weight of thousands of posts about the issue. Anonymous and fictitious online identities are here to stay.

Tre Critelli on the hypergrid under his real name. (Image courtesy Tre Critelli.)

But I am the first to admit that logging on under ones real name is a bit… uncomfortable. I’m no stranger to virtual worlds (see my “who” page for more about that), but actually making an account and logging into a virtual world as myself was—and still is–a bit scary for some reason. Yes, I have some concern about on-line griefing.  But mostly it is that the wall between the virtual and the physical has ceased to exist. That I personally will be responsible for the words said and actions undertaken, just as I am in the physical world. It is no longer a game, a place of escape, but rather an extension and a new place to live.

(This column reprinted with permission from The Hypergrid Lawyer.)

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