There’s an interesting and potentially unsettling article on the MIT Technology Review, How Much Will your Facebook Friends Be Worth in Court?, by Christopher Mims. The article’s tag line reads, “Legal scholars declare that virtual property must be divided or reimbursed in divorce proceedings,” which begs the question, how does one divide or cede over a piece of code? Do you hand over a shoebox full of floppy discs?
As absurd as this may seem, lawyer and legal scholar, Sally Brown Richardson, United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, has written a paper on this matter, Classifying Virtual Property in Community Property Regimes: Are My Facebook Friends Considered Earnings, Profits, Increases in Value, or Goodwill?
Ms Richardson’s abstract from the Tulane Law Review article:
Virtual property, or that property which exists only in the intangible world of cyberspace, is of growing importance. Millions of people use some form of virtual property every day, be it an e-mail account, a blog, or a Facebook profile. Billions of dollars are spent to acquire property in the virtual world. And the economic and social impact of virtual property is only likely to increase at light year speed.
As the importance of virtual property continues to rise, laws pertaining to virtual property must similarly develop. Among the emerging legal issues yet unaddressed by scholarship or jurisprudence is how community property regimes will respond to virtual community (or separate) property. Because the acquisition of virtual property such as websites, domain names, e-mail accounts, and even Facebook pages, create a property interest, in the nine community property states, community property laws impact what rights spouses have in such property. Thus, spouses are on the brink of litigating issues such as whether a Uniform Resource Locator (URL) is community or separate property, whether a website generates an increase in separate property, whether e-mail contacts are profits, and whether Facebook friends create goodwill. Community property jurisdictions must be prepared to quickly adapt to the reality of virtual property if the regimes wish to avoid being left in the wake of cyberspace. To aid courts in their impending task of considering virtual property in a community setting, this Article examines how different forms of virtual property should be classified in community property regimes. After explaining the classification scheme within community property jurisdictions, the Article details examples of virtual property likely to be present in modern couples’ lives, and considers how the identified examples of virtual property should be classified.
My knee jerk reaction: What money grubbing, soon-to-be-ex spouse and/or money-grubbing, negative advocate divorce attorney came up with yet another avenue to squeeze blood from a stone? Then I thought about it some more . . . and still find it utterly distasteful and parasitic. However, this issue raises some interesting questions.
Ms Richardson rationalizes making virtual property and Facebook friends joint marital property in Technology Review:
Suppose when H entered the marriage he had 500 Facebook friends. During the course of the marriage, H acquires 500 more Facebook friends. Unlike photos or comments, Facebook friends are not content H posts; Facebook friends are connections H makes. By friending people, H will gain certain rights because he will be able to view more Facebook profiles.
Because H’s labor during the community increased the value of his separate property, W would be entitled to either a reimbursement or an ownership interest in that separate property depending upon the jurisdiction.
Similarly, by adding additional friends H generally allows more people to see his profile. Thus, increasing the number of Facebook friends, H increases the value of his Facebook profile because he increases the rights of his profile. The value of H’s Facebook page was increased using community labor; H had to spend time and energy finding and requesting friends.
This seems like more legalese mental masturbation-reality twisting designed to extract money from couples going through an already costly divorce process and/or a way for a spiteful wife or husband to make their ex “pay some more, goddammit!” Child custody is an issue that often needs to be figured out in Family Court, but Facebook Friends and Farmville crops? Really?! Then again, considering the state of our economy, perhaps the only property couples going through a divorce have to squabble over nowadays is virtual property.
Who really owns your virtual content?
Virtual items that people purchase for games and virtual worlds may be a billion dollar industry, but it’s based on microtransactions. These virtual items are pieces of code for which a person pays, in some cases, 2.7-cents. How do you divide 2.7-cents? Furthermore, the virtual item doesn’t actually belong to the person who buys it; the item is copyrighted data that belongs to Zynga or Electronic Arts, for example.
Everyone who uses Facebook creates content and an ever growing database of information that Facebook owns or that Facebook sorta, kinda owns. You don’t own your profile page. Oprah doesn’t own her Facebook Fan page. H & R Cooling and Heating doesn’t own their Facebook business page. Facebook owns these pages and all of the content and information that every user generates. Or do they? If an individual actually doesn’t own their Facebook friend thumbnails and Farmiville crops, how does it become fodder for community property? This is a real issue that lots of people are very concerned about right now. You can read about it in the CNN post, Facebook faces furor over content rights.
This raises other questions: Who owns your LinkedIn profile? You or LinkedIn? Who own your Google email account and all of your correspondence? You or Google? How do you squabble over a Facebook friend that you can delete with a click of a button? Are virtual friends worth more than real, offline friends? How do you account for friends who are unfriended during the marriage?
If virtual property, which is intangible, is community property, are the thoughts in your head, which are also intangible, community property? Are the dreams you had while sleeping during your marriage community property? Will the courts decide which friends the ex-husband and ex-wife get to keep? Do the friends get a say in this? Just how far are some people willing to go to extract money from and inflict pain on an ex-spouse? Am I the only person who thinks this is nuts?
A woman in China tried to claim half of her husband’s virtual property unsuccessfully.
Belinda Luscombe comments on this news item in Memo to Gamer Wives: You Can’t Take It with You in Time Magazine. Here is the original story as reported in the Beijing Morning Post:
The People’s Court of Shunyi district in Beijing dismissed a woman’s claim to the virtual assets she earned with her husband, whom she was divorcing, Beijing Morning Post reported on Monday.
The couple tied the knot at the end of 2008 after they got to know each other through an online game in May. Marital life was a struggle for both online-game fans. They blamed each other for being lazy in housework, before the wife filed for divorce.
The couple played the online games under the ID the husband had registered. In court, the wife asked for her share of the virtual assets they earned in the game, but the husband refused.
The court ruled divorce for the couple, but rejected the wife’s claim, saying such issues can be ruled by the law only when virtual assets are related to the real world, such as when they have been valued with real currencies.
What does this mean for the Shrink4Men Community?
This is one maximalist money extraction divorce settlement maneuver that may just end up backfiring on high-conflict and/or abusive personality-disordered divorcees. Why? Because studies have shown there is a strong correlation between narcissistic/borderline/histrionic traits and social network usage. Based on anecdotal evidence and self-reporting by Shrink4Men community members, many of their wives, girlfriends and exes are obsessive friend gatherers on more than one social network. These women are also obsessed with Farmville and devote hours to it everyday. For example, Shivering Fool writes:
. . . But when I finish working my two home-based jobs, she expects me to help 50/50 with the kids, clean dishes, think what’s for dinner, etc. I never complain. I work like a dog, am working on my own startup – on top of my two jobs (which could significantly change our lives if it goes well) and still find time to do chores. In contrast, she plays farmville regularly and will not admit she wastes time. . .
. . . Ironically, her “use” of my FB info was so that I could become a “Farmville” neighbor…yeah right! She’ll spend HOURS a night doing that damn game…this from someone who’s done no gardening, nevermind farming in her life! And, it’s funny how she’s taken it SO seriously…just the other day, she mentions that one of her relatively close friends (who’s probably BPD/NPD as well, but is “old maid” material herself, thankfully!) just moved up a “higher level” on Farmville, and she was STEAMED! (NPD, anyone?) I mean, my wife will sit there and calculate point values and how long things take to “grow” so that she can maximize her points…incredible…if only she devoted 10% of the time and effort that she puts into this nonsense into our house and our relationship…
A Shrink4Men Forum member writes:
On the other hand. My STBX continues to “work” late hours and when she is home, spends all her time on Farmville, practically ignoring our daughter except for the routine rituals she goes through (i.e. good bye hug in the morning when I take her to school).
Who knows? Maybe the philatelic obsession of collecting Facebook friends and Farmville crops could give some men leverage in their divorce settlements. Ultimately, making virtual property into community property seems to be more about a high-conflict spouse finding yet another way to control, inflict harm and create more headaches for the other spouse than it is about dividing a valuable asset. It also seems to be another item negative advocate divorce attorneys can use to prolong high-conflict cases and inflate their fees. Most of my clients would rather delete their Facebook accounts and start over than haggle over intangible value with a money hungry, conflict addicted ex-wife. What do you think?
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Sally Brown Richardson. “Classifying Virtual Property in Community Property Regimes: Are My Facebook Friends Considered Earnings, Profits, Increases in Value, or Goodwill?” Tulane Law Review 85.3 (2011).
Ok – so, H gets friends. H and W get divorced. She gets half the friends. What if said friends don’t want to be her friend? Or vice-versa? I will admit that I (and my husband) are avid social networkers. I actually only have about 100 friends though – I don’t do the rabid “friending” I see so many people do. I also have several websites – one of which is a family site. One is my business site. I have also built a site for him. Should some sad day come and we go our separate ways, I don’t see how my business site could become his – or his tech blog become mine. I built it for him, set it up for him – but it’s HIS blog. Our family blog would go the way of the Dodo because there would be no more family to talk about. My facebook page is mine and his is his. If we were to split up, our friends would make the decision if they wanted to stay on mine, his or both. You can’t force someone to be on your friend list. This just makes no sense to me whatsoever.
Well, I guess it does in one small way. His ex contacted me after I set up our family blog (I still don’t know how she found it) and accused me of copying her and was rather nasty about it. I didn’t even know she’d had a family blog when they were married. Turns out, it wasn’t – it was HER blog where she’d complain about her family constantly with anyone who would listen. I just told her not to contact me anymore – as I had no business with her.
I know that some people who are highly addicted to Farmville spend a lot of real money on extras for the games – but don’t these couples have their own individual Facebook pages? I’m not understanding how this would work somewhere.
Dr Tara Palmatier says
I don’t get it either, SFG. Actually, I do think I get it. I think negative advocate divorce attorneys have spotted a brand new, as of yet, untapped cash cow. Just think how many extra months a divorce case could drag on while this meaningless nonsense is haggled over. I’d just blow up my accounts and start over. This really is craziness and, as regular S4M readers know, high-conflict, APDIs are puh-lenty crazy enough to want 50-cents on the dollar for every FB friend.
The question is, who will be the first nutter to attempt this in US family court and will the judge dismiss it as frivolous nonsense?
I hope they don’t only dismiss it – but charge whoever started it with BOTH attorneys fees.
Dr Tara Palmatier says
I think people get married because that’s just kinda-sorta what you are supposed to do, plus it is a lifelong dream and fantasy and many are deeply convinced it will make them happy or fulfill them, plus it is just so normal and normalized that you’d almost have to be a kook to question it and do anything but get married (that is from the perspective of the never-yet married or the preeningly sanctimonious “happily married”), but honestly – when you’ve had the reason or cause to look hard at what it really means, really entails, what incredible unimaginable power over your life that you are signing over to the whims of a divorce attorney who you don’t even know who s/he is when you actually tie the knot … why? Just how awful and ugly are they willing to make marriage?
It’s like some kind of mass insanity. We all want a piece of the marriage action, but no one responsible for marriage’s success as an institution “owns” it, or owns responsibility for it. Anything approximating ownership is exclusively the province of a cadre of professionals who prosper from its dissolution.
Everything they add to family law – its like we have this beat up car that keeps getting “recalled” for defects and each time it comes back with a new means of torturing its drivers and passengers. Sorry for the vent – I just read something like this and wonder what the point is? Not of the article that is, but of the subject. Why marry when there are people dedicated to using it to destroy you and profit at the expense of your destruction and the destitution of your family and psychic destabilization of your children to boot? Why do this? What advantages are conferred that could be worth the risk and cost?
Dr Tara Palmatier says
Depressing, but good and relevant points, D. Men should think long and hard before saying I do as they stand to suffer a lot more than a broken heart if things end badly.
D, good, and very true-points. My thought/take on marriage is the same as yours. However, when I articulate it to others, they remark what a downer I am, and that I just haven’t met the “right woman”. Well, I thought I did 16 years ago and it nearly killed me. 45% of marriages end in divorce. I would guess that an additional 30% are miserable and would like to divorce, but don’t because of kids etc. That leaves the world with about 25% of the population that just might actually be reasonably happy…and make it to the goal line-intact. Now, those are shit odds, no matter how you slice it. My marriage, in addition to all it’s cluster b terrorism, devolved into being told what to do, when to do it, by a whacky ass unhappy shrew. All for the glorious occasion of… once every 10 days or so-one sided sex. I musta had rocks in my head. Never again.
never again says
Hear, hear! I “thought’ I met the right woman, and it only took 3.5 years after she split black for it to almost kill me. And, I was sufficiently beaten down that I walked away from everything I’d ever accumulated in my life. My NPD got what should have formed most of my son’s (from my first marriage) inheritance.
I’m not specifically down on marriage, but it’s not for me. I will never, ever put myself in a position where I am married, co-habitating, sharing property, assets or investments with a woman. After having to start from scratch at age 50, I’m not taking that risk again.
My husband and I have been very happily married for eight years… But I think the reason we’re so happy is because we don’t have kids. His kids have been so nasty that they completely turned me off of motherhood. Instead of kids, we have dogs. They’re loyal, friendly, warm and cuddly and we don’t have to send them to college. Meanwhile, since my husband’s kids are pretty much grown, we live life the way we want… travel a lot, go out to dinner, and enjoy adult conversations with each other.
I realize we are very lucky. We get along famously and I can’t imagine why that would ever change. It was a sad day when his kids disowned him, but I think his ex might have actually helped preserve our marriage by alienating the kids so much that they don’t speak to us. I predict we’ll stay together.
Might be a little “off topic” but FB and these “games” are just another way to pay attention to others or not deal with their own issues. One BPD and a NPD, I knew, were both highly addicted to Mafia Wars/Farmville and Farkle. So bad, in fact, one could not leave home without a laptop to play even when invited over to friends for a night of dining and conversation. By constantly “judging” others on FB, they don’t have to face the fact that their lives are a screwed up mess.
And when it comes to “virtual property”, you know if it can cause trouble…sooner or later, they will find a way to use it against someone.
This is scary. Dividing real world assets and determining custody is hard enough. What next, putting a clause in a pre-nup that any of my World of Warcraft characters created before the marriage and any WoW gold and equipment remain mine if the marriage dissolves? It would be bad enough if I had to pay real money to support an ex’s account but would I have to pay virtual alimony and child support to?
Closure at last says
Boy, just when you thought there couldn’t be more channels to help Cluster B conflicts-in-court, up pops another, literally virtually! Before women who were overtly attention-craving used to lurk around bars and more external social gathering places, now they’re all over cyberspace. So no longer do we have the usual NPD-BPD pairing between similar men and women, but now the quasi-schizoids and quasi-aspie males(both types being introverted and preferring e-mails to direct conversations) have become prime meat for the Cluster Bs online – due to both B and schizoid omnipresence in online dating and FB – type sites.
In some ways it would be better to let these pathological ‘gimme, gimme’ takers take away virtual ‘property’ than real, tangible property. But better, just to see all the red flags before and gain knowledge about them before venturing into relations with them. FB has connected people, and has both pros and cons, but interestingly it has also become a great weeding-out tool to recognize who the pathological narcissists are – as shown in that previous article of Dr.T. You can almost make out which ones are disordered based on the way in which they pose and seek attention, do not keep their albums private, or declare to the world every tiny mundane detail of their life like it is the best thing since sliced bread.
The craziest and saddest story I’d read was of a Chinese (or was it Japanese?) couple who forgot and starved and killed their own baby to death because they were too busy playing a game of ‘raising’ a virtual baby! True story. And the mom in Florida whose toddler drowned in the pool while she was addicted to facebook, and when she discovered his body, she ran first to post this ‘status update’ that her kid had drowned and THEN called the hospital.
@David – great video.
@ D, never again,and Chester. I can’t wait till pre-nups are made compulsory and marriage, the threatening way it exists in the US, is declared an obsolete institution.
Two of my best friends have been together for 15 years with a child too as a ‘conjointe’ couple – the French cohabitation method. Another couple have two kids, been together for 20 years happily (they’re French Canadian) but never married under civil law, but live under the french ‘conjugal’ law. Even as a woman I still can’t understand the big deal about ‘weddings’. Cluster Bs turn marriage into a prison and a wedding not about love, but about a big grand ‘show.’ Marriage is turned into a clamp and leash, and boy, books endorsed by Dr. Phil (‘Love Smart’, which should be renamed ‘Love Farts’) and others like ‘Why Men Marry Bitches’ train insecure women to put up an act of ‘happy and secure’ to practice ways of trapping and whipping. (I’m going to throw up now, as seeing the truth in print, really zeroes in how disgusting this game has become.) Legal ‘Marriage’ has lost all the basis of love, committment and companionship it was meant to be and perhaps which a minority of people still view it as and live up to, and has become a huge commercial business now – that’s why its laws probably will never be made obsolete here. See how many groups are profiting both from the ceremony and the dissolution! Big big business! I call it the ‘how to get a man and how to get over a man’ industry.
Pre-nups, pre-nups, pre-nups – that’s the only way to go to save one’s backside. In every step, either way more money for the lawyers. (sigh.) C’est la vie.
Remember that weird news story of a wife who divorced her husband in real life for ‘cheating’ on her in the virtual world in some game ‘Second life’ that they were both addicted to – each weighing some 400 pounds because they never went out to exercise? crazy crazy.
Closure at last says
http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1859231,00.html Just found that story had even made it to Time magazine. Maybe it is not a bad idea to let irreversibly disordered people ‘live’ their lives, squabbles and conflicts completely in a virtual world, out of touch with reality as they anyway are, and let saner people live their lives in the real world in peace. It’s funny how in this article the husband says that he had his ‘virtual’ affair on Second Life because his wife neither in Real life nor in virtual life gave him any attention (being obsessed with the another game warcraft) and did not do any work around the house.
No words. One just has to shake one’s head in disbelief.
Sad State says
First off, I would never trust a “legitimate” author that misuses “light year” as a speed instead of a distance. It shows a laziness in thinking that minimizes the reliability of anything else they have to say. Hyperbole is one thing, understanding what you are saying is something else.
Second off, I agree that this reeks of BDP/NPD and their negative advocate attorneys finding yet another way to disrupt the lives of their poor victims.
I am constantly amazed at the way that the law, psychology, medical, entertainment, and media industries successfully suppress the reality that there are women out there whose SOLE purpose for living is to ruin the lives of the men in their life. So rather than being laughed out of court, those using this tactic will find themselves “understood” and supported by all of these industries.