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Everquest class action threat over auction spat

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EverQuest players who tried to sell characters or in-game items, only to have their online auctions cancelled, are being invited to join a class action law suit against publisher Sony, writes Andrew Smith.

A web site set up to announce the suit, which also targets developers Verant, eBay and "any other service" which has cancelled auctions, says:

"If you believe that any one of (these) parties have infringed on your rights to freely sell your time, please add your name to the growing list of those who wish to stop these unconstitutional actions."

The selling of characters and items from the massive virtual world of EverQuest appears to be a violation of the game's license agreement, which states that Verant "shall retain ownership of all intellectual property rights". This has led to eBay cancelling a number of EverQuest auctions, and now banning them entirely.

But the class action statement claims that people organising these sales are in fact "selling the time spent building the status of an Everquest character" or "selling the time spent obtaining the item".

Due to this, would-be claimants are told, the sales are "protected by law" and Sony, Verant, eBay et al are "restricting your right to trade your time for money".

There has been no official statement about the case from any of the targeted companies, and Verant did not respond yesterday to a request for comments.

Whodunnit?
Mystery surrounds the proposed class action, along with inevitable cynicism, as nobody seems to know who is organising it.

The announcement page sits in a subdirectory of GravitySpot.com, a Washingon web design company with a lacklustre site and a somewhat unusual boast for a dotcom outfit: "We attribute our excellence directly to our Christian faith as well as our experienced and well trained staff."

The company's contact e-mail address bounces, as does mail to the standard webmaster@ address. An e-mail sent yesterday morning to postmaster@ didn't bounce, but it hasn't been answered.

E-mail sent to the site's admin contact listed by Whois, Chris Flanders, hasn't had any response either.

Calls to Gravity Spot yesterday were picked up by an answer machine but there was no mention of a company name, just "the office of Dennis Flanders". Messages left on his voice mail haven't been returned.

A quick search through the Washington phone listings turns up a Dennis Flanders living next door to Gravity
Spot's office, but his home number "does not accept unidentified calls".

There is no number listed for Gravity Spot itself.

Even a request to sign up for the class action, and another to be kept up to date on how it's going, didn't receive any sort of acknowledgement or extra
info.

So quite who is behind all of this, or what their motives are, is anyone's guess.

A number of theories are circulating, ranging from it being an elaborate hoax to collect e-mail addresses for spamming, to it being organised by someone who was making a tidy packet from EverQuest auctions and is angry about eBay stopping them.

Born to be sold

The auctioning of properties from EverQuest and other online games has become something of a cottage industry, with hundreds of dollars changing hands for experienced characters, powerful weapons or precious items.

It is thought that some skilled players have been able to earn a decent living from the game, simply by building up characters and selling them -- get a new account for $9.89, play with it for a few weeks, sell at a huge profit, and repeat.

But people's willingness to hand over real world money for instant success in the game world has provided another opportunity for con artists, and there is little that Verant can do when someone claims they have been ripped off. This has led to the company's current efforts to stop auctions entirely.

"We don't allow account transfers, because we can't be responsible for all the fraud that goes on," explained Verant spokesman Gordon Wrinn in November last year.
"Someone might look reputable on those auction sites, but it takes only a couple of days and costs a couple of dollars to work up a convincing profile. There is more fraud involved in account and item sales than you can possibly imagine."

Despite this warning, some auction sites, such as Yahoo and Player Auctions, are allowing EverQuest properties to be sold.

Player Auctions has even gone so far as to ban representatives of severalgames companies -- including Sony and Verant - from visiting the site,
presumably to prevent them from spying on auctioneers and closing their game accounts.

Here's an example of Yahoo character auction.

"We fundamentally believe in a user's right to profit from their own time," said Shane Benson of Player Auctions.

"That is what the free market is all about. Can you imagine if Microsoft took the same position? Users of Office would not be able to sell information or content that they had entered into Word or Excel. It is
ridiculous."

History of controversy

Verant's banning of EverQuest auctions is the latest in a string of emotive issues that has seen the company both hailed for its strength and, in extreme cases, boycotted for its weakness.

In October last year, a player was banned for writing an explicitly violent story based on an in-game character and posting it on an unofficial message board. Verant CEO John Smedley later admitted that the situation had been handled badly, but the player did not return.

Software developer Ben Ziegler was ordered to end work on his EQ Macros program, which could record in-game keystrokes and play them back, allowing tedious tasks to be repeated easily. The cease and desist order, sent by Sony, accused Ziegler of "an unfair business act" and copyright infringement.

This week, discussions of server problems posted on the game's official message board were reportedly being blocked or deleted entirely, just one of many censorship accusations levelled at Verant in recent months.

Even way back in February 1999, on the day EverQuest 'went gold' (when it was sent off for duplication) the game's executive producer, Brad McQuaid, issued a statement which included this bewildering comment: "It doesn't mean that EverQuest is done. We are still fixing bugs on both the client and the server, and tuning and adjusting all the data that makes up the game." Not surprisingly, there has been controversy since the very beginning. ®

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