Slide Inc., subsequently acquired by Google, offered consumers the ability to adopt, care for and interact with virtual pets on an online platform. Basic access was free, but consumers had the option to spend real money on their virtual pets through the purchase of ‘gold’, which could then be used to buy ‘virtual items in order to customize a pet’s environment’, as well as VIP subscriptions with exclusive content not available to ordinary users.
(PT Barnum had a line about this sort of thing, didn’t he?) When Google bought Slide, it announced some changes to the scheme: after a certain date, no more gold would be available for purchase, any credit in gold accounts would be forfeited to Google and VIP subscriptions would cease to be sold. A few months later, the whole scheme was terminated.Christalee Abreu brought class proceedings against Google, arguing that the decision to suspend gold purchases and VIP memberships caused basic users to sign up for VIP access while they could and to stockpile virtual items purchased with gold for future sale to other users. The decision to terminate the game deprived users of their property rights in the virtual pets and the items bought for them, rendering them essentially worthless. Google countered by pointing to the arbitration clause in the user agreement, which pre-empted litigation.
The California district court upheld the arbitration clause, in spite of the plaintiffs’ argument that it was unconscionable: Abreu v Slide Inc, 2012 US Dist LEXIS 96932 (ND Cal, 12 July 2012). Alsup J concluded that the clause was not ‘so one-sided as to shock the conscience’ of the court, even though it permitted Google to seek injunctive relief but precluded a consumer from seeking the same remedy, required a $125 filing fee by a consumer with a claim under $10,000 and mandated a 30-day informal negotiation process before arbitration or any court proceeding could be initiated. Google’s motion to compel arbitration was granted. Maybe on appeal, if there is one, there will be more discussion of the legal nature of virtual property.