Out in the grand expanses of the world wide web, there are really two competing models of IP licensing in the MMO world. The first is followed by the vast majority of games, including the ever-popular World of Warcraft. The other is a more recent development employed by Second Life. After explaining these two in brief, I would like to propose an alternative "middle ground" which could significantly alter the MMO landscape. This IP model is accompanied by a brief discussion of a relevant business model which is closely related.
The World of Warcraft Model
I term this the "World of Warcraft" model, but it historically begins more in the Ultima Online age. The model is basically as follows: The developer provides all content, which is licensed to the user. The user has, basically, no rights under this model. In short, no matter what it took for you to get that Blackfury, the item is merely "on loan" to you from the developer. You can never truly own it. This model is the most popular because it protects the assets of the developer, specifically all the intellectual property that went into the game you're playing. After years of development, most developers don't want to chance anyone walking away with even part of their intellectual property.
The Second Life Model
The Second Life model is much different. In short, the developer provides the basics of the world, but it is up to the user to fill in the rest. The upshot to this model is the user owns their IP. The downside, on the other hand, is that to get a truly enveloping storyline like WoW, it takes a user developing one, not to mention the play mechanics to accompany it. For those seeking profit, this model is ideal. For those looking for an adventure, elsewhere would probably be a better choice.
So, where does that leave the player? If they want an adventure, the WoW model is the choice, but they never truly have any interest in what they've accomplished. On the flip side, the SL model gives unlimited ownership, but no pre-written storyline to speak of. The alternative rests in an argument eBayers made for years while selling vitrual goods they did not truly own.
The alternative boils down to drafting a license in such a manner that the player does not own the item he has acquired, rather his effort to acquire it salable. In terms of drafting, there are two likely ways to create this system:
1. Establish a license that acknowledges player effort and allows the sale of player "effort" vis a vis the sale of items.
2. Draft the license in such a way that each individual game property is granted based on a license that is transferable only between players.
Of course, to continue to exert proper intellectual property controls over these licenses, the developer would have to implement something else. Specifically, an integrated real money auction system. Let's be perfectly honest: People are willing to pay money for characters and items in MMORPGs. Moreover, while the eBay ban has slowed the market, it has by no means shut it down. So, what is a developer to do? Police the market at a high cost?
The alternative here, of course, is to create your own auction. The business model is simple enough: Allow players to list, buy and sell items and characters. Provide for integrated exchange tools in the game. Use an online payment system to automate the process. Put in feedback. Then charge a transaction fee and you're making an even bigger profit off your MMO monster than your were before. While the coding may be difficult, the reward could be enormous. And such a system would not further entangle your development company with the IRS, in case that was a concern. (Players would be on their own to report MMO profits to Uncle Sam, unless a regulatory change moves all MMO income from ordinary income to gambling winnings.)
In short, it is not beyond the realm of possibility for a developer to legitimize real money trades in games where they wish to retain the majority of the rights to the IP. It would take a concerted effort and more work than the creation of a typical MMO, but the potential profit from such a system seems limitless. Of course, a new, carefully drafted license as noted above would be an absolute must to be sure that the developer's rights are protected.
[Update: It would seem Joystiq is reading my mind today. In fact, Sony's StationExchange operates on a similar model to what I've suggested here. Check back in the near future for a more in-depth analysis of the Sony model.]