Virtual Worlds; Real Theft?

by: Andrew Gioia, Associate Editor, MTTLR

Last week, a court in the Netherlands criminalized the theft of”virtual goods.” (Dutch news report.) According to a ruling handed down by a Dutch court, two teenagers, aged 14 and 15, were found guilty of theft after physically coercing a 13-year-old boy into transferring virtual money, a virtual amulet, and a virtual mask to their accounts in the online fantasy adventure game, RuneScape. Though the court only dealt with the theft issue and not the more obvious assault, it plainly and forcefully held that “[t]hese virtual goods are considered goods under Dutch law, so this is theft.”

Despite both the clarity of this ruling and the apparent intellectual property and monetary value that can be derived from games with their own currency and property, game-based virtual theft claims have had a rather uncertain history. For instance, Second Life, one of the Internet’s largest virtual realities, has seen both the wrongful “taking” of in-game land and a lawsuit between users for copying the design of objects sold in Second Life’s marketplace in the past year alone.

In the US, Minnesota police refused to recognize $4,000 of virtual currency stolen in Final Fantasy as a crime, explaining that because virtual items “are devoid of monetary value,” no crime had actually been committed. Perhaps even more significantly, the MMORPG, EVE Online, saw a large-scale banking scheme that defrauded a number of users. The stolen money was estimated to be worth as much as $170,000 in the real-world marketplace, and the scam even got the attention of some in the legal community who likened it to “actionable real-world fraud”.

Virtual goods like these, including game-based currencies, may not only have real economic value, but online communities like Facebook, Live Journal, and even Dogster have begun to create sentimental, communicative, and self-expressive value in virtual gifts that members can send to each other. These businesses, as well as games like Second Life and Gaia, are in some cases making tens of millions of dollars in revenue by selling virtual goods to personalize virtual avatars, land, and the like, and at least South Korea has even begun taxing these virtual property transactions.

Ultimately, as long as virtual goods inside of video games can be converted into real economic value, online thefts like the one seen in the Netherlands will continue or even increase “as ‘criminals’ may think the court systems and the police are not educated in online gaming, or the law as it pertains to in-game items and cash.” As one Dutch columnist argued even before this recent virtual theft, “[a]s long as the original owner loses something of value (such as virtual items) due to the act of another individual who gains possession over the item, it should . . . be qualified as theft, no matter whether the locus delicti is in the physical or the virtual world.”

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