The second virtual goods crime: is Runescape theft, theft?

The Dutch Supreme Court will be invited later this year to conclude that the theft of virtual goods from Runescape constitutes theft under Dutch criminal law; indications to date suggest that it may conclude that theft of virtual currency/goods IS criminal theft.  To my knowledge, this is only the second time that a Western court has considered the (increasingly important) issue of the relationship between virtual goods and criminal law, the first time having been a UK criminal court earlier this year over Zynga chips.*

According to Futocop, this Dutch case apparently forms part of a long-running matter which began in 2008 when two boys were sentenced to community service and suspended juvenile detention after they forced a 13-year old to transfer a Runescape virtual mask and a virtual amulet from one avatar to another under the threat of physical violence.  The detail is not entirely clear from Futocop, but I think what happened next is that the case was appealed, but the Court of Appeal ruled against the defendants and the case is now going even higher, to the Supreme Court.

One point in particular is worth noting.  As part of the referral of the case to the Supreme Court, the Dutch  Advocate General (a sort of legal expert whose job is to assist the court to make its decision) said that the economic value of the virtual goods is of particular interest to the question whether there is theft:

Virtual objects can represent an economic value both inside and outside the game. They are also individually distinguishable and transferable“.

This comment is interesting because, if it was accepted by legal authorities, then basically that on its own could bring virtual goods and currency within the existing law.  Put it another way: if both physical goods and virtual goods are recognised as having the same economic value even though one exists in the real world and one does not, then that is a powerful argument for both of them to be protected in the same way legally.  In a way this is nothing new really: after all shares, electronic money and electricity are all legally protected even though you can’t physically touch them.  But it is taking some time for courts to recognise that virtual goods fall into this category too.  Of course, once that recognition is made, it opens up a whole new can of worms for the games and tech industry: who owns virtual goods?  What can you do with them?  What classes as virtual goods – game items, ebooks apps? And so on (more details on that here).

Anyway, in the meantime this case is due to go to the Supreme Court in October 2011, so expect more details later in the year…

* For those virtual goods scholars who are reading this post, to clarify: I know there have been previous opportunities in the West to consdier the legal status of virtual goods (e.g. Bragg v Linden Labs), but to my knowledge all of them resulted in settlements etc with no judicial pronouncements being made.

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3 comments

  1. Wait a minnit: MP3, JPEG, PDF and other files are also virtual goods which can be traded, and there's not (much) debate about their legal status. So I think it'd be helpful to coin a term for virtual goods traded within a game or virtual currency system such as the alternative money schemes – meta-money or super-virtual goods, anyone?

  2. There has been cases of virtual theft in Finnish courts: This March Hyvinkää court ruled that virtual furniture in Habbohotel (http://www.habbo.fi/) is not stolen goods as defined by law. 16 years old boy had stolen virtual furniture worth of 465 euros, and used the game avatar of another user. This later offence was punishable by law: he got fines as "mild unauthorized usage" or what ever the correct translation of the law term might be.

  3. Hijacking Runescape accounts is getting more common at the moment. The recent return of the Free Trade system within the game has encouraged Hijacking, phishing and scamming of player accounts.

    The hijacked accounts are stripped of their virtual goods, which either get sold in Real World Trade or transferred to another player.

    The sooner this type of crime is formalised in law the better.

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