I couldn’t resist blogging quickly about this intriguing story, courtesy of The Guardian: a British MP wrote a formal question to the British government asking them to ensure that in-game theft be treated the same as real world theft. Answer: nope (ish), but it does raise a real question which judges are already addressing…
This is what MP Mike Weatherly said:
“To ask the Secretary of State for Justice if he will bring forward legislative proposals to ensure that cyber criminals who steal online items in video games with a real-world monetary value received the same sentences as criminals who steal real-world items of the same monetary value.”
“Those who commit theft or fraud online can be prosecuted for those offences and face severe maximum sentences. Sentencing for individual cases is a matter for the courts. The independent Sentencing Council issue guidelines to ensure consistency in sentencing.”
Which was a polite way of saying ‘no’.
There is actually a serious point here though. Should in-game theft be prosecuted under real world laws? There has been much academic writing about this over the years, including on august virtual world blog Terranova. For my part, I think that’s a long post for another day. Instead, I’ll just remind readers that in some countries we are ALREADY seeing this kind of legal precedent, based on existing laws rather than new laws.
Example 1: a UK man was successfully prosecuted for misappropriating Zynga Poker chips back in 2010 (which at the time I called the “first virtual currency crime in the UK”). He wasn’t prosecuted for theft as such, but it was the first time that a British judge was presented with, and was willing to entertain, the idea that virtual property was as deserving of legal protection as real property.
More generally, this blog has discussed previously the arguments for and against recognising virtual property. I think it’s fair to say that those arguments are still simmering away but haven’t really been brought to a head yet, in large part because in the current age of mobile games, virtual goods serve very limited purposes and are largely physically incapable of being stolen or misappropriated. The only games which are capable of such actions are MMOs and they have been fairly static as a sector of the games industry for some time now.
Nonetheless, the issue is there and I’m sure we’ll see it rearing its head in the future, most likely tied to the next time that MMOs and virtual worlds come around. Maybe it’ll be Oculus Rift coins (!) Once the issue does come back to the fore, we’ll have another little nugget in favour of creating virtual crimes laws – this time, it’s the UK government responding that of course “Those who commit theft or fraud online can be prosecuted for those offences and face severe maximum sentences“…