Should virtual theft be treated like real world theft? A UK MP says yes.

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.”

The answer?

“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.

Example 2: in 2011, two Dutch citizens were prosecuted for theft under Dutch law for stealing another Dutch citizen’s items in the MMO Runescape.

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“…

4 comments

  1. What if the game in question is hacked or exploited, and an item is replicated or otherwise unfairly obtained, and this item is then subsequently stolen by somebody after the user’s account is compromised? They did not obtain the item fairly, but have still been robbed of its value. These situations don’t quite arise in the real world. Counterfeiting exists, but they don’t succeed in creating identical objects of identical value. I feel that there may be headaches ahead in this area.

  2. I have had a gaming account stolen on Game of War Fire Age. I willingly gave the login details to someone who wanted to verify the information I provided regarding the account in order for them to buy the gaming account. We had agreed a price of $1100 prior to me passing over login info. The other player accessed my account and changed login details effectively stealing the account and will not respond to any messages. I have contacted the games owners Machine Zone who have said their terms and conditions state that I should never allow someone to access my account, they will not be held liable for any losses and any such acts of selling accounts could render the account closed.
    So two questions. Is this classed as theft? And also, as MZ never explicitly made the terms and conditions available prior to setting up the account and never asked me to agree to them, do their terms and conditions carry weight in this case? Any help would be greatly appreciated.

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