Real Consequences for Virtual Theft

by Casey Lynn
Contributing Writer, [GAS]

On the heels of the story about a woman “killing” her virtual husband, here’s another reminder that what happens in virtual worlds doesn’t always stay in virtual worlds.

The story is that one teenage Dutch boy forced another teenage Dutch boy to hand over his virtual property in the game Runescape. From what I can tell, this happened much like any other mugging. Except instead of “I’ll beat you up if you don’t give me your wallet,” it was “I’ll beat you up if you don’t log into Runescape and transfer all of your loot to my character.” Apparently the victim called his bluff, because only after he was strangled and kicked in the head did the attacker get the login information to transfer the goods himself.

Now that this case has gone to trial, it’s set some interesting precedent in the Netherlands: stealing virtual goods is a crime. According to the judge, “goods don’t have to be material for the law to consider them stolen.”

This issue hasn’t been dealt with directly in US courts yet, since the famous Bragg v. Linden Labs (in which a Second Life landowner sued when Linden canceled his account without compensating him for his land) was decided on contractual grounds rather than the court having to make any ruling about the property itself. And of course, Second Life is a bit easier to track when it comes to “real” value since players can sink real money into into property and goods there. Meanwhile, virtual goods in games like Runescape and World of Warcraft can only be valued by the player’s time, or maybe how much the lot might fetch on eBay.

The judge in the Netherlands apparently found the theft of one mask and one amulet in Runescape was woth a sentence of 160 hours of community service, or 80 days in jail (the lawsuit in question dealt only with the theft, not the physical assault). I highly suspect that the kid will be taking community service, if only because he can’t go that long without playing Runescape.

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