Don't Steal Virtual Items

Something for budding Neos to keep in mind:

This apparently isn’t a case of stealing something like software, but of stealing items that have no actual, independent existence. The mind boggles.

Hey people sell those things for real money.

Do they sell by the pixel?

Holy crap. How is it possible that our lawyers got beaten to the punch on this one by the friggin’ Dutch?

Right, they may not have physical existence, but they have value, nevertheless.

By my calculations, the 15-year-old should be able to pick up the virtual litter from over 148 million miles of the information superhighway in 200 hours.

Oh, Amsterdam. Sorry. Over 238 million kilometers.

Hey, virtual items are big (real) business. “Goldsellers”, based mostly in China, are responsible for a huge percentage of online video game account hackings. People log in and find that their characters have been stripped of all of their money and possessions. And then the goldsellers sell that virtual money for real cash.

Obviously this is a trend that I’ve missed. According to this article:


Yup, that’d be me. The mockong part. I’m still amazed by the size of this virtual trade.

My son, the budding entrepreneur, was/is(?) making money off his friends and his friends’ friends beating certain levels or reaching certain “achievements” for them on XBOX Live. They pay him to log in under their accounts and get through the parts they’re having trouble with.

The mind boggles.

This is hardly a new problem, I see. Google “Virtual theft” and you get plenty of cases, including this one by a Dutch teenager a year ago. (A Dutch teenager again. What IS it with Dutch teens and virtual theft?)

This one’s more interesting – virtual theft of virtual Sex Devices:

Consider me to have made disparaging remarks about everybody involved.

The Gamepolitics article on this story indicates that there was rather more to this than the theft of the items themselves. According to their translation of a Dutch article, the victim was lured into the other boys’ house, beaten, and threatened with a knife to make him transfer the items. That seems like enough to convict them on.

Treating it as theft–or extortion, perhaps–seems to be a new precedent, arrived at in part because the items in question can be and sometimes are sold for real money. I don’t particularly like that precedent, but I can understand why the judge would arrive at it, especially given the urge to throw the book at these little scumbags.

It reminds me of a story told about a famous medieval Japanese judge, Ooka Tadasuke, who once ruled in favor of a shopkeeper who accused an impecunious student of “stealing” the scent of his cooking food to improve the experience of eating his bowls of plain white rice.

I’m a lot less comfortable with prosecuting ‘theft’ of virtual items rather than prosecuting illegal real-world behaviors that influence virtual worlds.

I mean, I play EVE Online. Destroying the personal property of people you don’t like and selling what’s left for scrap is practically the entire reason for the game–I’ve personally been responsible for the senseless and brutal destruction of at least $200-$300 worth of virtual items (using current ebay rates for EVE currency) in the last three months.

Really? Sounds fascinating. How’s it work?

(No, I’m serious. No facetiousness here.)

Is the ownership of a virtual item much different that ownership of a copyright?

I can put time into writing a book or a song, and now I own the rights to that, regardless of its merits. I have to give permission to other to use it. If someone threatens to beat me up unless I let them use my song, I should have protection and they should be punishable.

I can put time into creating something in an online game. If someone bullies me until I give them control of that object, what is the difference?

The interesting thing to me about a case like this is that it seems to open the door to suits against the game company itself if, for example, they take the servers down, or a glitch results in the deletion of your account.

This case would seem to establish that the virtual objects are property of the user who controls them in-game, which is not the sort of precedent that the makers of these games would like to see.

Seeing this got me thinking. What are the original charges? Where the 2 boys found guilty of theft, or of bullying? I know the original quote says they were found guilty of theft, but is that what the charges actually were?

Personally, I’m glad to see this. I expect to see MMORPGs go on the rise as technology gets more sophisticated and people get used to f2f communication online. I certainly don’t want the attitude of ‘It’s only virtual, why do you care’.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. It’s like living in The Jetsons. It’s a hell of a fascinating time to be alive.