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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Criminal Punishment for the Theft of Virtual Items?

From Erica Buist at The Guardian:

All right, own up: did you steal Mike Weatherley's sword on World of Warcraft? If so, you'd better watch out. He's really upset about it. So much so that, as David Cameron's chief adviser on intellectual property, he has asked ministers to consider passing a law that would mean people "who steal online items in video games with a real-world monetary value receive the same sentences as criminals who steal real-world items of the same monetary value".

. . .

"If you've spent £500 building up your armed forces and someone takes them away online, I guess you can feel hard done-by and you want your £500 back," he told Buzzfeed. He also pointed out: "The perception from some people is that if you steal online it's less of a crime than if you steal physically." 
It's hard to argue with his logic. Gamers spend a lot of money on virtual items, and invest time in building armed forces or gigantic warships. These things may be nothing more than a collection of pixels on a screen, but the money isn't virtual, and neither is the time, or the feeling of having been robbed.
Buzzfeed also covers this proposed law.

I agree that some aspects of online theft are similar to theft in the real world. Many online items are purchased with real money. Thieves can steal these goods under the pretense of exchanging or trading items, but then leaving upon receipt of the valuable goods. This entry in a World of Warcraft forum is an example of such a fraudulent transaction. Law students studying for the bar should recognize this as something resembling the quirky crime of larceny by trick.

But there are crucial differences between the theft of physical items or money and the theft of virtual goods in an online environment. Blizzard, the company that makes many of these online games, warns players of these online scams, but also says that they will "assist where possible" when a scam can be verified. And as the players in the earlier forum mention, if there is a chat record that details the fraudulent transaction, the player can usually receive another copy of their virtual good, and the person who stole the good will probably be banned.

If somebody can receive an identical copy of their stolen good once it is stolen, and if offenders face effective exile from the online world in which the theft takes place, I am not sure that prosecuting online thieves would be a constructive undertaking. It makes sense to criminalize online theft that results in the loss of money from a person's bank account (say in instances of identity theft). But when the theft deprives somebody of a virtual item that can be replaced with an identical item without cost to the website, the theft, while fraudulent, does not seem to cause enough harm to warrant criminal prosecution.

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