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Can Virtual Items Be Stolen?

Posted: 10-Jun-2015 14:00:00
Author: Chris Raske

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Virtual goods are intangible objects in online games. Players can amass a collection of items over time, either by earning them through game play or purchasing them online with real money.

Despite the trade in virtual goods equating to billions of pounds every year, the legal status of these items is still uncertain and the question remains whether stealing them equates to theft.

IT Groups Chris Raske reflects on the famous Dutch RuneScape Case and answers the lingering question - can virtual items be stolen?

LJN no. BQ9251 - The Dutch RuneScape Case

Briefly: the victim was a player of the online fantasy game RuneScape. One day he was cycling home from school when he was kidnapped by two other boys, who forced him to log into his RuneScape account and 'drop' an amulet and a mask in the virtual game world. One of the assailants then logged into his own RuneScape account and picked up the items.

This Was Not Theft Because:

There were a number of arguments suggesting that the action of taking the virtual objects did not constitute theft, including:

  1. Virtual items are not goods, but just an illusion of goods;
  2. Virtual items are just information;
  3. The virtual items remained the property of the publisher and therefore couldn’t be stolen from a player;
  4. The point of the game is to take objects from each other.

This Was Theft Because:

In response to Point 1 above, virtual items have value in that they require time and effort to obtain. They are under the exclusive control of the player and their value is recognised by other players (including the Defendants who bothered to take them). Consequently, they can be stolen despite being intangible!

In response to Point 2, whilst the Court agreed that the items were data, it stated that this does not prevent them from having properties that make them capable of being stolen.

In response to Point 3, the Court agreed that under the terms & conditions the virtual items were owned by the publisher of RuneScape who grant the players a ‘right to use’ the items. However, RuneScape’s ownership was in the context of the game’s intellectual property, which was not relevant to the criminal charges in this case. The Court’s position was that the player had ‘exclusive dominion’ over the items since only he could log in and access them, and the theft affected his exclusive enjoyment of their use.

In response to Point 4, unsurprisingly the Court felt that the theft was committed outside the context of the game.

The Verdict:

Virtual items can be stolen.

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