From Eugene Volokh at, well… at Volokh.com
A Dutch court has convicted two youths of theft for stealing virtual items in a computer game and sentenced them to community service….
The Leeuwarden District Court says the culprits, 15 and 14 years old, coerced a 13-year-old boy into transferring a “virtual amulet and a virtual mask” from the online adventure game RuneScape to their game accounts.
“These virtual goods are goods (under Dutch law), so this is theft,” the court said Tuesday in a summary of its ruling….
Now this might sound odd — why should the legal system police “virtual theft,” especially since the ability to steal, defraud, and the like within a game may be an important part of the game? But things become much clearer when one reads the longer story, from Radio Netherlands Worldwide:
The culprits, who cannot be named due to their age, kicked, hit and threatened their classmate with a knife before the 13-year-old gave in and transferred the Runescape items, an amulet and a mask, to his attackers’ online accounts.
He makes the point that in this case real harm was done and so the ruling isn’t really all that surprising or notable. But he also says, “I continue to think that generally speaking the law shouldn’t prohibit purely in-game “theft,” “murder,” “rape,” and so on.”
Virtual economies are growing ever larger and more influential. The exchange rate for World of Warcraft gold (based on some admittedly back of the envelope calculations) is somewhere around 2.8 cents per gold piece, which means that one WoW gold is equal to about half a Yen.
At that rate of exchange, it’s common to find virtual items with significant real-world exchange value. If in-game theft or fraud robs a person of significant real-world value, I’m not sure that should exist outside the scope of law. Right now, the issue is complicated by terms-of-service agreements that generally prohibit selling virtual items for real cash, but such restrictions are not universal. At some point (sooner than later, I think), virtual fraud and virtual theft will rise to a level of actual harm that will be impossible for real-world law to ignore. I think the question of jurisdiction will be particularly interesting, as will be the development of virtual courts and virtual arbitration.
The largest virtual game worlds make for fascinating social laboratories. Since the worlds are essentially completely planned economies under the control of autocratic rulers with god-like powers, it’s especially fun to watch them struggle with the classic problems of a managed economy, like inflation. Friedrich Hayek would have loved World of Warcraft.
He’d have been a Gnome Tinker, of course.
Also, check out The Synthetic Worlds Initiative at Indiana University.