Dutch Supreme Court upholds conviction for theft of virtual objects

Dutch Supreme Court upholds conviction for theft of virtual objects:

According to news reports, the Dutch Supreme Court has upheld a lower court’s conviction of a teenager for assaulting a younger boy and stealing virtual objects from an online RPG.  The victim was forced to transfer the objects to his attackers in the game world whilst being threatened with a knife in the real world:

The suspect’s lawyer had argued the amulet and mask “were neither tangible nor material and, unlike for example electricity, had no economic value.”

But the Netherlands’ highest court said the virtual objects had an intrinsic value to the 13-year-old gamer because of “the time and energy he invested” in winning them while playing the game. …

It said he and another youth beat and kicked the boy and threatened him with a knife until he logged into RuneScape and dropped the objects in 2007.  One of the thieves, who was also playing the game, was then able to pick up the items, making them his virtual property.

The essence of the Court’s reasoning was: “due to the digitization of society, a virtual reality has been created, all aspects of which cannot be dismissed as mere illusion where the commission of criminal acts are not be possible” .  On the question of whether the objects could be considered “goods” (property capable of theft within the meaning of the Dutch Penal Code), the Court commented (with apologies for my poor translation):

Counsel argued that a virtual amulet and mask cannot be considered “goods” … because they are neither tangible nor material, but - unlike, say, electricity - have no value in trade.  … The idea that goods must have materiality [has been] abandoned. … Gradually, the jurisprudence came to adopt a subjective concept of economic value.  What is relevant is mainly whether it is valuable “goods” for their possessor.

In the present case, it is clear that possession of virtual goods and points was highly desirable for [the defendants].  The [principal] in this regard said: “I am very rich in RuneScape and because I’m rich, I’m also very strong. I am very much with different weapons, and almost unbeatable. … I change my password almost every three days, because I fear that I might be “hacked”. The co-defendant stated: “… I was actually jealous of [the victim’s] equipment. ” … The court notes that effort and time investment in the course of the game result in the acquisition of valuable items.  …

Also relevant is that the rules of RuneScape do not allow goods to be acquired in the manner that occurred in this case.  The theft was committed outside the context of the game. It is thus not a virtual action within a virtual world, but  physical acts resulting in effects in a virtual world.

A fascinating case which calls to mind Neal Stephenson’s excellent Reamde. I’m sure there will be many others that follow.

Some excellent analysis (and a better translation) here: http://www.virtualpolicy.net/runescape-theft-dutch-supreme-court-decision.html