Do Real World Laws Apply In Virtual Worlds?

from the in-most-cases,-no dept

Back in 2003 people began realizing that the growth of various "virtual worlds" was going to raise certain questions about how real world laws applied to virtual worlds. However, there's been little effort by the legal community to take a serious look at the question. So, we've had story after story after story after story after story of upset users within virtual worlds trying to make use of real world laws against those that upset them.

In many cases, this is quite problematic. While it might seem fair to charge someone with "theft" for taking a virtual good in a virtual world (especially if that virtual item can be exchanged for real money), it's not that easy at all. For example, what if stealing is a part of the game setup in that virtual world? At some point, you almost have to assume that anything allowable in the world is "within the rules," or you run into some trouble. At the very least, it's the owners and managers of these virtual worlds who have to act as the government and "law enforcement" within those worlds, using their terms of service and EULAs as de facto "constitutions."

Fortunately, it appears that legal scholars agree on this. Eric Goldman points us to a paper by Orin Kerr that looks at these questions and concludes that the answers are similar to what we suggested: the law, in most cases, pertains only to physical acts, not virtual ones. Thus, virtual theft, virtual murder and virtual rape are quite different under the law than real theft, murder and rape -- no matter how upset it makes the "victim." In most cases, Kerr concludes, the real world law would not be applicable. Furthermore, he suggests that, despite this, it makes little sense for politicians to create new laws to cover virtual worlds. Instead, he notes that this is part of the responsibility of those who create and manage the game. By the very nature of creating the game, they become the de facto "government" and justice system, and there shouldn't be a need to get the real world justice system involved at all.


Reader Comments (rss)

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  1.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 24th, 2008 @ 3:41pm

    Can't they just post a sign saying "Leave Real World Laws At The Door?" and be done with it.

     

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  2.  
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    Beefcake, Apr 24th, 2008 @ 3:50pm

    Good news, Gamers

    Apparently, the only people truly having a difficult time discerning real life and fantasy life are politicians and law enforcement.

     

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  3.  
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    jonnyq, Apr 24th, 2008 @ 3:50pm

    If virtual goods can be exchanged for real money within the constraints of the game (i.e. not by selling it on eBay), and you obtain those goods by achieving something in the game, and you're paying to play the game, doesn't that constitute gambling?

     

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  4.  
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    Jack Sombra, Apr 24th, 2008 @ 3:51pm

    By your arguments

    "the law, in most cases, pertains only to physical acts, not virtual ones."
    By that definition if i hack your bank account, take all your money and transfer it to my offshore account i have broken no law because my crime is all "virtual"

    It's not a straight forward as you like to paint just because it's "virtual"

     

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  5.  
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    James (profile), Apr 24th, 2008 @ 4:01pm

    Re: By your arguments

    No really. My bank account is physical goods in the real world even though you access it over the internet.

     

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  6.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 24th, 2008 @ 4:04pm

    Re: By your arguments

    Get a dictionary, Jack. Bank accounts are very real. Doing something via a computer doesn't make it "virtual".

     

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  7.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 24th, 2008 @ 4:06pm

    Re: By your arguments

    What part of "in most cases" did you not understand?

     

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  8.  
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    Mike (profile), Apr 24th, 2008 @ 4:23pm

    Re: By your arguments

    By that definition if i hack your bank account, take all your money and transfer it to my offshore account i have broken no law because my crime is all "virtual"

    Money is not virtual.

     

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  9.  
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    R.Paul Waddington, Apr 24th, 2008 @ 4:46pm

    Question: if a person gains access to my systems, electronically, then removes data and or programs electronically is that action 'real' world theft or 'virtual' theft?

     

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  10.  
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    Trish, Apr 24th, 2008 @ 4:50pm

    Virtual bank accounts!

    For one count virtual grand theft of virtual hand-weapon, I sentence your avatar Moldar the Goblin to five years virtual prison. For one count virtual murder, that'll be the virtual death penalty.
    You know, when I use the adverb 'virtually', I use it to denote an opposition to 'actuality', or more precisely, 'reality'. Methinks perhaps some socially-challenged people out there are a liiittle too addicted to... Well whatever dumb game it is. Here's a truth for ya: the game of boggle is addictive, and IT can't make you any dumber.

     

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  11.  
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    Mark, Apr 24th, 2008 @ 4:57pm

    HAHA

    Get a job. (In the real world)

     

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  12.  
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    William Jackson, Apr 24th, 2008 @ 4:57pm

    off topic but up your alley

    sorry to drift off topic, but I just read this over on Wired and it seemed to fit a lot of the issues discussed. I did not see a submit topic or direct contact button on you blog.

    http://blog.wired.com/underwire/2008/04/gossip-girl-is.html

     

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  13.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 24th, 2008 @ 4:59pm

    Re: Re: By your arguments

    What part of "in most cases" did you not understand?

    The other 49%.

     

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  14.  
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    Trish, Apr 24th, 2008 @ 5:00pm

    In response to Paul Waddington

    I believe the answer to #9 would be that it is real theft. As commenter #6 mentioned, just because an action is performed with a computer doesn't mean it's 'virtual'. Although now that I think of it it's hard to define, those data and information affect your life in certain ways that a virtual game certainly does not...

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 24th, 2008 @ 5:14pm

    IT seems to me that real laws would apply only when money comes out of the game. If I earn the money in game by stealing, harvesting dragon eggs, being a contract murderer, or mining the moons of Saturn for trillium shouldn't matter to real world laws. When I do something that coverts that to real-world dollars or yen or euros, then real world laws apply to the transactions outside of the game.

     

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  16.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 24th, 2008 @ 5:16pm

    Most cases?

    ...the law, in most cases, pertains only to physical acts, not virtual ones. "In most cases", eh? That sure leaves an awful lot of weasel room.

     

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  17.  
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    Mike (profile), Apr 24th, 2008 @ 5:56pm

    Re: off topic but up your alley

    I did not see a submit topic or direct contact button on you blog.

    There's a submit story link at the top of the page...

    http://www.techdirt.com/submitstory.php

    As for that specific story, we already wrote about it last week:

    http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20080418/022829887.shtml

     

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  18.  
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    Buzz, Apr 24th, 2008 @ 6:34pm

    ugh

    Other players have absolutely ruined my day by killing my character and running off with all my hard-earned equipment in a variety of online RPGs... but never once did I conceive using the real world legal system to make them pay up. I just went out and killed some other player and took all his stuff (in the game, of course). :)

     

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  19.  
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    Griper, Apr 24th, 2008 @ 7:04pm

    That's fine and dandy for the online computer games but how will the pen and paper gamer get justice when an npc picks his character's pocket?

     

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  20.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 24th, 2008 @ 7:19pm

    How about this...

    The law is for those who can't protect themselves. You can't garuntee you won't get murdered today, but to some greater degree you feel like law enforcement can.

    Well, in a virtual world, if you can't protect yourself from theft committed through a manner other than within the game- that makes you an idiot (You probably gave out your password). If you can't protect yourself from theft within the game, intentionally developed to be a part of the game- that makes you a newb.

    And as one of those many stories cited in the article probably will reveal to you, someone might rape you in a video game. And if that happens, not only are you an idiot, but it raises the question, how were you able to turn on your computer, access the internet, install a game, find someone abusive without knowing anything else about them, proceed to victimize yourself by choosing to exit a public area with this person, and not know how to TURN OFF YOUR COMPUTER.

    However in any situation, none of this should logically become the concern of the government, as they created the society in which you live. Not the society you escape to. All of this should be directed to the attention of the developers who's unsatisfied customers dictate whether or not they get a pay check.

     

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  21.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 24th, 2008 @ 9:36pm

    I was playing a game the other day - dude blew off my virtual arm - wonder how much I could get for that?

     

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  22.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 25th, 2008 @ 6:39am

    Re:

    It's real world theft for the simple reason that it is not taking place in a completely separate virtual world. If the computer that the data was stolen from was some sort of in-game computer, then it would be virtual theft.

     

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  23.  
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    SomeGuy, Apr 25th, 2008 @ 7:51am

    Re: By your arguments

    Your theft would be digital, but not virtual. You *actually* stole money.

     

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  24.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 25th, 2008 @ 7:54am

    Re: ugh

    "in the game, of course"

    It gets messy otherwise. Trust me.

     

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  25.  
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    Jack Sombra, Apr 25th, 2008 @ 8:20am

    "What part of "in most cases" did you not understand?"

    They part where the whole rest of the article and all the other linked articles can be basiclly summarised as "in all cases"

    "Your theft would be digital, but not virtual. You *actually* stole money."

    Actually no i would not have, a least in not in a greater sence than if i hack someones game account, take all their items and sell them off for cash.

    As the end of the day in both cases all i did was change (not even steal) ones and zeros

    Way i see it, most people who don't agree with the senario i posted above don't get one simple fact, money, just the same as virtual goods only have percived value, but no actual value in themselves beyond articial ones imposed the governments (money) or game developers (virtual goods). If they wanted they could give everyone $1,000,000,000,000 tomorrow because supply is limitless

    So while those virtual game items have a perceived value, just the same as money there is absolutly no difference between them

    Hack your bank account and transfer $1000 from you to me is exactly same as hacking your game account sending to my account $1000 worth of items.

    To me the only debate is where i don't hack your game account but rather "pick pocket" your character using legal game methods, but then that i view as no different than using methods in real world to take your money, that while might be morally objectionable are perfectly legal

     

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  26.  
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    richard wiebe, Apr 25th, 2008 @ 12:44pm

    why not virtual lawyers, judges, cops?

    If "theft" is part of the "game" then why not build some "legal add-ons"? Hire lawyers. Sue the pants off the thief? Bribe judges? Hire "bad" cops to hit the guy? In the gaming world "all is fair..." Not?

     

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  27.  
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    Trerro, Apr 26th, 2008 @ 4:38am

    It's really not that hard to understand...

    If you do something that's part of the game, it's governed by the laws of the game. Kill someone's character and take their stuff? Part of the game. Destroy someone's castle? Part of the game. Manipulate virtual politics to take over a country in the game world? Part of the game. Use a script kiddie program to break into the servers and make the DB transfer stuff to you? NOT part of the game.

    I really can't think of a single example where something isn't either very obvious part of the game, or very obviously an external action that happens to affect the game.

     

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  28.  
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    Paul Spadaccini, Apr 26th, 2008 @ 11:07am

    Does that apply to music?

    If I download a copy of a song, that's theft. But that particular instance of the song never *existed* in a physical form. It's still legally accepted as copyright theft.

    So when, in second life, I make a real living and somebody rips of my work and makes themselves a bit of cash too, is that also copyright theft? The entire transaction has taken part in a virtual world surely?

    What if I wrote a song using the games tools, and sold it in the game for actual profit, and then people started trading it in the game for free? How does that differ? Is it different because there's no physical copy? What if the version I'm distributing in the game comes from a master copy on my real-world desk? Does it change things now it has a real-world presence?

    What if I abuse somebody, racially, in the game? Or use public my wow guild chat events to plan terrorist attacks? I guess that since my "crimes" involve the real world, I can be tried?

    So does that also mean that my so-called friend can be prosecuted for stealing my Epic Sword? I mean, if he sells it on ebay it then has a real-world presence, so what's the difference?

     

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  29.  
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    Donald (profile), Apr 28th, 2008 @ 5:57am

    virtual crime?

    First up, I'm not a lawyer ...

    I think you should be able to apply real world systems to virtual worlds. If theft is part of the game you can't complain, you accepted the game rules by playing. Hacking the game however is not something you agreed to.

    As an example, consider playing poker in a casino. During the night, two things happen - you have a bad run and loose a lot of chips to player A, and some chips are stolen from your pocket by player B. This is comparable to player A's rogue using his ingame theft skill to steal some gold, and player B hacking your account to transfer some gold.

    Now, casinos and games like second life have systems to convert their in-game currency (chips and linden dollars) to "real" currency such as USD. In what way is player B's actions in the MMORPG any different to his actions in the casino? If you want to make it more similar, imagine the casino operates by crediting a card with your tokens which you use to place bets, and player B isntead of picking your pocket hacks the servers.

    I think most people would agree that player B committed theft in the casino, why not in the MMORPG?

    The situation is muddied where there's not an authorised market in the in-game currency, such as for Warcraft, so I'll leave that for the lawyers.

    (and downloading a song isn't "theft". Theft is defined as the wrongful taking of the property of another. By downloading a song you haven't taken away the property of anyone. You have breached copyright, which is illegal, but it's not theft)

     

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  30.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 28th, 2008 @ 3:34pm

    Re: Does that apply to music?

    If I download a copy of a song, that's theft.

    No, it isn't. It could be copyright infringement, depending on the specifics.

    But that particular instance of the song never *existed* in a physical form. It's still legally accepted as copyright theft.

    There's no such thing as copyright theft. Those who claim so are dishonest and that makes the remainder of your comments irrelevant as far as I am concerned.

     

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  31.  
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    Laura, Oct 15th, 2008 @ 8:30am

    "virtual"

    It doesn't muddy the waters when people infuse their money into a game. They are paying to play. Same as gambling, once it's on the table, you're "gaming" and you have accepted the possible loss of the money as the price of playing the game.

    I can see how it gets confusing: if you buy skates to play hockey, and someone steals your skates, you can sue them. But if someone steals your "goblin points" or whatever, you can't sue. Too bad, you put your money on the table in a situation where you knew (or should have known) you could lose it. The nature of the system is obvious, the possibility for loss is obvious, and your cries of "it's not fair" when someone hacks into a game and takes your money are part of the GAME.

    Money is a symbol for the ability to buy things. Easier than carrying around chickens to trade for potatoes. Think how silly it is that you think your money is safe in an online game. Think about it.

    Pay to play,
    assumption of the risk.

     

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  32.  
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    Kevin, Apr 22nd, 2013 @ 3:53pm

    When you buy a virtual character with real money then it gets stolen - then that becomes a theft since real money was involved in some sense.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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