If You Gain Unauthorized Access To A Character In A Virtual World, Is It Theft?

from the confusion-abounds dept

Well, here we go again. For years we’ve questioned the wisdom of using real world laws to deal with issues within virtual worlds. You begin to open up quite the Pandora’s Box of problems. If it’s okay to charge someone for theft of virtual goods in a virtual world, what do you do if “theft” is a part of the game? And then does killing another character in a virtual world become “murder”? These issues are coming up again as Slashdot points out that a guy in the UK has been arrested for “robbery” of a player in the online world RuneScape. In this case, the arrested guy used a phishing scheme to get access to the username and password, making it similar to a story from two years ago involving “stolen goods” in Habbo Hotel that involved a similar “hacking” of an account.

But, again, it seems questionable to call this a robbery. Why not just charge the guy with violation of whatever laws there are against phishing or fraud, rather than robbery. These sorts of “robberies” can and probably should be dealt with directly in the virtual worlds themselves, where game administrators should be able to just “make things whole.” Instead of calling it a robbery, why not focus on the actual crime of phishing, rather than the questionable “crime” of “robbery” of another’s character.

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Comments on “If You Gain Unauthorized Access To A Character In A Virtual World, Is It Theft?”

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Nate (profile) says:

Yeah, it’s hard to say it’s robbery. Coming straight from the the Terms and Conditions from RuneScape (which a player must accept):

“You agree that all intellectual property or other rights in any game character, account and items are and will remain our property.”

From what I understand it’s Jagex’s property any way. They just simply allow you to use their service for entertainment. So yeah… tell me if I’m looking at this wrong, but I think the arrest is crazy.

YouAreWrong says:

Re: veto. it's robbery plain and simple.

look, intangible rights, even if you clearly don’t own the subject matter that they’re allowing you access to, can still be stolen.

for instance, lets say you go out and buy concert tickets from whatever artist is selling for like $2k a seat these days. you’re not actually gaining “ownership” of anything when you hand over that money. all you are getting is a LICENSE to enter the venue during a specific time period. if someone breaks into your car and steals your tickets, that’s flat out robbery (the tickets usually say in some form that the piece of paper is worth no cash value). it’s because you’re paying for the LICENSE to enter, not a piece of paper.

or if you’re renting a car, you don’t gain ownership of the car, and yet it can still be stolen from you.

i fully understand that copyright infringement is not theft (there are plenty of court cases on this rationale) — but all property based rights (including mere licenses) can be stolen, so long as you, the owner, are deprived of use/enjoyment of that right. now, if the defendant here had somehow copied/piggybacked off this guy’s license, that’d be one thing (because he’s basically leeching without cost to the victim), but the victim is actually being deprived of the license.

this whole “story” just shows how pompous the non-lawyer (mike) and all his non-lawyer lemmings are, when they think they know better than 1500+ years of super-developed property law… which has been litigated in millions of cases over the years in the US, UK, and other countries with similar property laws.

as for forcing the game administrators to “make the victim whole”, it’s not the arena’s responsibility to issue you a new ticket when some douchebag breaks into your car and steals your LICENSE to enter their venue. when someone steals the car you rented, it’s not the dealership’s responsibility to provide you with a new car. sure, it’s not as expensive for digital goods, but it still costs something.

Ima Fish (profile) says:

So a guy “steals” your “character” in a game. If we assume that there was actual theft, we have to assume that the “character” was property owned by the victim.

So here’s the deal, if the “character” is property owned by the victim, what if the company hosting the game/character goes bankrupt or simply pulls the plug. Would the company also be liable for theft of the “character”?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Except law enforcement in the UK apparently doesn’t care about that, since someone was arrested over “property” that the accuser didn’t own.

If you don’t own it, you can’t have someone arrested for taking it. Period. And since the company that does own those virtual goods never lost ownership, they can’t have someone arrested for robbery of virtual goods either.

Michael (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I don’t think anything was stolen in this case, but ownership does not seem to be a clear prerequisite of something being stolen. If you are leasing or financing a car, for example, the bank (or whoever) owns the vehicle, but you can file a report if it is stolen and simply have to notify the bank (in fact, they will want the police report).

The fact that zero dollars may have exchanged hands for you to “lease” the character from the software vendor does not necessarily make it a different situation. The real difference (as Mike pointed out in the article) is that the property stolen is arguably not property at all. In fact, it can be returned to it’s EXACT original condition or even copied without much trouble. It seems like a bad idea to call this kind of thing “stealing” when nothing actually was actually taken. It seems to me that this is closer to a person coming onto my property and using my swing set. It’s still right where it was. I can get it back by kicking them off my property. If I am angry, I should be yelling about trespassing, not theft.

Kazi says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Well, let’s not call it not property, let’s call it pixels which can be returned to their original state.

The main concern though is to turn those pixels to an “original state” takes time. Time is money in this busy real world.

I don’t agree with getting arrested for MMO goods stealing but the the article is about account theft which is out of character and in the real world.

The real world meets the pixel. Who wins?!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

It seems like a bad idea to call this kind of thing “stealing” when nothing actually was actually taken.

So, if someone “steals” your identity, but they do nothing illegal with the information, then “nothing” was actually “stolen” and so it must be okay. Right? What if someone breaks into your computer via the internet and makes a copy of all the explicit pictures of you and your girlfriend? “Nothing” was “taken” so it cannot be stealing. Indeed, seems like no crime occurred – unless the pictures are not that interesting.

Fundamentally, “theft” is a societal definition. You can define “theft” however you like with respect to the law. “Theft” can indeed include that taking (since taking is an act that could include “copying”) of something that has no apparent monetary value. Of course, Libertarians scream about that sort of thing since it is not “natural,” but that is a system of belief rather than a fact…

Ima Fish (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

That’s why they have their “Terms and Conditions” sometimes called “Code of Conduct” or “Service Agreement” where you don’t own anything.

Actually, that was my point exactly. Of course the guy does not “own” the character. My point was to show how utterly ridiculous the assertion is.

AzterikMedia (user link) says:

Not theft, but still a tick off.

I agree that the robbery charge doesn’t really hold much water however I feel the pain of the guy who got “robbed”. Some of the games have the players invest countless hours to fine tune their characters, I would imagine that if that were me and my “character got stolen” I’d be looking for some-one’s head too.

Pat Dant says:

Re: Re: Not theft, but still a tick off.

You hit the nail on the head. Property laws for virtual characters don’t exist and attempting to mix the real-world laws of property ownership with a virtual world is the wrong way.
I do believe there needs to be some method of protection from hacked access into a virtual world that results in virtual world loss. The game Eve Online recently had a large corporation dissolved by a key member. One of the threads on this topic was that the member’s account was hacked. Regardless if this is true or not, the loss was considerable to hundreds of players which is significant in both time and enablement within the virtual world. Just banning the hacker is insufficient, and legal action under theft doesn’t fit. We need something more.

Eo Nomine says:

“But, again, it seems questionable to call this a robbery. Why not just charge the guy with violation of whatever laws there are against phishing or fraud, rather than robbery.”

It appears that’s exactly what the police did: http://technology.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/tech_and_web/gadgets_and_gaming/virtual_worlds/article6937026.ece

“Officers from Central Police e-Crime Unit arrested the man last Tuesday on suspicion of a number of computer misuse offences. The man, from the Avon and Somerset area and who has not been named, accepted a police caution.”

Computer Misuse offences refer to hacking, not theft. Doesn’t appear the man in questions was charged with theft, robbery or anything similar.

Tyanna says:

I know that Runescape has both a free account option and a pay account option.

I feel that if this person had a pay account and had items that were obtained through this account, that yes it was theft. There was a real world value to it, be it his subscription money, or otherwise.

I do agree with the statement that the phishing was the real crime, but in the end it’s still stealing. Pick-pocketing is still stealing, there is just a name for it. Same with phishing. A rose by any other name….

Mike C. (profile) says:

Helps to click through and...

… oh, I don’t know… research a little?

Buried about three links deep, you’ll find this gem from the TimesOnline:

Officers from Central Police e-Crime Unit arrested the man last Tuesday on suspicion of a number of computer misuse offences.
(emphasis mine)

I’m a regular player on Runescape and took an interest in the story. From what I read, the only place you’ll find reference to “robbery” is the Slashdot post which is simply parroting the Sophos post, albeit badly.

Did the guy “steal” the accounts? Yes. He gained the id’s and passwords to the accounts which allowed him to assert control and remove access to the account from the original owner. However, as Mike points out, the next question to ask is do the accounts have any true value to warrant a theft or robbery charge.

I believe the police are taking the correct approach and charging the young man with computer abuse. That is the charge that is most likely to “stick” and most closely fits the actual nature of the crime committed.

cc says:


I was surprised that there are accounts being traded on ebay for real money.

If I take your account details, block you out of the account and sell the account on ebay for £60, then I am most certainly stealing *something*.

What the accounts were being sold for was probably not the subscription money, but the game character’s stats (e.g. combat ability, health, strength, weapons, in-game cash etc)!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:


If I take your account details, block you out of the account and sell the account on ebay for £60, then I am most certainly stealing *something*.

^That would be 2 things. Scamming me and then scamming someone else. It’s like stealing a stolen car and then scamming someone by selling them the stolen car.

And yes, account do go on ebay normally. I’ve sold probably 5k or so worth of account in 1999-2003 but not due to WOW or the newer games. This was with some of the first MMO’s. Buying those accounts for 60 may be a good deal depending if you want to invest the time or use money as time – even if it isn’t “officially supported” by the “Code of Conduct” / “Terms of Service”.

Anonymous Coward says:

the accounts on ebay are unconnected usually.
account hacks usually get funneled through to gold sellers.
the inventory is liquidated then dumped. The gold is resold for real world money.
Ebay sales are just people who’ve put a lot of time and effort into a toon, looking to sell it off to someone who wants all the benefits without having to put in the work.
Although I’m sure there are plenty who do it as a business as well. Powerleveling in wow for example doesnt actually take all that long, especially if you can multibox half a dozen characters to sell of for several hundred bucks each.

hmm, thats actually not a bad idea…against the EULA, but profitable.

Anonymous Coward says:

“But, again, it seems questionable to call this a robbery. Why not just charge the guy with violation of whatever laws there are against phishing or fraud, rather than robbery.”

Isn’t money just a balanced measure of productivity, that supposedly equates the efforts of unrelated products and services to each other?

In that sense, aren’t in-game items and currency a measure of the efforts put forth by a user? Try not to deny it – it really is robbery in the same way unauthorized access to a bank account is.

And phishing isn’t really the problem either – social engineering just provides a modern age “Survival of the Fittest” test whereby the predators are more intelligent.

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