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Feb 22, 2008



I see no reason to distinguish between virtual or real theft, either. Theft is theft. It's wrong, in any society.

The question is: what kind of authorities do you want to prosecute this theft, and with what punishment? And here there will be a sliding scale, hopefully guided by common sense and not absolutism and extremism, that will match the needs of that community and those who rule it, hopefully justly.


1. Punishment of theft of pie still cooling on Grandma's windowsill: make grandson eat more green beans for a week. Inappropriate: calling his mom, Definitely inappropriate: calling the police.

2. Punishment of theft of test answers in school: put the thief in after-school detention for 3 days, or hold the entire class after school until one of them rats on the other (some would question this). Definitely inappropriate: calling the police.

3. Punishment of theft of towels or mugs at the private Yale Club by a prominent member: add the bill for the silverware on to his club membership and say nothing. Definitely inappropriate: calling the police.

4. Punishment of theft of candy from the del: call in the mom and forbid the kid for coming in the store. Inappropriate: calling the police (but in a big city where nobody knows each other such as to call in a neighbour, then they might reach for the police as a solution).

5. Punishment of theft of earphones from Radio Shack: call the police.

Etc. etc. You get the idea. People have very different ideas in different countries and cultures of what is appropriate for punishment, and when the local authorities should be brought in.

For example, when a respected staff member (previously respected) of an NGO steals $1000 out of petty cash or travel expense money, an NGO in Europe might immediately call police and start an investigation; an NGO in the US might simply try to first get the person to pay the money back or account for it or fire the staff member, but not involve the police; in Russia, an NGO might think this a sign that the group should take up a collection because that person must have some real family need for that money, maybe their kid had an operation.

What I think you have to stay away from in these discussions is imposing universal law on local communities and avoiding absolutism, or drafting Game Publisher Bill of Rights inappropriately including what should belong in Game Publisher Criminal Code.


@ Arno --

I generally agree. If we accept the premise of virtual property, we have to accept, I think, that there can be interferences with the possession of virtual property, a.k.a. conversion.

There are many interesting things about "virtual theft," however. First, it is an intangible interest. Second, it is premised on a private software structure that is malleable and could, potentially, be used to restore the virtual property at issue to the true owner. Third, the precise value of virtual property to both platform owners and participants can be difficult to measure, especially in cases where both cashing out and purchasing virtual property is forbidden. Fourth, in some virtual environments, conversion and destruction of the virtual property of others is perfectly normal according to game rules and should be expected.

But while I see all of those as interesting complications, I don't see any of them as fatal to the possibility of virtual theft.

One question that I've found interesting is how the well-known practice (since Habitat, if not before) of virtual exploits and duping fits into a traditional property law framework, given the above complications. The illegitimate creation of intangible value seems close to the concept of counterfeiting... but the fit is obviously not exact. Perhaps theft of services, but that seems a bit off too...


The problem of "virtual" theft is both simple and vexing.

On face, if the architecture of a system allows for an object to be treated as thought it is real, in other words somehow is made to be unduplicatable (I can't think of a good reason of why to do this or an easy method of implementing it in practice)--the closest analogue I can think of are crafted goods from Star Wars Galaxies. Each good came from a specific set of materials mined and refined and was passed through a unique set of tools in order to make sure that the product was at least unique to the craftsman (or woman). That does not impose a limitation on the GM's, they could just restore the item, but at the very least it established that the expectations within the game would cause people to treat the property as irreplaceable. In theory, it might be possible to do this in code, but it would be as hard as making uncrackable DRM (read: damn near impossible) and about 5 times as pointless.

BUT, if the object were unable to be replaced, theft is clearly theft. The added proxy of the avatar does not absolve any players. We may thing of protocols in code as acting as our avatars (if we abstract enough) on the web. If someone steals my password and SSH's to my computer over the series of tubes in order to steal my financial information, he is not blameless because my computer accepted what it felt was a legitimate remote login request. That is to say, even if we feel that some appearance of giving exists, it might be analogies that the avatar was acting under duress. :)

Even if the object is replaceable, it is the same as stealing a replaceable object in the rest of life.

As for the comment made above by Prokofy Neva.

I don't see that continuum you posted as being a sliding scale of severity. I see it as a scale of social connectedness. In this case we might argue that stricter punishments might be in order for VW's as there isn't a social net to handle this. That is not a point said without contention attached. At the very least, anchors are less solidly weighted down in the social strata online. We might have less recourse in asking for responses from the community.

But. Those are small problems in the big scheme. The big problem, the REALLY pernicious problem is the actual classification of ownership and the decision of what to call the theft. It has been (with rare exception) the policy of big box MMO manufacturers to claim 100% "content" ownership and pursue thefts as "copyright infringement". While observers may view this as a damaging strategy in the long run, it has some CLEAR benefits to the corporations:

1. They don't need to get into a debate with their users over who owns the character and the items (in case they lose them).

2. They don't have to get dragged in as a third party over theft and fraud cases.

3. It requires much, much less thought than developing a more nuanced 'copyright' position.

The position of these manufacturers (with some exceptions, of course) is that there is no property in virtual worlds (I know I'm speaking to the choir here, and I promise I actually have a point), items are the intellectual property of the parent company. This is more of a barrier to developing some consistent legal framework for theft and ownership rather than some trifling restriction on conversion to 'real' money (I am of course in debt to Thomas Malaby for making me read the book, but...). Julian Dibbel points out the U.S. government's (at least) dim view of the notion that barring conversion to real money might mean that virtual goods are valueless. The real barrier is not that they are valueless but that 99% of VW users out there sign their right to own them away in order to use them. Take WoW or SWG or EQ (as I don't know Habbo Hotel). Theft in those games would involve only the guilty party and the software maker. The person who has been robbed has no actual right to those items. Their claim for relief would be quickly refuted by their contract with the company.

That is the pernicious problem. There isn't that much of a leap between the "theft of service"and "unjust enrichment" arguments to treating theft of virtual objects as theft. That isn't a problem. the problem is how to handle virtual objects as theft when the contracts surrounding their dispositon by and large claim that not only are they not objects but they aren't owned by the player.


This isn't making much sense to me.
If both the company and the victim acknowledge that a virtual/digital item was moved, they can easily remedy the situation. The company, after all, is effectively god in their little virtual world. If they recognize it as hacking they just need to transfer the item back and place some sort of punishment on the hacker. (A ban, a character reset, a fine?) If the hacker cannot be identified by logs (connection, client or trade logs all of which are easily implemented and probably already exist) no harm done.
The only way something can be lost in a virtual world is if the god allows it to be lost.

Of course, letting users whitelist ips, computers or clients would make this sort of hacking* a great deal more difficult.

*"In game it is just a transfer of virtual property as any other transfer"


On the matter of technological fixes. Note that outside this specific realm, generally speaking, just because there might be an effective technological (self-help) solution to a property interference does not mean that the party that could use that option must do so, nor does it mean that the wronged party is without legal recourse.


Adam Hyland's point is interesting. Most devs / managers do indeed claim ownership of all the objects in their game, at the point of Eula or ToS. So in theory, this impedes concepts of virtual theft, since the objects don't belong to the victim in the first place.

Two points about this.

First, the whole idea relies on the assumption that governments will allow these clauses to be legally binding for all time. For now, government knowledge has lagged behind the technology, and so Eula and ToS structures are enjoying a sort of legal holiday.

One day, it may occur to governments that the act of purposely designing a game so that it gives the impression of legal ownership of objects to its players (so much so that players are willing to grind away for months at generally unenjoyable tasks in order to earn these items) while at the same negating such ownership in the "fine print" is basically deceptive, unjust, improper, unenforcable, and against the greater good. Thus those portions of agreements may one day be thrown out.

It would be as if you signed away your organs and firstborn son in the ToS or Eula; that would be unenforcable by today's laws, no matter what you clicked-through in order to play the game. Note that I'm not taking a personal position here; I'm just positing that this could occur down the road, if these games become sufficiently mainstream and integrated into our general society and culture.

Look at the changes to smoking, drinking, and gambling laws over the last few decades, to see that governements can and do employ the big stick, if it percieves it to be in the public interest.


The second point is that you don't need to have ownership, in order to claim a loss. If I rent an apartment, I do not own it. But that doesn't give a squatter the right to move in and steal my rights to use the place, as defined in my lease. Even without a lease, if a squatter were to move in on my apartment, I'm pretty sure I could get some relief from the police or the courts.

A similar policy may evolve with virtual items, seeing how money (subscriptions), time and effort are expended to earn something of clear value to the player, as part of a service agreement with the provider company.

One could argue that the article on theft in the Criminal Code is not necessary, for a possible case of theft is always preceded by unlawful hacking.

The problem with this approach is that only the operator will then have standing to sue.

It has been proposed that all data crimes could be dealth with as trespass to chattels, where the chattels is the server hardware. For example, if someone hacks your email account, it is a trespass to the email server. But unless you own the server yourself, you cannot sue. You have to beg your email service provider to sue, which they may or may not do. This is obviously not optimal.

According to Josh Fairfield, the solution is to give you some kind of a property right over your email account -- "virtual property".

What caught my attention in this Habbo story is that the news reports mention not only hacking (that is, a violation against the server owner), but burglary as well, which a person with such a vidid imagination as mine could well imagine to be an implicit recognition of some kind of property rights pertaining to a Habbo room!


blackrazor> The second point is that you don't need to have ownership, in order to claim a loss.

The general point here is right, but I think it's phrased wrong. You do have to have ownership of something in order to claim you have a property interest that has been violated. A renter owns a leasehold, which is a present possessory property interest. Just because a landlord has a future interest and concurrent obligations doesn't mean that a renter doesn't own. As I tell my students, property law, when you get past the first steps, is never as simple as A owns or B owns.

A related point is that contract law can do certain things with respect to property interests. It can make property change hands, it can prevent suit, it can create licenses. But, generally speaking again, contract cannot make property vanish.



You are correct in seeing a way out of the ToS mess over ownership. One possible way out is for worlds to become so open and rich that it would seem silly to claim that generated objects in them that are the fruit of labor are fictional "intellectual property" of the operator. That requires some time and some growing pains. We will, I feel, get there eventually. VW's like SL that explicitly offer ownership and endorse RMT will start setting some precident out there.

More likely, in my mind, will be games where the operators endorse RMT but deny ownership. That is is basic microtransactions model that stands poised to impact how we think about money and games. That itself doesn't herald an change in legal thinking. But it gets us closer.

What I don't think will happen is a sort of divine intervention. Judges are usually pretty cautious in awarding judgments on contracts. You have to be doing some illegal stuff or something otherwise shocking before a judge will void sections in a contract. The "unconscionable" provision idea is a neat one, but doesn't get us anywhere in the debate. Also, I would rather that it didn't. Let's look at it this way. Generally speaking, the less the government has to say about how I go about business with another human being, the better. By this I mean: contracts are already very complicated and opaque. More litigation and judgments from the bench about what may or may not be in a contract do not serve to make them any less complicated.


greglas, ultimately, it seems to me that you have to divide this discussion into a) theft in open-ended virtual worlds with RMT and user-generated content, and b) theft in closed game worlds with only the publisher's content.

If the WoW type of closed game has a problem of gold-farmers, then the publisher can possibly treat it as a private club problem of a member going too far and stealing silverware that should remain in the club and merely ban or fine or bill him, or he can go the route of calling it hacking and computer fraud and call the real-life authorities.

The publishers of the open-ended world have a much more difficult set of issues, as the Lindens do with the constant protest about copyright theft, because if they try to help facilitate prosecution, as they will do (turning over RL information) the demand raises for them to become then adjudicators of theft and preventers of theft in all kinds of ways. If they don't fix an exploit, are they liable? and so on.

As for value of intangible property, I don't see why we need to get too fancy here. The value for a hip-hop CD can be nil to someone who copies it, $16.99 to someone willing to buy it in a store, 99 cents for someone who only wants one song, and the liking of the song and the song itself is intangible. The whole marketplace has changed to one not of "buy-sell objects" but buy-sell objects within a context of demand for the experience at a given time in a given way, making "events" part of the marketplace in ways they weren't before.

If gold-farming is unlawful, the value of gold farmed shouldn't enter into the equation. Therefore I don't see why you need to worry about valuation of closed-game property and its difficulty in measuring because it is a criminal offense no matter how you slice it.

In an open-ended world, the value of a sex bed for $25 US and the hugeness of the industry motivates someone like Stroker Serpentine to go and prosecute theft from exploits in real life. A copied t-shirt design for an item that sells for less than a penny isn't worth fussing over, and the victim of the theft might be moved to make a different design or use other methods like blackening the reputation of the stealer in forums (very common) rather than spending more money on the lawyer than he can now expect to get back in a settlement out of court.

Adam, you're right that it's about social connectedness. I guess all criminal codes in real-life are devised in much the same way, frankly. Think of all the countries or districts of the world that don't find it a crime for a husband to beat and injure a wife, but make it a crime to beat and injure a complete stranger. So social connectedness might make for less rather than worse punishment. I'm puzzled by what you mean about VWs not having a social net. Aren't they social nets by definition?

You're absolutely right about those easy solutions that the game publisers have to reach for. There.com has creators clear content through a central body, but AFAIK they don't then demand a part of their profits or take away their IP (someone more familiar with There could comment).

But IMVU now has a kind of "co-creation" policy whereby you split profits with the game publisher and they protect your IP by making it part of theirs, I guess. I wonder if people will go for this very old form of indentured servitude/junior apprenticeship dressed up in newfangled cyber clothing.

I simply refuse to accept the premise, which I know is zealously defended, that all property in virtual worlds is the publisher's, merely because they own the proprietary code. I believe that ownership matters and that avatar property rights need to be defended or the worlds are not viable.

In a sense, the Lindens, who are the most advanced of the game makers in giving IP rights, are no better than any other game manufacturer because of their claw-back clauses to that "right," such as being able to kick you out of SL 'for any reason or no reason' or, say, over a string of ARs launched against you by a competitor that might be their special friend.

It's just like our real life situation, where the Creator (or the evolved evolution mechanism thingy depending on your religion) gives you this rich special personal thing called "your life" but makes it ridiculously easy for it be taken away accidently any time, for no reason or any reason, and worse, enables all the other lives around you to be the arbiters at times of deliberately taking away this "right".

Adam, I think you may be right that the future will be RMT with no IP rights.

I'm watching closely to see how EA-Land (formerly the Sims Online) is going to work. They are overhauling the game, merging the cities, allowing user-generated content now but with a clearance system and creating a real economy with RMT -- but only for premiums, not for freebies, who can receive money but not cash it out. Just what many people begged the Lindens to do.

The TSO simoleons got rapidly devalued when they were gold-farmed on ebay and the game became "not fun" once billionaires could buy up all the lots and grief everybody. Now with secure deed trade of land and RMT they might create a land market, it will be interesting. The 2-D stuff doesn't bother me at all.

It is important to remember where we actually are now, which is that these VW-related lawsuits are being settled out of court, not by judges ruling on the application of criminal law.


@Greg - Property rights only exist due to the coercive powers of the state, which must be convinced that there are valid socioeconomic and public policy reasons for it to expend its resources on upholding/enforcing such rights. In a virtual world where the taken object can be instantly replaced (as well as deleted from the taker's account) due to a code entry, it may be difficult to convince a court that such reasons exist.


"Why not qualify the taking away of virtual objects as theft?"

...because then we'd have to give all our gear back to the mobs...?


Interesting thoughts about "virtual theft" posted here.
I don't know what's the definition of theft in the aglo-saxon case law. Should I suppose it could actually be very different to the one found in continental criminal law books?

Anyway, let me get to the point and answer why, in my opinion, the taking away of virtual objects does not qualify as theft.
According to the article 372 of the Greek Criminal Law Book: "Theft. Whoever takes moveable things not of his own away from another with the intent of unlawfully appropriating the things for himself or a third person, shall be punished ..." and according to the article 242 of the German Strafgesetzbuch: "Diebstahl. Wer eine fremde bewegliche Sache einem anderen in der Absicht wergnimmt, dieselbe sich rechtswidrig zuzueignen..."
Some translate the word "Sache" as "property" in English, which is wrong. "Sache" or any kind of object that should be taken for anyone to be accused for theft is a material thing with use in the real world, like money, for instance. Ideas, trademarks, data or anything immaterial are protected by different laws. The misuse of those immaterial things is treated differently because they have a different nature.
If a hacker hacks in to my bank account and transfers my money to his account, he is committing thievery because prior to him taking action I had money in my possession and at my disposal, and after what he did I don't. He took my money for himself. On the contrary, if a hacker hacks in my game account and takes my virtual sword, he is not a thief because I never had this sword to begin with. Same thing if the company running the server where I play deprives me of this sword for any reason, they wouldn't have any consequences regarding the criminal justice.

The locus delicti is irrelevant to the criminal characterization of the offence. It only has to do with jurisdiction. Example: A hacker uses a computer located in Athens to transfer money not of his own from one's bank account in Paris to another one's bank account in New York. He is prosecuted in Athens (if the locus delicti is applied and there are no international treaties imposing different rules).
But still, it has to be a real place, not a fictional or virtual world.

Principally, the European criminal justice systems confine the criminal laws in strict cases where fundamental social goods are at stake by anti-social behavior.People always have the right to refer to a civil court and ask for a just compensation if they feel they suffer any kind of damage, regardless of it's nature. But expanding the criminal justice and threatening with punishment like imprisonment to imaginary or virtual "offences" would greatly compromise the civil rights.
It's just too dangerous to play with criminal law. We'd better leave it out of our games.


@Peter -- I'm not sure that I agree that the state has to be, in all cases, "convinced that there are valid socioeconomic and public policy reasons for it to expend its resources" in order to recognize a property right. Esp. in the case of civil suits. I don't think I would disagree if you were just arguing that prosecutors would not put policing virtual theft high on their to do list. And I think that's a justified exercise of discretion.

@Theologos -- thanks for the primer on Greek law! Most civil conversion statutes in the U.S. would reach more broadly.


One of the reasons why I cringe at these discussion is because the term "intellectual property" has , in my view, poisoned the well on discussions like this.

I have trouble reconciling the moral concept of 'property' with the physical concept of it, when it enters the world of infinite reproduction.

Theres an argument for property rights that goes, roughly, that property is an enabler of liberty because it allows its owner to do stuff with it. Ie a lawnmower gives the owner the ability to mow lawns he might otherwise not have to do (short of getting out the scisors and having a dreadfully dreary weekend.)

Accordingly then stealing that property can not be a moral action because by siezing that lawnmower you deprive that person of it, and its resulting enablement, thus using another as a means to your end.

The problem with this sort of deontology-lite is it falls apart with acts of copying. Its entirely possible to copy that lawnmower for myself by building my very own, and in the process I gain that liberty, whilst avoiding abusing your liberty.

This might be covered by patents, and thus the original lawnmower owner might then take action to remedy this 'breach', but I find a lot of issues trying to work out how this action is morally justified. By taking actions to restrict the copier, your effectively holding those liberties hostage to your own whim, thus I'm not sure such things are particularly good candidates for universal values.

In short the Lawnmower is property, because its a singleton of sorts, but the IDEA of a lawnmower is something we are all capable of holding in our head without punishment to another, and by extension acting on that idea is not a punishment to another either.

The problem because much more vexatious with data. If I go up to someone with a cool costume in SL and zap the costume with copy-bot so I have a perfect costume, at no point have I deprived that person of their liberty to wear the costume. Its not even a real costume, its a representation of the idea of a costume.

Who is another person to abuse my mind by denying me the idea of that costume?

Its not property. Its an idea.

Now, it gets a bit more complicated if I somehow steal the costume so the original 'owner' can not wear it. It is a fair call that if the agreed on social contract (or real contract) of the game is "taking the costume without consent is a bad thing", that the person should be held morally accountable for it. It IS a denial of anothers ability to utilise the idea, and thats wrong.

The problem is, this is an artificially constructed moral problem. Its caused by Second lifes IP system, and thus the spotlight SHOULD be cast on the people that created it. LL made an analogue of property in SL, but dismissed the idea of expanding freedom by blocking infinite reproducibility.

In my view, CopyBot was an act of pure Moral providence. As if the gods had decreed "Theft is now a bad memory. If you want that thing, I'll make you a new one!". Conversely those that objected to it , where in some way the real thieves of the equasion.

By denying other people the *idea* of the costume and the ability to represent it freely, they effectively stripped what ever moral core could exist to 'property' (the enablement of libertys, for example the liberty to look a certain way), and replaced it with the not-so-moral idea of "the liberty to deny others liberty".

And I'd argue thats no liberty at all.

Its not property if it can be reproduced, its an idea. If you purposefully block that ideas reproducibility than in some quite tangible way, it is YOU that is the thief.


edit: For reference, I grant that the idea of IP is somethign you effectively agree to when you sign up in SL. And thus the problem is not one of theft, but contract violation.

I just happen to think its a terrible idea, and honestly I think when someone builds a second life based on true open-source/freedom-based principles, its going to eat SL alive.


@ Greg - It's more than just a question of discretion. As Morris Cohen noted, property is due to sovereignty, and there is the underlying issue of whether the state has sovereignty over virtual worlds. Perhaps the state is just an occupying force overseeing a transitional government while virtual worlds evolve into self-determination?


Arno R. Lodder>The crux is of course that one of the avatars is controlled by someone who is not the owner of the avatar, and does so without permission.

This is true, although not in the sense you seem to be making it. Neither avatar is controlled by the owner of the avatar, because (unless they've said otherwise) the owner is the developer of the virtual world in all cases. One of the players is indeed using "their" avatar with the developer's permission and the other one isn't, though.



Rex>"Why not qualify the taking away of virtual objects as theft?"
>...because then we'd have to give all our gear back to the mobs...?

I have to say, this is a brilliant observation!



The core question here seems to be this: Is a virtual world "item" real or not real?

If the item is "not real", then it cannot be stolen. The only valid reasons to include the state would be for hacking or for breach of contract (ToS).

If the item is real, than it can be stolen. In this case, the state would be obligated to interfere for theft, hacking, and possible breach of contract. Of course, if the item is real, then the state also has the right to tax the item. A company that deleted an item or character, banned a character without court order, "nerfed" an item, or even shut down it's servers could also be reasonably accused of theft.

And if stealing an item within a virtual world is theft, is attacking a character within a virtual world assault?

This seems like an incredibly slippery slope. I cannot see virtual worlds surviving in any of their current forms if actions within those worlds are treated the same as actions within the real world.


I'm in total confusion here. The definition of theft in Greece is the same you may find all over Europe. I included the German version to point this out. Not sure about U.K. or U.S.A. though. You seem to imply a strange connection between contract law and criminal law which is completely alien to European justice systems. Let me please ask you: Could a person who breaks a lease or any kind of contract face some kind of criminal punishment like imprisonment in the U.S.? Certainly not in Europe. Further more, the subject of theft is mobile. You can steal furniture, but not the apartment itself. How could it be different in the U.S.?

@Peter S. Jenkins
Sovereignty is the reason why the rule of the locus delicti exists. Of course the state does not and should not have sovereignty over imaginary or virtual worlds, but it does have sovereignty of the place where the server is located. If a server is used as an instrument for conducting criminal activity, the sovereign state may shut it down and confiscate it.

@the O.P.
Criminal justice is no game play. Criminal laws have a very serious impact on people, they literary determine their live, sometimes even their existence.
According to the European justice systems nobody should have to prove why a criminal law shouldn't apply in any case. On the contrary, the one who declares that a criminal law should apply has to prove why it should, and it always has to do with regulating grave anti-social behavior.
Thus, I have to ask you: Why should any person face imprisonment for "virtual theft", since you always have the right to file a lawsuit against him and ask for a just compensation referring to the general rules of civil law which protect the personally.


Edit: erase "personally" in my last sentence, I meant "personality".


Edit: erase "personally" in my last sentence, I meant to say "personality".


It seems that 200+ years after the French revolution, western civilization is still straggling to define civil rights and defend itself against authoritarian rule.
Thank you for pointing out with plain examples the dangers that may come by "innovative" interpretations of the nulum crimen, nula poena sine lege principle.


Rex>"Why not qualify the taking away of virtual objects as theft?"
>...because then we'd have to give all our gear back to the mobs...?

Surely this could be reasonably argued away however? I argue in a paper that I'm presenting in Tampere (that generally addresses the Magic Circle concept) that what matters is consent and intent.

If a game features theft as a mechanic, and a player joins that game, they are giving consent to be robbed. Thus in that case there's no theft.

Intent would deal with the mobs, for much the same reason. There is no intent to commit a crime (theft), because you are using a mechanic of the game to obtain items from the mobs.


@Darryl Woodford
Never knew anyone giving any kind of "consent" to be virtually robbed. On the contrary, everyone would "virtually kill" the "virtual thief" and rejoice.
Are you suggesting that game mechanics are laws and the game rules could actually substitute criminal justice?


Myronides wrote:
"Are you suggesting that game mechanics are laws and the game rules could actually substitute criminal justice? "


There are things that go on in real-world sports, like boxing and football, that are perfectly allowed given the context and intent.

If I tried those same things in a line at the supermarket, I would be charged with assualt. If I tried those things to the police officers that showed up, I probably wouldn't be charged at all, because I'd be wearing my very own toe-tag, courtesy of the state.

So yes, intent and context do seem to matter.


Intention alone cannot be punishable, but intent and context are taken in consideration by the criminal justice, of course. That's one thing, and expanding criminal law to virtual worlds is another.

"Give consent to robbery" is a contradiction in terms. If I accept an invitation to go take someone's stuff, I do not commit robbery, I only receive a present. Just like "give consent to murder" is a contradiction in terms. If someone asks me to kill him (because he is suffering from an incurable disease, for instance), I do not commit murder, I only participate in a suicide. (Which, by the way, is not punishable in some European countries, but it is in some others, Greece included. Not as gravely as murder or homicide, exactly because context and intent are taken in consideration.)

You should never substitute criminal procedures and the warranty that they provides to the civil rights of the defendant, with any kind of contract or EULA, either it is supervised by a company running the servers or the state itself, for obvious reasons (I hope). Law and justice are not mind games where the smartest wins. They are the instruments of the state to regulate social behavior, bring order to chaos. If we start imprisoning people for breaking the rules of a game or misconduct while playing, where this would end up to? Imprisoning people for intentions, ideas, fantasies?


Myronides> "Give consent to robbery" is a contradiction in terms. If I accept an invitation to go take someone's stuff, I do not commit robbery, I only receive a present.

Perhaps it was malformed, I was trying to get it submitted before the cup final. If a game permits theft, offers it as a feature (character class or otherwise), and somebody partakes of that feature, it should not be actionable. If however the game does not allow it, and somebody manages to obtain an item, then I think it should be actionable. My legal experience is limited to second-hand knowledge of the UK system, but my desire would be that it would be subject to compensation rather than imprisonment.

The soccer/sport example given by blackrazor is pretty much what I had in mind. In the vast majority of cases, an "assault" committed on the playing field is dealt with by the relevant disciplinary body (e.g. The FA). I think the case is R. v Brown where they ruled that Boxing was not criminal assault. However there have been cases where the courts have acted on top of this disciplinary body. See Chris Kamara in 1988; "Kammy', then of Swindon Town, caught Shrewsbury Town's Jim Melrose with his elbow, breaking Melrose's cheekbone in the process. He was fined £1,200 for causing grievous bodily harm and also ordered to pay £250 compensation."

More on examples of this at: This link


What is stolen in the case of a digital asset that can (after, I imagine, some effort) be perfectly replaced is simple: time.

I go on at length about this topic .

It boils down to this: if we assume that value can attach to "something" that isn't a thing, where does that value live? I believe that the value is stored, in many ways, in the time we spend on our activities, and the relative value of that time to us when compared to other activities and other people's activities.

I spend time in a virtual world (even if I spend absolutely no money). That time is valuable to me, even if I am not or could not be paid for it. If you cause (either through theft or griefing or whatever) me to either waste time replacing something, or to retroactively re-value previous time spent in the world at a lower value, you have robbed me.

Think of it this way... Imagine that you are playing a game where 4 hours of effort is required to achieve a new goal of some kind (level, loot, whatever). There is no ability to save the game between minute 1 and minute 240. At minute 235, I creep up on you and unplug your computer. Zap. You have to start the quest again.

Have I taken a single "thing" from you, virtual or otherwise? No. But I have robbed you of your time, or at least of some of the value you assigned to it.

Virtual theft is, I think, a theft of time. It can also be seen as a theft of trust or brand... but time is often involved as part of the valuation of those qualities, too.


@Darryl Woodford
I see your point and I agree.

@Andy Havens
I don't understand the definition of crime, theft or robbery you have in mind.
You may not ask for criminal punishment, for imprisonment of the "virtual thief".
You may file a lawsuit and ask for a just compensation because of the frustration you suffered, for the time or money you lost due to a "virtual theft".
Isn't this fair enough for you?


@Andy: Nice. The better accounts of capital in all of its manifestations see it as formed, at root, just as you describe. All things of value are in a sense congealed human effort over time (and this goes for things that have value beyond their material components or their original cost of production; e.g., Honus Wagner's baseball card).


dmx, you're merely espousing one point of view about Copybot, there are more moderate views about its destructiveness, even among those who are for CC licenses, etc. and there are radically opposing views. Copybot cannot be seen devoid of its social context in SL, where its cynical maker used it to grief people and also sold the device to other griefers, although ostensibly working with the open-source freebie ethic.

Copybot isn't a godsend, it's criminality embodied in a virtual worlds. Digital items aren't infinitely copiable if you have permissions on them and protect the author's copyright. It's not that difficult that the copyleftists imagine it to be when you're serious about it. Every time more prudent folks say "Let's have a TOS violation" or "Let's have more obfuscation" or "let's facilitate DMCA takedowns," they are shouted down by copyleftists who seem to achieve their views about the "inevitabilty" of Copybot only through such thuggishness.

BTW, Copybot doesn't even copy everthing very well, did you realize that?

But, abstractly speaking, in fact, everything you say here about the lawnmower and so on is illustrative of the evil of Copybot, because it argues backward from the *ease* of crime to saying there *is* no crime, creating a moral vacuum, and therefore everything is moral "just because I say so".

"Without God, anything goes."

The idea that you are not harming another, and not "depriving them of liberty" by copybotting their costume is absurd, because you are harming the creator by stealing their work, that is on permissions, and harming the valuation of their costume, that they paid for, and might resell if it were on transfer but not mod or copy. Hacking and stealing the item isn't sanctified just because of the concept, beaten into everybody's heads in SL by the libSlers, that "if you can see it, you can copy it" client side. So what? That doesn't make it right or moral.

Property has context and community and interactivity and value. Sucking out its value collapses the community. What of the living people must make? This isn't some simple Luddite problem or merely about "progress".

Again and again, we see the moral crux of this problem: coders, including some schools of game gods, want to make all property theirs, and take away all property rights of avatars, so that they can control everyone. They are in a constant pretense and a technological shill about this, saying that it's "not possible" to protect avatar rights or avatar property and "if you can see it you can copy it" -- although they sure as hell protect their server-side *scripts* from being copied by hacks, eh?

It's then a completely immoral sleight of hand to whirl around and claim that because someone else can't "realize the idea of lawn mower" by copying your version of it (!) you're committing some immorality by somehow claiming exclusivity to that image.

But that's not how real life or even virtual life works. Everyone can have a common Platonic ideal of "lawnmower," but there will be many exemplifications of it. Each one is, say, copyright protected. You can make your own damn lawn mower based on your Platonic ideal, thank you very much, or buy mine.

Here's a link to a related piece called aptly enough "Finding the Lawn-Mower" about legal nihilism in SL.


Andy, I'm glad you're conceiving digital objects as storing time. Or effort/labour. Or perhaps they store triggers of emotions. Just like real-life momentos. So it's ok for them to have value, and the value is a social construct, but an important one that I think game gods ignore at their peril.


Look, you eggheads just aren't keeping up, and it gets supremely frustrating after awhile. This is real. This isn't theoretical. This is big.

Read this Reuters story:

$1.4 million *US dollars* is exchanged in SL daily, and content creators get a large chunk of that. They make their living on it. This is a model for the coming 3-D Internet. Reuters doesn't have to beat around the bush: they call it crime, they call it theft, and they say there are no real police taking care of this problem.

Eric Reuters rights about how vigilantes are even taking the law into their own hands and crashing the sims of the prirates.

Second Life is the simulation -- and the reality -- to study for these issues. To sit here and pontificate about Copybot in the abstract is to not do your homework.


@dmx: yes, I agree that IP is on a different footing. Virtual property is not necessarily like IP. Insofar as it is like IP, I agree with you that it's highly suspect.

@Peter: I think the state is, by definition, an occupying force! :-)

@Myronides: I understand your confusion, but I'm not joking. Read this.
(And the word you're looking for is "personalty" I think.)

@Darryl Woodford's point: It seems everyone has agreed on this, and I will too. Yes, game rules should and do have an effect on whether property is stolen or not. The winner in a card game has the right to take the money from the table. If the loser takes the money, this is theft.


As I'm no longer certain if I'm banned, I'll pull a Hopper and simply pass my thanks to Andy; the (irrecoverable) Time issue is one I don't see many people arguing.


"Adam Hyland's point is interesting. Most devs / managers do indeed claim ownership of all the objects in their game, at the point of Eula or ToS. So in theory, this impedes concepts of virtual theft, since the objects don't belong to the victim in the first place."

Then I guess it's not possible to steal a US Federal Reserve Note (Dollar), because it's still owned by the Federal Reserve, no matter who is in posession of it at any time. Paper money could even be seen as virtual currency since it's really only a representation of actual hard currency and the perceived value of paper money fluctuates (sometimes wildly). There are even terms of use for paper money, including the fact that making your own or destroying some of it isn't allowed.

The line between "virtual" and "real" may itself be more virtual than most people are willing to admit.


Whether something is capable of being stolen depends entirely on its value. For something which has zero cost and is available to all, it makes no sense to talk of anyone "stealing" it. Such things are effectively simply part of the commons.

The value of any created object in the real world is a combination of three things: resources, labour, and capital. In virtual worlds, resources and capital are effectively close to zero, which means that the value of any object relies solely on the labour involved in its original creation. This means that the marginal cost of each copy of an object is zero. It doesn't, though, mean that the value of each object is zero: it just means that the value isn't based on traditional rules of scarcity, but on the total labour put into an object.

That's a point that's worth baring in mind when we talk of the potential damage of appropriating a virtual object without the original creator's consent. Simply because an object can be copied infinitely doesn't mean it has no value: it simply means that the marginal cost is zero.


"The value of any created object in the real world is a combination of three things: resources, labour, and capital. In virtual worlds, resources and capital are effectively close to zero"

"Simply because an object can be copied infinitely doesn't mean it has no value: it simply means that the marginal cost is zero"

Again, look at paper money and compare. Which costs more to print and distribute; a one thousand dollar bill, or a one dollar bill? And, does the cost to produce them have any relation to the value of the notes.

The deeper you look, the harder it becomes to say that virtual crime should not be taken seriously in certain cases.


The only way to steal anything in Habbo hotel is if the owner of the items gives his/her details to somebody else. Essentially either the owner gives his/her password to somebody or visits another website where they input this information, or which installs a keylogger onto their computer. There are no other hacking methods, whereby somebody would just lose their items without any fault of their own. The initial fault lies with the owner who simply was not careful enough. It'd be like leaving my house door wide open or giving my bank card+pin code to somebody and then wondering why my house/bank account is empty.

It is all still a theft, but I think it does bring another dimension to 'virtual theft' and to the question of who is responsible to offer compensation, do investigation, punish the guilty etc.


1. value doesnt determine an items "ability" to be stolen. Value though is the key, not its "reality" of form or matter.

2. If i drink your milkshake!.......



@Ian, who said: "Whether something is capable of being stolen depends entirely on its value. For something which has zero cost and is available to all, it makes no sense to talk of anyone "stealing" it. Such things are effectively simply part of the commons."

Well... no. Not when it comes to IP, for example. Unless you count the effort to create and maintain (for example) a trademark image as "cost."

A picture of Tony the Tiger has embedded costs and value that go far beyond what it takes to Xerox an image or silk screen it on a t-shirt. Those efforts, and the right to the good (and bad) effects of the development and dispersal of that image, are recognized in trademark law all the time. Certain colors, in certain combinations, when related to certain products, qualify as trade dress for products/services, and are protected as such, even though the marginal cost difference between me making something unique/new vs. something that looks like your bag of famous fertilizer is zero.

Value and cost aren't always related one-to-one. If I create one virtual object and (in the case of SL, let's say) set it to no copy, no edit in order to make it a special/unique gift for a friend... part of the value of that lies in a scarcity unrelated to cost, but entirely related to intent. No, it would cost nothing additional for me to set one byte on the object to "ok to copy." And then, perhaps, I'd create value through popularity rather than through uniqueness.

But those questions of value need to be based on the intent of the initiator, not the recipient (at least not without an agreement between the two).

The courts recognize the difference between cost and value when they assign "pain and suffering" damages. Many of the greatest crimes inflict no real monetary cost on victims, but instead interfere with their basic rights.

And what are rights, but rules? Perhaps we need to qualify activities less in terms of "theft" than in terms of "broken rules."


Your a very rude and agressive person sometimes Prokovy. Fyi I'm a geek, not an 'egghead' (My head is rather round actually)


Prokofy Neva wrote:

Look, you eggheads just aren't keeping up

You were banned from Terranova for an inability to control your mouth and a penchant for trying to advance your arguments largely via insulting anyone who disagreed with you.

Are you really unable to have a discussion without trying to belittle those who disagree with you?



Prokofy Neva wrote:

Andy, I'm glad you're conceiving digital objects as storing time. Or effort/labour. Or perhaps they store triggers of emotions. Just like real-life momentos.

Objects cannot store time (which is not a commodity that can be stored), nor can objects store emotions or triggers of emotions. Those emotions/triggers of emotions are stored in ourselves, not in the items themselves.

For instance, say you have a great deal of nostalgia for a particular G.I. Joe action figure. Seeing one may trigger those emotions, but it's got nothing to do with storing anything within the action figure. In fact, as with any physical object, you could be looking at a copy rather than the original action figure that you played with as a kid and which you built up nostalgia for.



Matt: Not sure I agree with you. Objects can't store money, either, but we assign them value. Sometimes very specifically on a per unit basis(gold, gas, wheat, movie tickets, leprechauns), sometimes very bizarrely (fine art, collectibles, wine).

When courts grant damage awards, they often take into account non-corporeal issues. "Pain and suffering," for example is essentially worthless (aside from issues of philosophy)if I cause it to myself, but can be worth big bucks if somebody else wrongfully caused it to me. That concept is a recognition of the fact that your right to do stupid/wrong stuff often ends where my right to not be the victim of your stupidity begins. If you want to swing a sledgehammer on a string around over your head in your own living room, knock yourself out (ha ha). If you do it in the middle of a shopping mall... prepare to pay.

When it comes to doing "wrong stuff," we need to take things other than the specific replacement cost of items into account. Another example might be the "theft" of a virtual identity that incurs no physical/material cost, but that exposes a user to losses of privacy and social status. If you somehow hijack (?) my avatar and use it to have conversations with a bunch of my friends in a space that I've spent years developing... how is that not a crime of some kind?


>Objects cannot store time (which is not a commodity that can be stored), nor can objects store emotions or triggers of emotions. Those emotions/triggers of emotions are stored in ourselves, not in the items themselves.

Sure they can. You can be literalist about it, but then, you can say that nothing is stored in a human, either because it's a perceptional illusion, a social construct placed absurdly on to a bag of carbon and other chemicals that will disintegrate. The word-salad bar is always open.

>For instance, say you have a great deal of nostalgia for a particular G.I. Joe action figure. Seeing one may trigger those emotions, but it's got nothing to do with storing anything within the action figure. In fact, as with any physical object, you could be looking at a copy rather than the original action figure that you played with as a kid and which you built up nostalgia for.

Oh, don't be silly.

Quick, only 51 minutes left on this bargain, at only $52, the snake eyes cobra one:



>Prokofy Neva wrote:

>Look, you eggheads just aren't keeping up

>You were banned from Terranova for an inability to control your mouth and a penchant for trying to advance your arguments largely via insulting anyone who disagreed with you.

I obviously disagree, but since this topic is covered at length on my blog, you can follow it up there, it's a diversion from this discussion.

Calling eggheads "eggheads" is hardly an insult, it's a common phrase, and doesn't imply an insult, it's a kind of joke.

Frankly, those unwilling to see that virtual property already has acquired value and become the target of lawsuits truly aren't keeping up. The reality has already overtaken their belief that virtual objects should have zero value when they are sold on game sites, ebay, and within worlds where people cash out and make a living. It's no longer some kind of novelty, some kind of odd, isolated news story, and I'm surprised that it could still be argued about as if it were.

Seriously, something has to be done to advance the field.

Ian, have you actually studied Second Life? Or There? or even the old Sims Online? Or especially the new Ea-Land?

This statement can only be abstractly true:

"The value of any created object in the real world is a combination of three things: resources, labour, and capital. In virtual worlds, resources and capital are effectively close to zero, which means that the value of any object relies solely on the labour involved in its original creation. This means that the marginal cost of each copy of an object is zero."

No, first of all, resources are not "effectively close to zero". They cost a lot. In Second Life, as in There, you need land, and you need to pay to rez things out, one way or another, either per object, or per square mter. That's an expenditure of capital right there, and one that can sometimes be developed and returned with a profit.

You might argue that script kiddies can hack around in free sandboxes and don't need land, but if they become seriously about selling their creations, they will have to spend on mall spots and advertising of classifieds, etc.

There isn't merely a labour-value to objects; they acquire other values or devalues based on other social factors. Example: A free Linden party hat of which there must be gadzillion copies on the grid, especially as they have been exploited by griefers, can be sold for $5 when, say, a club is having a party and needs them "just in time" and can't expend the time or effort to find the free ones. It's more complex than you're suggesting by invoking the idea that if there are no natural resources like trees, but only endlessly copyable automatically generated blocks of wood, that it has no resource expense.


Prok: You lost me with both those examples. Land, in SL, is not a resource; it's a taxable fiction. Is it important? Yes. The way Linden has set up SL relies on land not having value in-and-of itself, but only as a platform for other stuff. That doesn't mean it's a resource. It's not even an ingredient. It's a rule of the game, and a rule that generates income both for Linden and for folks who do things with the land. But the land itself has no actual value relative to anything other than the rules of SL. Any activities I value in the world, any objects that hold interest for me, and relationships I form... they could happen as easily without land as with it. Land relates to funding in this case, which gives it value as an engine of commerce, but not as something that is a resource. It's taxation by representation.

And the example you give of the party hats actually works against the idea of virtual objects as things with value in themselves. If the value is more about the timing than the thing, then what I'm valuing is the convenience, which -- again, though it has value -- is not a resource.

PS: "Egghead" is generally perceived to be a derogatory term. It not only implies false intelligence (or intelligence unrelated to the matter at hand) on the part of the target, but a general lack of respect for a particular intellectual structure.



Let's go back to the OP's original example, shall we? The Dutch police went after a boy who stole stuff from Habbo Hotel. Habbo Hotel! And both the game company and the victims in the game wanted the police to do this, and the police did it!

Don't you find it a little late to be theorizing about whether virtual property has value and can be truly stolen, when real-life police have already arrested someone on these grounds?

Are you hoping to build the case for the boy's lawyer, and prove that no crime took place? Do you actually think this Dutch judge will admit discussions about, um, "de-ontology"???

Second Life isn't a taxable fiction, anymore than somebody's online CD business is a "fiction". It's taxable, and while intangible, real. And it's a resource that is scarce, like real-life land, because it costs something for the real-life servers and programmers' time, and to access that you have to pay something, and it is limited. That all seems pretty obvious.

Land does in fact have value in and of itself. This is one of those things that people argue about endlessly, and it fits with the coders' view of the world, and the Platformist Party, to say, "land has no value, land is merely a platform for something else like created content or socializing."

But, that's not how people perceive it, trade it, deal with it. It has a value, per meter, whether used to store a box, build a castle, or merely hang out and blow up stuff. It can acquire more value per meter due to its proximity, name, other intangibles. It seems to me that if you say land, which is a published fiction in a sense in a virtual world, has no intrinsic value, you could say the same thing about the real world, which you could posit, in Zen fashion, is merely God's published fiction, and has no intrinsic value, but what matters is only whether you use it to farm or build a house.

If you are going to make statements like "the land itself has no value outside of SL," I'd have to disagree, if you can sell it for money you cash out and use to pay your telephone bill. And you could argue that created content or socializing in the form of particularly dressed avatars "has no value outside of SL" either. And yet it does. People pay $9.95 a month at least for this, and often a lot more.

You can't somehow segregate land out from everything else, and cry, "that has no value, but everything else does". This is at the root of the problem of governance of virtual worlds, like the root of a lot of land and governance problems in real life. A socialist or communist government, for example, might say "the land belongs to the state, and the government dispenses it for the good of the people". Yet a contrary view will say, no, the land must be privatized or people won't value it and work it as their own.

There's an enormous drive, which in my view is imported directly from real-life problematic ideologies, to declare land value null and void, arbitrage and real estate dealings suspect if not corrupt, and land "available" just to roll out endlessly like toilet paper.

That seems to me a vast fiction, because a common-sense approach tells you that if you are going to suspend the entire disbelief you might wish to impose on virtuality as a whole, you can't just balk at land value. There are auctions for the land, people sell it, for all practical purposes, this rented server space is like land, just like these rented pixels are like clothing.

Your idea that land is a mere "ingredient," like, say, tool sets or groups, is interesting, but also, unnecessarily complex. It's ok to buy the fiction of a virtual world in total. It does no harm and in fact is what sustains the business model and the viability of the community. Then, like belief in fiat currency or belief in anything, it acquires a heft and reality.

One of the things I've found in my three years in Second Life is that there is a tremendous resistance by the Lindens, with their ideology, and by some of their favourite coders and designers among the residents, to accept land as a commodity and a legitimate part of the economy.

For example, land businesses are not declared -- not accepted for ideological reasons -- as businesses in the analysis of business activity. The Lindens say this is because they view land purchase as merely an asset, so they don't track flipping it, or developing it or reselling it. THat seems like wilful blindness to me.

There is tremendous suspicion -- just like real-life attitudes toward wealthy land owners -- toward people who buy and sell land in SL -- they are called disparagingly "land barons". There's a kind of fear and hatred toward them acquiring what are perceived as privileges or power as distinct from another set of privileges and power that are acceptable to grab, which are those related to programming and design. I find this unnatural.

The fact of the matter is, people make value even when you try to tell them there is no value. For example, look at the Sims Online, where the parcels are a standard rate, and you just click on them to buy them whenever you gather enough money, no auctions or bargaining or anything. But people still trade the parcels with special builds, objects, features, names that mean something. You could argue that they are selling the non-land intangibles. But those are impossible without the land itself, they are bound up in it.

In a real-life business, your purchased or rented land is a resource; it is in virtuality, too.

"Just in time" is an important part of a commodity. The guy selling $5 umbrellas from the store where they are $3 when it rains understands this. This is how time is stored in an object. I fail to see why features or properties of a thing like time or representation of labour or social meaning cannot legitimately be perceived as bound within the object. It's not as if we all wear special infrared eyeglasses where all these things are sheered away to see only the objects' inner core.

I disagree with your comments about "eggheads," and I'm happy to take it up on my blog.

Once again, we're dealing here with an OP about a real-life theft and prosecution (we don't know how it will end) of virtual goods, and yet everybody is still pawing at the air saying it can't be, it can't happen, it shouldn't happen. But it did.


@ Prokofy: That was very well-said and I agree with you. The cat is already out of the bag as far as real-world prosecution for virtual crime.

There are countless analogies which could be used as a precedent for treating virtual theft as "real world" theft under certain circumstances. Just like in real life, there are varying degrees of theft and mitigating circumstances which are always taken into account when law enforcement and the judicial system take action. In the US (and most other places where VR law is at issue) there is a presumption of innocence. I would think that a case like this would be an easy win for a competent defense attorney, but we are at the time where precedents are being set. I, for one, am interested in what the landmark cases will be and how they are finally adjudicated. The cases in Florida against the unlicensed RMT industry are of particular interest to me right now as well.

Perhaps the real issue here is the use of the legal charge of "theft". What I question is whether the "crimes" being reported in VR should more aptly be covered under other existing legal statutes such as copyright, contract, vandalism, hacking, public decency, etc... or if perhaps we need some entirely new laws to dictate how law enforcement and the judiciary should handle VR complaints.


The "value" of an item, tangible or otherwise, inheres in a particular market for the item rather than in the item itself. Ideally, any such market appropriately discounts value based upon considerations such as tangibility, contingency, etc.

The law (American, at least) is very unlikely to ignore any value as established by a reasonably efficient and rational market.


Value is taken in consideration for the sentence, but it has nothing to do with the legal characterization of an action. Of course the point here is if the object is tangible or not. Can you sit on a virtual chair? If not, how could you steal it? "Stealing" data is maybe a crime, but it's not theft. Remember, this is criminal law we are talking about. Not contract law.

Analogy is the main tool for the jurist to interpret law, but in case of criminal law, it can only be used in favor of the defendant. That's fundamental. I dare not think what could happen otherwise.


Prok: You're misquoting me in your arguments. It makes it harder for me to make my points clearer when you disagree with stuff I didn't say.

Firstly, I didn't ever say that theft of virtual items shouldn't be treated as either a crime or rule breaking, depending on the rules of the system or the actual case. So there's that. Because I disagree with you on a couple points, you're apparently lumping me in with people who disagree with you on others. Not helpful.

I agree with you that virtual items can have absolute value, that the value can incorporate issues like time and brand, emotional importance, social attributes, aesthetics, etc. I also agree that an item can have value regardless of the possible "zero cost" of copying/replacing, and that the removal/stealing or otherwise messing with something of value is an issue that needs to be dealt with. However...

You said that I said: "...the land itself has no value outside of SL." I did not say that. I said, "...the land itself has no actual value relative to anything other than the rules of SL." Obviously, since you can buy land, sell it at a profit, and take that profit out of SL, there is value. What I said, and what I'm still saying, is that the land has no value, really, as anything other than a way of setting boundaries, rules, etc. You yourself talk about improving land as part of the value-add process; what does that mean? It means adding stuff to it. Stuff that isn't just land. Stuff like architecture, nice geographic features, etc. Stuff that takes time, art, effort, creativity, whatever. All those things have innate value, I believe. Yes, the land is more valuable if it is near nice people, other nice places, etc. But "more valuable" doesn't mean that the land itself has value before you improve it, prove yourself a good neighbor, etc. Land is the graph paper. And you don't have to charge for it necessarily, and there doesn't need to be a market for it for there to be value attached to the things that go on the land.

None of which is meant to say that there is anything wrong with how SL does things, or that I have a personal beef or bone to pick with their method. Which is another thing you seem to be accusing me of saying, but which I haven't. The SL methodology of "charge for land as a way of making money and encouraging commerce" is one way of doing things. It's a fine way of doing things. It has encouraged some interesting activities, but also some bad behavior.

What I *am* saying (again) is that the value of that system is not predicated on the innate worth of "virtual land," because there is no innate worth there. It's the blank page. It's the playing field. Can you charge for access? Sure. Is it wrong to do so? No. But is it *necessary* because of innate value... not at all.

And you misquote me again. You said, "...Your idea that land is a mere "ingredient," like, say, tool sets or groups, is interesting."

I said that land *isn't even* an ingredient. It's not. It's where you put the other ingredients.

When you say, "You can't somehow segregate land out from everything else, and cry, "that has no value, but everything else does". This is at the root of the problem of governance of virtual worlds, like the root of a lot of land and governance problems in real life."

Well, yes, I can, and no, it's not. In RL, if I want to put a 50-yard wide bowling alley between point A and point B, and those two points are 20 feet apart... I'm SOL. In a virtual world, there's no reason you can't do that... except that we decide so. And -- again, please hear what I'm saying -- there's nothing wrong with saying (as SL does), "Hey. We're going to create a system that models land on a kind of RL model and places some value on geography that is similar to RL." I am not saying it's wrong, that land owners/renters biz owners/flipper, barons, whatever are bad. They aren't, IMO. I think it's an interesting way of doing things.

But the whole point of pseudo eggheads like me enjoying a good talk here on TN is that we like to take a look at root assumptions and tease them out into what makes more (or less) sense. And, as I said, while I am willing to argue for the inherent value of virtual items that may have, at least, some minimal creative value, I do not think "virtual land" need be a basis for value. Can it be? Yes. Must it be? No. And to argue (as you seem to be doing; I'm not exactly sure) that virtual land is a necessary value for a virtual world limits our creativity in terms of what other value systems might be set up.

Just one funky example. What about a system where the popularity of a parcel increased its size? You start with a small house. If you want a big house or a club, you have to prove to the game/world/system that you can attract (let's say) 5 people to your house on a regular basis. That encourages sociality. So... you have some regular small parties, and then are rewarded with more space; big house, small club. You want a bigger build? You need to have X visitors in a certain time. You want an island? X-times-20. Value adheres to social success rather than virtual geography. And I will argue that the social value of an in-world activity does have inherent value.

Why these conversations are important, is because it helps us quantify (or at least qualify) the value of virtual stuff. No matter how much you rant, the value of a virtual table is not the same as an RL one. NOTE: I did not say it was less! I said it was not the same. In some cases, the virtual item may be worth more.

But they aren't the same. And we need ways of assessing value that don't rely (necessarily) on "it looks like land, and land is valuable, so it must have similar value." That is, I think, just as troublesome to the argument as the view that because it ain't real, it has no value.


Prokofy Neva wrote:

Let's go back to the OP's original example, shall we? The Dutch police went after a boy who stole stuff from Habbo Hotel. Habbo Hotel!

What? What did they steal from Habbo Hotel? Did anything ever leave Habbo's complete, 100% control? I'd suggest not. Nothing was stolen from Habbo. Their complaint is hacking, not theft. Let's try to stay grounded in reality rather than going off on emotionally-driven crusades, shall we?

It was the player who alleged that something was stolen from him, not Habbo. I might be misunderstanding the case, but based on what the OP wrote I don't see where Habbo is alleging that something was stolen from them.

Calling eggheads "eggheads" is hardly an insult, it's a common phrase, and doesn't imply an insult, it's a kind of joke.

"Troll" is a common phrase too, but are you going to claim you're never insulted when the label is applied to you, as it frequently is?

Once again, we're dealing here with an OP about a real-life theft and prosecution (we don't know how it will end) of virtual goods

The considerably more accurate representation of the situation is to claim that YOU believe we're dealing with real-life theft.

Many of us (with, frankly, a great deal more day-to-day experience in issues of what we loosely term virtual property) disagree.

This issue has nothing to do with theft to me. For instance, the OP writes:

The original owners of the stolen Habbo furniture obtained the items after they bought credits with real money, and do attach value to those items.

The problem with this is that it assumes that someone besides Sulake owns the items. There's little to no justification for this point of view under Western law, as far as I understand court cases to date.

The original owners are Sulake, not the users, and as such theft is literally impossible. It's not possible to "steal" a piece of virtual property from Sulake. You can defraud them to gain the property, but in no case is it possible for the item to be removed from their system in any meaningful way.



Matt: The original owners are Sulake, not the users, and as such theft is literally impossible.

Without disagreeing at all about Sulake's ownership, is it possible to steal the ability to access something? If you "buy" (limited time license) the right to use a particular, numbered, spiffy lounge chair at a country club (owned by the club, usable only on their grounds) and I manage to take the chair so you can't use it, is that theft as far as you're concerned? I may be sunning myself in "your" chair elsewhere on the grounds, but if you can't get to something you've paid for (access to the chair), and I've absconded with that, is there a case to be made that this is theft? Or is it just another kind of fraud? Does the fact that you paid good money for that access-license mean that the civil or criminal law has been broken, or is this just a matter for the country club to handle internally?

I'm not sure, but in this case I'm not quite so quick to dismiss the potential theft aspect of it, even if the property never left the control of the real owning entity, in this case Sulake.


Mike: [...] I manage to take the chair so you can't use it, is that theft as far as you're concerned?

It is similar to parking on a parking lot without consent. Then you get a fine for the inconvinience... I've seen some parking lot owner's using deliberately misleading signs because fines get them more money than rent... Probably a very bad solution for the virtual space... ;-)

I disagree with Matt though, whether it is theft or not depends on whether you have purchased what might essentially be considered a copy or not. Which is up to the courts to decide, and that might vary from country to country!

If somebody takes your copy it is indeed theft, whether that copy is transferred to a different medium (digital location/representation) should be irrelevant in the age of the Internet. If they only duplicate your copy then it shouldn't count as theft though.

Not sure why it is important to label denial of access as "theft", though? The inconvinience is the same as with theft.


Mike>Without disagreeing at all about Sulake's ownership, is it possible to steal the ability to access something?

The answer to this, and to many other questions about virtual goods, drops out if instead of regarding the transference of virtual objects from one character to another as being "buying" or "giving" or "stealing", it's looked on as being a service. People don't buy goods from Habbo Hotel, they buy a service from them ("I'll pay you to make this change to your database"); they don't buy gold from IGE, they buy a service from them ("I'll pay you to perform these in-game actions").

Using this framework - which I vastly prefer to the "virtual objects" one - if I have paid Sulake to perform a service for me and someone else uses that service instead, it's some kind of "theft of a service,". It's the same thing as if I pay some guy to come round to my house and clean the windows, but my neighbour catches him before he starts and tells him there's a mistake and he should be cleaning the windows of this other house (my neighbour's own house) instead. The usual term for "theft of a service" is, I believe, "fraud" (I think - lawyers may have a more correct term).



Well, there seems to be two different scenarios that keep cropping up in virtual settings:

  • The first is one in which a scarce resource (e.g. real life money) cannot be taken out of the game.
  • The second is when the game becomes a mechanism for transferring scare resources from one person to another.

To me, the first is quite simple. Given responsible game mechanics (e.g. the ability to restore), theft is never a problem. Instead, I'd see the temporary taking away of virtual property as vandalism and/or harassment. To me, it doesn't matter how the item is acquired (e.g. time played or item-based purchasing) since those are semantics of the producer's billing procedure.

The second type of virtual setting allows for the transfer of scarce resources via in-game mechanics. Since money is a scarce resource, the unlawful (and irreplaceable) nature of taking a virtual item away from someone now translates to theft.

So, to me, the difference is what makes theft just that.. theft.


It's test. This site was probably down...


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