Oct 232008

Yet another country has come down on yet another side in the ongoing “virtual goods are property” debate. This time it’s the Netherlands.

The Leeuwarden District Court says the culprits, 15 and 14 years old, coerced a 13-year-old boy into transferring a “virtual amulet and a virtual mask” from the online adventure game RuneScape to their game accounts.

“These virtual goods are goods (under Dutch law), so this is theft,” the court said Tuesday in a summary of its ruling.

–Associated Press: Dutch youths convicted of virtual theft.

MindBlizzard seems to have a great and detailed overview. Virtually Blind has a take on it as well:

That’s interesting, and for better or worse, one small step toward more widespread recognition of virtual goods as something more than just mere ones and zeros owned by the company hosting them.

In the comment thread there are links to the original Dutch court papers and a Google translation of them. Among the points made by the court are that there are plenty of valuable goods in the real world that are not material — hardly a new observation. Ashcroft Burnham points out that the stock market is full of virtual goods.

One difference, of course, is that the stock market itself does not create these goods — people/companies do. In the case of these Runescape items, Jagex made them, and is just letting users play with them. We need a better real-world analogy than stocks.

  27 Responses to “Netherlands say virtual goods are property”

  1. It seems like other popular media are the obvious analogy here. Think of a DVD – you don’t value the physical object, but the information on it (evidenced by the fact that you wouldn’t be willing to pay as much for a blank DVD), but people value their DVDs as real possessions.

    Perhaps you could attribute that to popular technological mysticism – assuming people believed that the physical DVD and the information on it were inseperable. So what about the mp3? Aren’t we reminded on a regular basis that filesharing is “stealing”? If that’s not a virtual good I don’t know what is…

  2. Well, technically, stocks are awfully close. When Acme Co. issues stock, Acme made them, you get to play with them. You don’t get to directly cash them in for your theoretical percentage of Acme’s properties and/or goods (unless they liquidate, but that’s tangential). Quoting Wikipedia here: “Although ownership of 50% of shares does result in 50% ownership of a company, it does not give the shareholder the right to use a company’s building, equipment, materials, or other property. This is because the company is considered a legal person, thus it owns all its assets itself.”

    There is a stronger and more complex contractual obligation between a company and it’s shareholders than between a player of a game and the game’s host, but the relationship between host and player is (at least partly) contractual none the less (whether there’s a EULA or not).

    In a corporation, you’re buying a fractional amount of control over the company more than you’re purchasing some physical fraction of the company. Likewise, in an online game, you’re buying (more often renting) a small fraction of control over the game (ability to drive your character around as you see fit, and make what contributions you’re empowered to). Not saying they’re really that analogous, just saying there is a way to look at them that makes them look pretty similar.

  3. I don’t find the distinction satisfying, after all these goods only come into play because of the will/activity of individuals, in both cases.

    Stocks are issued by companies in finite sets and then underwritten with investment bank liquidity, they don’t serve as the best example for this reason. However, look at derivatives like CDS contracts, options and futures, these things are created wholesale between parties. If you use an OTC broker to trade commodity futures, options, or currency positions, the same is true on an algorithmic, systemic basis – these goods are being created by the market itself. You may think they reflect actual currency, actual commodities, actual issued stock, and their pricing does, but the goods themselves are virtual in the same strong sense as a rare, magic sword – they’re both data-structures generated by algorithms.

  4. for that matter, why are fiat currencies considered ‘real’? i suppose one can ‘print money’, but in the 21st century that is so passe; today we create credit by just adding numbers in a computer system somewhere.

  5. You don’t need a better analogy. You need to recognize that the issue of ownership depends on the contractual relationship between the service and the client. In most cases, it’s pretty clear that the clients have no ownership of virtual goods in a service, regardless of what anyone would like to believe.

  6. If virtual goods are property, does that mean MOG / MMOG players and/or administrators will be liable for the loss of virtual items when these items are lost “in character”? I mean… say a role-playing game allows some players to assume the role of thieves that can steal virtual items for other players. Should such a thing lead to real-world claims of theft?

    I hope not.

  7. Should such a thing lead to real-world claims of theft?

    No more than an interception in football is a crime. Or winning capture the flag.

  8. @Michael Chui, that only applies if the items are not considered property. The football isn’t owned by the person carrying it, nor is the flag… if the in game sword is legally recognized property of the player of the character that possesses it, and the system allows you to take the sword away from another person, why is that different than an exploit or out of game coercion allowing you to take the sword away from that person? If it’s property, and “out of game” methods (things that ignore the game’s rules) to take the sword away are considered stealing, why aren’t in game ones? It’s still a “good”, it’s still being denied the person that had it through no choice of their own. The law’s forced to become inconsistent and special case itself, and that’s never a good thing for a law to have to do.

    What ultimately ends up having to happen I think, is for a new category of property to be developed for virtual items, because in a game world it’s impossible to generate a valid real world analogy, if only because of the question of how it interacts with the game’s rules. In game items cannot be treated the same way we treat real tangible items because it’d seriously hamper the ability of the game developer to do their job, but at the same time, having legal repercussions for exploiting, hacking, and real world coercion for the purpose of removing items and other bits of data from people is a good thing. You can’t do that with traditional views of property. It may be that the best way to deal with the issue is to let the development house act as a sort of middleman, with property rights continuing to exist solely in the hands of the devs, but parts of those rights being doled out to the individual players. Doing this, you could build in provisions that stopped those out of game abuses, by saying that the player has the right to the item through the rules of the games, but no greater ownership than that.

    Basically, rather than owning the sword, the player would own a contract to lease the sword. The terms of which would allow for in game, but not out of game, removal of rights, i.e. in game thievery and player looting.

    Note: I don’t think that this sort of thing should occur in any other areas, like with music or software programs, but that’s tangential and I won’t go into it.

  9. Oh, also, the reason why the stock analogy starts to fall apart is that stocks have to be issued by people before they become valid, so both sides are buying into the idea that the virtual item has value and can be bought and sold. This really isn’t the case with most virtual worlds, where the decision is almost completely unilateral on the part of the players.

    In those worlds, when you claim property rights over a virtual item, you’re effectively saying that you possess the item regardless of whether the people who created that item decide to agree with you. The item wasn’t sold to you by the developers, they never intended for you to gain ownership over it. What they *are* selling is the experience, of which things like items are merely tools. Not really all that different than the knife and fork you use to eat your steak at a restaurant. The steak is the gameplay experience in this case. In terms of stocks, that’d be like claiming you’re a shareholder of a company because you use their product even though they’re not a publicly traded company and don’t even have stocks.

  10. apparently in Japan one can get a prison term up to 5 years for such a thing:


  11. I find usage of the term “coerced” awefully funny in this case.
    I followed this a bit in the press, being dutch and all, and what they basically mean with “coerced” is beating the guy silly untill he gave up his property.

  12. The football isn’t owned by the person carrying it, nor is the flag…

    If I own a football and I take it into a game and my team throws it to me, but the other team intercepts it, has my property been stolen or not? If I receive the ball when it’s thrown, is it my property?

    No, in the magic circle, as long as you stay within the magic circle, normal laws are suspended. By playing the game, you agree to do so.

    Was it right for the courts to consider this theft? I think so. What about it, do you think, is different about the case than a classic street mugging? The items in question were goods; there is not, to my knowledge (I haven’t read the court docs), any notion that they actually belonged to the victim.

  13. It’s a diversion crime — like intercepting and funneling money into another account. You paid for the use of the in-game item and somebody diverted it to their account. It’s theft.

    Say you paid to rent a movie online, but someone intercepted the stream thereby denying you what you paid for. They have, in essence, stolen your money. So, perhaps, it’s more appropriate to think of this money theft rather than property theft.

    Just a thought.

  14. From a post on my blog:

    If the game allows “roughing up”, then hasn’t the victim here subscribed to a PvP portion of the game/world? If not, how did it happen? If so, then hasn’t he opted to allow this kind of thing to happen?

  15. How about the Japanese woman brought up on charges for virtually murdering her virtual husband?


  16. “Coerced” in the Family sense of the word, then.

    (Why yes, I have been playing City of Heroes recently. Why do you ask? 😛 )

    Even without the stock analogy, even without ownership, you have the essential element of tort: damages.

    Better example: you rent a sports car for, say, a week. On day 2, someone steals your rental car. The rental car company says they are unable to provide a replacement sports car, but can get you an economy coupe. You are now deprived of the use of the sports car for the time you and the rental company agreed (and both believed) you would be allowed to use it.

    Now, in this circumstance, you can see how a lot would depend on the precise wording of the rental agreement. Also, even if the rental company returned your cash, you are still deprived of the sports car you were planning on having: what if this was going to be your honeymoon, or your kid’s 16th birthday party, or part of a week-long trip through Europe on the Autobahn? Damages may exist apart from the basic considerations of the contract between you and the rental company.

    Thus, (1) the car is property, (2) the car is not your property, but (3) you are still harmed by the misappropriation of that property.

    So, in a sense, kid got carjacked. Courts are thus probably on the right track.

  17. @jhg: Hear! Hear! I forgot to mention that, well played.

    I think we need to accept that “reality” is a lot more virtual than our wildest conceptions of virtuality.

  18. The boys forced him to a house and there he was kicked and threatened with a knife, until he transferred the goods and credits…

    I don’t think that means they forced him into a virtual house…

    A U.S. court probably would not have arrived at the same ruling. Over here, the attackers would have been treated as adults under the law, and charged with assault, battery, attempted murder, and then theft (as theft can apply to unlawful appropriation of services.) They would be imprisoned for a long time, not merely ordered to perform community service.

    And then the press would have a field day, interviewing “experts” a la Jack Thomspon to condemn how murder simulators like Runescape incite children to violence. Watchdog organizations would rush to the aid of the children who were convicted, claiming that they were brainwashed by fancy, multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns…

  19. The only real thing I feel like commenting on is Eolirin’s statements. About how in game theft according to the rules was any less illegal than out of game theft circumventing the rules. Basically, the virtual world, runscape is a world all it’s own that Jagex has jurisdiction over. They write the laws and if they were to say that theft is legal than it would be. It’s their land, virtual or not, and they have the right to make whatever laws they please. If you are not comfortable with the idea of legal theft, legal murder, or any other law Jagex makes, then you simply don’t play the game. If you don’t have a problem with their laws, then you admit that you are okay with the possibility of being virtually stolen from or murdered. At least that’s the way I see it.

    In summary, virtual goods are property that whatever virtual proprietor is responsible for making the rules and regulations for. Also, the current punishments for out of game theft or coercion are insane and uncalled for. A small fine and the return of the taken virtual property seems much more fair.

  20. Getting back to the football example, what if the game is being played “for keeps”. If we had a virtual world where people in it could have their pockets picked within the rules, then isn’t carring items a risk players have agreed to take? Like playing marbles, where whoever wins your marbles gets to take it home? That’s not called stealing. It’s called gambling.

  21. We need a better real-world analogy than stocks.

    Yes, stocks are more than just virtual. They are a piece of paper that carries ownership in the corporation.

    The closest thing I can think of is music/song rights. Paul McCartney bought most the the Beatles song rights, and makes money every time one is played. But the right itself is what I’m talking about. It has no physicality to it. The song is the song, not the CDs or albums that carry it. But every time it’s played, the owner to the rights has the right to collect for that use.

    Come to think of it, Raph, you posted some stuff about song rights once or twice a few years ago, I think.

    Anyways, you may not be the one who made the song, but if you bought the rights, you own it. In MMOs, you paid for the rights to use the thangs you earn by paying for the account or directly if it’s RMT through the producer.

    There’s still a difference though. The song rights are yours and no one else’s. The thangs are only rented, I guess. I wonder if anyone ever “rents” the use of a songs rights out to someone who then claims the rights to the only use of it? Say in a TV ad?

  22. How about an analogy which is a Hockey Player who is coerced by someone to always drop his club when the game starts?

    On top of this we would need to have the organizations (teams, referees, etc) around Hockey not interfere when it happens. That player would be robbed of something, maybe the player would be robbed of the ability to make use of the investment of the club.

  23. Well, a hockey stick is an actual object. Wouldn’t we want something that doesn’t actually exist except in some “etherial” manner? The hardest part is finding something that is “etherial” as well as is “rented” under circumstances that allow ownership rights.

  24. The crucial thing to remember here is that MMO companies DO NOT want their ingame items seen as property that has its own value independent of the game. In the past, several attempts have been made to claim that since you can sell ingame goods for real cash (via ebay and such) that those goods have real value.

    If such a ruling ever became the norm, it would spell the end of the MMO industry, at least as we know it today. If Sony wanted to close Everquest, it could suddenly become liable for damages for all of the “lost property” of the players there. Scary stuff!

    I think that in this case, the judge’s comments regarding electricity were valid; if I recall right, he compared the theft of the property to theft of electrical service, which is depriving the user of the service (or adding more cost to the service), not of a physical thing, but is still considered theft.

    That works out OK. Then the “theft” is not of an object, but of the use of part of a service you have paid for. This covers the MMO, puts the kids who beat up (in the real world, guys, not online!) the other kid in deeper hot water, and sends a message that this sort of behavior is not OK just because it deals with imaginary items.

  25. Hi Raph, thanks for linking up to the original post on MindBlizzard. Virtually Blind dug up the court report and parsed it with Google Translate. The result was not a clear document on the reasoning of the court, so I decided to give it a shot myself at translating the court documents. Part of which I’ve put up at the MindBlizzard site. This might give you an insight into the courts reasoning on the status of virtual goods, which most of the above comments are about.

    You’ll find the translation at: MindBlizzard – Court Ruling in the RuneScape Case

  26. KevinMc – No, not really. Even if players have rights to the items, the EULA clause about them being able to shut down the servers still stands. Also, while ownership is implied by the ruling, value is not.

  27. […] blog has kindly translated the Court Ruling in the RuneScape Case that was the subject of a post a couple of days ago. As the virtual amulet and virtual mask as defined in the case at hand meet the aforementioned […]

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