Should a person go to prison for stealing virtual goods?

Potential victim of criminal activity.

Potential victim of criminal activity.

The UK Government’s senior adviser in intellectual property issues, MP Mike Weatherley, has made the news by suggesting that theft of articles in online environments should be prosecuted just like theft in the real world. He asked the following question to Mike Penning, Minister of State for Policing:

“To ask the Secretary of State for Justice if he will bring forward legislative proposals to ensure that cyber criminals who steal online items in video games with a real-world monetary value received the same sentences as criminals who steal real-world items of the same monetary value.”

To which the Minister replied:

“Those who commit theft or fraud online can be prosecuted for those offences and face severe maximum sentences. Sentencing for individual cases is a matter for the courts. The independent Sentencing Council issue guidelines to ensure consistency in sentencing.”

Weatherley happens to be my local MP and also a World of Warcraft player himself, and I for one am very glad that he had the guts to ask a very pertinent question, which unfortunately opens him to ridicule. Just for once I would love to be able to read a journalistic article dealing with online theft and fraud that did not try to be snarky about virtual goods, or that did not contain attempted humorous references to magic swords and wizard robes (hur hur, magi sword, so funny!!!)  As a mage I actually have a magic staff… oh wait, it IS funny!

The question is quite relevant, as more and more games rely on users purchasing in-game items with real money, a growing industry that translates into giving real monetary value to virtual goods. In WoW, any user can go to Blizzard’s store and purchase pets and mounts that only exist online (my favourite is the Cinder Kitten). Some of these items can be sold and traded online, which creates a real market for online goods. Take the Spectral Tiger, which sells for an astounding $649 USD. This is just an indication of the amount of money involved. The latest trend online is to allow players to purchase in-game items and upgrades through micro-payment systems, which is a revenue stream that now accounts for 27% of all MMO revenue. Users now spend in average $46 USD per month on such items (source here).

With this perspective, then Weatherley’s question is really an interesting one. Online game fraud is on the increase, fuelled by the fact that there is practically zero chance of a prosecution. Readers may remember that this is a recurring topic in this blog, dating back to the airing of the excellent Big Bang Theory episode The Zarnecki Incursion, where Sheldon calls the police to report a robbery of several items in World of Warcraft, but law enforcement officials refuse to act.  But why should such theft be ignored? To me, digital goods are as real as music on an iPod, and books on a Kindle, and the criminal system seems to have no qualms about trying to prosecute people involved in massive infringement of those. Why should in-game items be any different?

What happens with “real” theft is that any shoplifting under £100 GBP will likely receive a written warning, a ban from the shop, and in some instances an on-spot Fixed Penalty Notice. Anything over that threshold might get prosecuted. Weatherley comments that:

“If you’ve spent £500 on building up your armed forces and someone takes them away online, I guess you can feel hard done-by and you want your £500 back […] If it genuinely is someone who’s paid in the game and they’ve had that stolen, that’s probably no different to something in the physical world.”

I couldn’t agree more, but I am afraid that there will still be some time until we see the first prosecutions for virtual world theft in countries like the UK and the US. How would the authorities go about enforcing the law? Will there be a police station in Azeroth? Can we prove who was controlling the culprit avatar at the time of the crime? Will the public ever get past the humorous talk of epic mounts and rare wands? (ok, ok, I admit that it IS funny!!!).

Until the law changes, or more importantly, until law enforcement takes the subject seriously, our defence will be to exercise caution and keep the accounts secure. If I run across Mr Weatherley in an Inn in Pandaria, I’ll be buying him a flask of the best Stormstout ale (note to self: will I be prosecuted if we meet in a PVP zone and I kill him? The mind boggles).