(Via Greg Lastowka) The Criminal Division of the Supreme Court of the Netherlands has delivered a ground-breaking ruling which declares that virtual goods from the popular online player game Runescape are to be considered goods in accordance to Dutch law, and therefore are subject of theft and criminal enforcement (Google translation of the ruling here).
The facts of the case are fascinating. On September 6, 2007, the accused and an accomplice caught the 13 year-old victim while he was cycling home from school (while not clear from the translation, it seems like the accused were 15 years-old), and under threat of violence forced him to come to one of their homes and log into Runescape using his account. Then they ordered him to take virtual money and goods from his account and transfer it to the one belonging to the defendant, specifically an amulet and a mask, and they kicked him out of the house. The victim went to the police, who arrested the youths and initiated criminal procedure. In 2009 the Court of Leeuwarden found the defendants guilty of “theft, preceded and accompanied by violence and threats of violence against persons, committed with a view to the theft to prepare and easy to make, while the offence was committed by two or more persons” and punished them to 160 hours community service and 80 days replacement alternative juvenile detention.
The defendants appealed the ruling, which made it all the way to cassation. The main question in front of the court is whether the virtual goods in question can be considered goods in accordance to existing criminal laws, and therefore they could be the object of theft. Can non-material goods be stolen? Firstly, it seems like Dutch law already has answered this question since 1921 as the Supreme Court already had declared that intangibles can be stolen, such as electricity. The key to determine whether something can be stolen rests on the question of economic value of the item. So, any person in possession of items, be they tangible or not, which have economic value will be considered to have property over said items, and therefore if it is removed from his/her possession, it can be considered theft. The Court explored several authorities and comparative law to analyse the nature of virtual goods, and concluded that these were property in the traditional sense.
The discussion itself is fascinating, although you have to interpret its beauty through the lens of Google’s awkward translation. What seems clear is that the court was certain that the items do not really exist, they are data in some database which is then translated as a visual representation of a mask and an amulet. But these goods are susceptible of exclusive ownership, and moreover, they are the result of the skill, time and effort spent on obtaining them. It is therefore possible to steal the items in the full legal sense, and those who committed the crime can be prosecuted and tried. The Supreme Court then decided to deny the appeal, but to reduce the sentence.
This is a ground-breaking ruling in my opinion. Hmm… if anyone steals my blue double-bladed lightsaber, I know what to do.