The Escapist has an interesting article about the incongruity between the virtual world and the legal world. The basic idea is that the virtual world is moving and changing far faster than the legal world can, and suddenly a huge gap opens up between the two. The whole DRM issue is a case in point–the real world is trying to combat piracy via old methods. Old methods that a) obviously don’t work, and b) annoy the customers who legally buy aforementioned DRM software.
The article cites a case from Chine where a man fatally stabbed an acquaintance who stole a virtual sword and subsequently sold it for real world cash. The police told the aggrieved that the theft wasn’t a punishable crime; virtual property is not legally protected by law. The story has a strangely happy ending—the law was changed to cover virtual property.
A second Escapist article cites another story about the Dutch police arresting a teenager for stealing virtual property at Habbo Hotel, an online meeting place.
However, the point is that the legal world does not have the structures in place to deal with what’s happening in the virtual world, whether it be piracy or theft of virtual property. The problem, one imagines, is that because virtual property is not something tangible, and because virtual property in a MMORPG is usually ostensibly still the property of the game company. Furthermore, according to the article:
There are few laws on the books mentioning virtual
worlds specifically, so attorneys must apply real-world laws to virtual
spaces. Typically, these cases involve copyright and intellectual
property law. But that’s the shallow end of the pool.
The other problem, at least with MMORPGs, is that:
Most EULAs (end-user license agreements) in the
U.S. contain a clause preventing what’s known as “third party
jurisdiction.” This means that if I have a grievance against another
player in an online world, I can’t sue or attack him or her directly;
my contract is only with the service provider.
This has its own inherent problems.
…service providers, as many players have
experienced, don’t always have the resources to effectively serve as
judge, jury and executioner, and they certainly don’t have the massive
legal infrastructure to deal with the myriad variations of conflict
resolution that governments usually have. Worse still, sometimes the
contract between provider and player isn’t always legally fair.
All this, of course, creates an annoyance for MMORPG gamers, who have invested time and money in the virtual property, and legitimate users of DRM-crippled software.
This ties in quite nicely with the story posted by Faranaaz about the teenage girl who sent photos of herself in the buff to other kids, and earned herself a place in the sex offenders registry as a result. The fun part is that the kids who received the photos, whether solicited or not, can be accused of possessing child porn. From a logical standpoint, it’s a joke—the law is bascially accusing the girl of sexually abusing herself. But let’s be clear: logic and law don’t always see eye to unblinking eye.
The law cannot cope and in some cases, is unwilling to cope. And in the case of a country such as South Africa, virtual property probably isn’t even on the radar (although the Electronics Communcations and transactions Act of 2002, Chapter XIII describes South African law with regards to cybercrime—how progressive!—I’m not sure whether theft of virtual property is covered here…anyone want to check this for me? Possibly section 87?)
Is there a chance it can come right? Possibly, as a new generation of gamers become part of the populace the creates and regulates laws in the first place. But I suspect that practical law that adequately addresses the needs of the virtual world still a while away.
There’s obviously a lot more here than just this, and I’ve just scratched the surface of the problem, but I don’t think I’m expert enough in any of these subjects to give it more than just the undeserving gloss down above. Anyone out there who can add to this?
Edit: Thanks to fecknusername for pointing me at this interesting article: apparently, the Dutch court has sentenced two boys for theft of virtual items in RuneScape. The punishment is community service, but it’s still a brilliant ruling. As per the article:
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 yesterday in its ruling.
[Link: The Escapist – We the Gamers]
[Link: The Escapist – Legislating the Virtual World]
[Link: South African Electronic Communications and Transactions Act 2002]
[Link: IOL.co.za – Teens punished for virtual theft]