"Dutch Youths Convicted of Virtual Theft,"

reads an AP story:

A Dutch court has convicted two youths of theft for stealing virtual items in a computer game and sentenced them to community service....

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....

Now this might sound odd -- why should the legal system police "virtual theft," especially since the ability to steal, defraud, and the like within a game may be an important part of the game? But things become much clearer when one reads the longer story, from Radio Netherlands Worlwide:

The culprits, who cannot be named due to their age, kicked, hit and threatened their classmate with a knife before the 13-year-old gave in and transferred the Runescape items, an amulet and a mask, to his attackers' online accounts.

So the theft may have been on virtual goods, but it was accomplished through physical violence in the real world, and against a real person, not an avatar. It's clearly proper to prosecute the physical attack and the threats; and I think it's sensible to prosecute it as theft as well, since the defendants did take from the victim something they had no right to take, using violence in the real world. I'd call this "real-world theft of virtual goods," not "virtual theft."

I continue to think that generally speaking the law shouldn't prohibit purely in-game "theft," "murder," "rape," and so on. But outside-game violence (or even in-game threats of outside-game violence) are the proper subject of the criminal law, including when the violence or threats coerce action or transfer of valuable objects within the game.

Thanks to Michael Williams for the pointer.

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