Recent events in The Netherlands concerning the virtual world of Habbo Hotel® have got many people asking, "Should someone be legally punished for stealing virtual property?"
The answer is yes, but not for the reasons cited by the majority of debaters. First, some background. Several teenagers residing in the Netherlands fraudulently obtained users' login names and passwords by creating sites masquerading as the official Habbo Hotel® page (also known as phishing). They proceeded to login to the accounts, remove virtual property from the victims' rooms, and transfer the items to their own virtual residences.
The fact that the users paid money for their items is not the reason that taking them is a crime. If someone in real life receives a gift that they do not pay for, taking it still constitutes theft. The teens' actions are however illegal for other reasons:
- Creating the fraudulent sites required using copyrighted/registered/trade marked material such as the Habbo® logo
- They committed fraud. Fraud is already illegal.
- They violated the terms of service (which they had to accept to create accounts)
- "...and not to ask for personal information from other Habbos"
- "If you steal furniture or Coins from other Habbos [...] violate the Habbo Way or break the law, we can freeze or terminate your account, or if appropriate, report you to the Police!"
- "You can't sell them, give them to anyone, trade them for anything or pretend you made them." [Implying you can't take them]
No special "virtual property rights" laws need to be enacted. The legal processes for dealing with this are already in place (property rights, contract law, and fraud laws).
I'd like to take this time to address another prevalent take on the situation. Many people have been stating things along the lines of "What did they steal? They didn't steal anything, they're all just pretend things in a silly game." These people seem to take issue with the fact that the virtual items have no tangible aspect to them. But this is not a unique property of the items in this "silly game". To name a few others: books, music, art, and credit (as in credit on credit cards). A physical book is tangible, but the tangible book is not what is of value, it's the ideas presented in the book that are. The text can be digitized just as the items in the game have been. The same goes for music and photographs. There is no fundamental difference.
Does stealing a credit card number not constitute theft since the thief didn't steal any physical thing?? Of course not.