Dutch Supreme Court 2012: Virtual Theft Ruling a One-Off or First in a Series?
In January 2012 the Dutch Supreme Court decided that virtual objects and pre-paid accounts can be stolen. This paper examines the Supreme Court’s Runescape decision and discusses virtual theft. Virtual theft is legally interesting from various perspectives. First, the rules of Runescape do not allow items to be stolen and are designed to make illegal transfer of objects impossible. Second, normally a person loses ownership of property in case of theft, but the owner of the virtual objects is the producer of the game and loses nothing. Therefore, theft is taking place between two avatars under the all-seeing eye of the owner. Third, it is not clear why classification as theft is preferred over hacking and the transfer of data. This question was reinvigorated during the writing of this paper, when at the same time both a leading cybercrime scholar and a prominent criminal law scholar argued against the theft classification. Following the Runescape decision, the position of participants in virtual worlds towards objects remain the same, but we can anticipate more cases on the theft of virtual items generally over the next five to ten years.