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Why virtual thefts matter

Tateru Nino

Real thefts occur in the real world all the time - we know that, and our respective justice systems have long since evolved to deal with them.

When it comes down to virtual theft (characters, gold, or items) whether actually taken from an account or replicated by use of an exploit - most people don't really think it matters. It's not happening in the physical world, right? So it shouldn't, right? Well, it does, and here's why.

Much of the assets of many modern companies are virtual, these days. Not just trade secrets, but code, encryption keys, customer lists, payment information. No longer confined to paper and files, data of all sorts has value and there are buyers for everything.

Some fellow in a sales department somewhere might appreciate a list of contracts, deals and businesses from a distributor - particularly where they pertain to products of a competitor company. Buying that information on his own behalf can enhance his career within his own company - who may be unaware of where he's getting his edge from.

Far from being a special case, it seems almost mundane. More than one salesperson I've interviewed has brandished customer lists from their current and past jobs in the interview in an effort to negotiate a better salary. I'd like to say that they "never worked in this town again" - but no, they were snapped up by yet another competitor when we threw them back out of the door. It's an imperfect world.

Anything that takes time or money to acquire has a market and a value. Like everything the value is what people will pay for it - and people will pay for all sorts of things.

Virtual goods have value to us. They cost time and money to produce, and we spend time and/or money to acquire them, for utility or appearance or whatever other purpose.

Having value, people see ways to profit from them - this is most easily done by reducing the cost of acquisition. Cattaneo or Kenzo's item duplication. Source code thefts from developers. Password phishing, like the recent Habbo Hotel thefts. The recent issue with Seagate drives rigged (right from the factory) to steal World of Warcraft account information when plugged in.

On the plus side, the last 40 years particularly have seen laws align towards protecting the virtual much as they protect the physical - although not without rough patches, non sequiturs and just plain error. These new or modified laws have become comparatively solid in most parts of the world when it comes to things that have convertible value.

When it comes to things without convertible value though - World of Warcraft gold, LotRO characters, or the flaming illegitimate sword of Noo-nah the Demon King - things are on far less firm ground. The Terms of Service of most MMOs specify that the gold doesn't belong to you, nor do the characters or items. Why then, should the thefts of such items really matter to you?

Well, if you're one of the ones who got stolen from, you know one of the answers already. Your character's naked, maybe transferred to another server - your gold or game-tokens are gone. It's worse than coming home and finding the kitchen window smashed and the DVD player missing. You spend more time interacting with your dwarven Champion than with your DVD player, after all. All that time. All that effort - gone - with no cause so obvious as a smashed window. How did they get in? Is there a keylogger somewhere on your PC? You might spend your free time for the next couple days sanitizing and reinstalling your machine.

Another one, which few people consider is the economic model of the world or service operator. Wagner James Au, games editor at GigaGamez observes that with an increasing number of business models starting to rely on microtransactions for game-currency or items/perks inworld - these thefts start to become a genuine threat to the life of the service.

It's not a huge problem now - but as these sorts of services become increasingly mainstream - targeting more ordinary people and 'casual gamers', the potential profit from these thefts increases, and with it - the increasing likelyhood that people will seek to profit unfairly. Even so, the law may be a little hazier on the theft or unauthorized replication of virtual property that the service operator insists has no value.

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