Yesterday’s report (Virtual Theft, Real World Arrest) about the Habbo virtual world theft got me to contemplating the situation somewhat more carefully.

As Ag (ScorpinSlayer) pointed out in his comment, and the Habbo terms Of Use confirmed, no one in Habbo Hotel actually has any property rights in any of the virtual items purchased. Players therefore don’t own anything, including furniture, however much has been paid. In fact, this whole business seems to me to be more in the “rental” category than the “purchase” category.

So the “furni” (as they call it in HH) must belong to Sulake, the company that provides Habbo Hotel. If there has been any theft, then the real victim is Sulake, not the person who “bought” the furni.

Then the question to ask is, has there been a theft? Everything resides on the servers. Nothing can be taken away. I’m sure that Sulake has access to everything on their servers; it would be odd if they didn’t. So does moving VRE from one location to another constitute theft, if the actual owner still has access to it?

My feeling is, trying to work up a case based on stealing virtual items would be difficult. However, they might be able to do it another way. Something doesn’t have to be tangible to be stolen.

For instance, in the days of pre-digital cable, there were people who tapped in and used illegal boxes to enjoy free cable service. Those caught were charged with theft of service.

That might apply here. The “furni” is a service provided in return for a cash payment. By taking away the “furni”, the alleged thief has deprived someone of service paid for. On that basis, I think – depending on Dutch laws – a valid case might be made.

It’s also interesting to consider the aspect of restitution, although that should not really be much of a problem, at least as far as the “renter” is concerned. It ought be easy to provide duplicate items to replace the ones taken, or possibly move them all back from where they are to where they belong.

The other matter is how the alleged thief obtained access to someone else’s account. From yesterday’s news story, it appears to have been through some sort of phishing scheme.

Phishing is taken more seriously these days, and it may well be that the furni theft charge might be dropped and prosecution based only on the theft of id and password. Presuming, of course, that the case is pursued at all.

Which brings us to the final thought. Supposing that this comes to trial, and a successful prosecution made on the basis of “theft of service”, what would that mean for MMOGs generally?

Would we see lawsuits springing up over “theft of service” if one player takes another’s items? “Hey, you stole my +50 Sword Of Instant Death!! I’m gonna sue you for this!!”

Well, I don’t think so. After all, that sword, or any other item, doesn’t belong to the player. It belongs to whatever company is providing the game, and the company would be the only party with the right to go to court.

Then again, those are only my thoughts, and I’m not a lawyer. And we all know how they can make mountains out of molehills ;)