Can I own what doesn’t exist?
In Tokyo a few years ago a woman was jailed after she committed ‘virtual murder’, killing her online husband’s avatar, a digital character that exists only in a computer game. The 43 year old piano teacher had built her avatar in the interactive computer game Maple Story. Her avatar married an avatar belonging to a man she’d never met in real life. But when the man’s avatar suddenly divorced her avatar she got so angry she hacked into the man’s account and ‘killed’ his avatar. The man complained to police about this Death by Deletion. Even though there was no murder in the real world, the teacher was convicted of hacking.
In Holland two boys who forced a boy to log into his RuneScape account and hand over an amulet and mask were found by a court to have committed theft, even though the items didn’t exist in the real world.
All of this raises the question of whether we can own what doesn’t exist in the real world. Can we own computer characters we build up? If we ‘steal’ or ‘kill’ in a computer game can we be charged? Don’t laugh. The British Prime Minister’s advisor on intellectual property, Mike Weatherley MP, has asked ministers to consider making a law that people who steal online items in computer games that have a real-world monetary value receive the same sentences as criminals who steal real-world items of the same monetary value. He explained players can spend real money building up powers for their online warriors and if someone steals their online powers it amounts to a crime in the real world. Clearly somebody stole Mr Weatherley’s magic sword.
However stealing real money via the ether of the digital world is clearly illegal. As is stealing photographs belonging to other people that are held in a computerised cloud. A person has rights over digital assets such as email, multimedia, shopping and social media accounts. Domain names and websites, online photo and digital storage accounts are also real assets.
Joshua Crowther, wills specialist at Stacks Law Firm, says it is generally not possible to bequeath in a will a song collection held in iTunes or books held in Kindle to others, as they are subject to an overriding licence allowing the user to use the digital file in their lifetime.
“A person making a will should review the policies of each social media platform regarding what happens after death,” he says. “The most practical solution is to ensure account passwords are left with the executor to access and carry out instructions.”